Is humanitarian design problematic? / by An Huynh

But should we take a moment now that the movement is gathering speed to ask whether or not American and European designers are collaborating with the right partners, learning from the best local people, and being as sensitive as they might to the colonial legacies of the countries they want to do good in.

I've been coming back to this article again and again because the question it poses about humanitarian design (or any sort for humanitarian work) really scares me.

The article questions the purpose behind Western entities going to poorer, less developed countries to "help," and if what we're really doing is just a new form of colonialism in disguise. It scares me because I've always been interested in doing planning work and even aid work abroad. 

This makes me really have to examine why I want to do work abroad. To be honest, I haven't found a good reason yet.

At least - I've realized that a lot of the appeal for doing work abroad is because it looks good. Because it allows me to travel. Because it can give me new experiences and puts me out of my comfort zone. But are those really good reasons to do work abroad? I don't think they are enough. 

Working abroad is sexy, and "doing good" is sexy.

If my working in China is perceived (by others or myself) as cooler than my working in Chinatown, then maybe that's a little fucked up. 

Strip away that cool factor, and I'm left with realizing that the work -locally or abroad - is the same and there's work to be done in my own community. If the cool factor is truly the thing stopping me from doing similar work locally, then I think I have a lot of thinking to do before I ever allow myself to work or volunteer abroad.

That being said, I do think there is a way to work abroad that can lessen the harm. I don't want to go too much into it, that's for a different post perhaps, but I'm talking about things like knowing the language and culture, matching your skill set to a specific need, building local relationships, working closely with local partners and experts, investing yourself and your work in a place long term, etc. All of these things can potentially make work abroad meaningful and effective for both sides. 

What are your thoughts on humanitarian design, humanitarian aid work, and/or volunteering abroad for a humanitarian mission? Somebody plz help me think through this. 

Read the article here: