Humanitarian Design

Good morning Perspective, how was your first weekend in Cape Town? Surfing in Muizenberg and a three-hour tour at Noero Wolff Architects? You don’t say! Tell you what, I’ll order us two cups of Rooibos and then you can get started with your stories... Waiter!

Muizenberg, a fine place to learn how to surf

Say, I meant to ask last time, but you don't mind if I share your thoughts and stories with some of my friends do you? No, no, it won’t be a big show, just some close friends on the internet... What’s that? Sure, I promise not to tell people that you’ve started wearing your shirts a third time since you can’t seem to find a good laundry place nearby. Would you mind if I use your Macbook… just for a bit… OK, I’ll just be taking a few notes as you go through your stories…

So, now that we’re sorted, how about we get started with your first topic – Humanitarian Design, wasn’t it? Ah yes, it looks like our Rooibos is ready, so let me just add a bit of milk and honey here and you can go right ahead with your first story.


Perspective: Humanitarian Design

As broadly defined, Humanitarianism is an ethic of kindness, benevolence, and sympathy extended universally and impartially to all humans, with no distinction made on grounds of gender, tribal, caste, religious, or national divisions.

As a branch of Humanitarianism, Humanitarian Design seeks first to meet the needs of specific demographics by providing goods and services that are unique to the means of the users (such people who may otherwise be discriminated against through generic design services).

rising Humanitarian Designers

Humanitarian Design is almost always conducted with significant restraints – cultural, material, financial, or otherwise – and calls for unique (and often unorthodox) methods of problem solving.

This past spring I participated in a course at the University of Cincinnati that dealt specifically with the needs and constraints of such Humanitarian Design in action. Our professor, in partnership with local architecture students and medical professionals in Cincinnati and a local non-profit organization in Tanzania, led fifteen students to conduct a series of studies on a Health Center he helped design in the village of Roche.

While in the Tanzanian Village, I conducted a post-occupancy analysis of the Health Center, recording the building through a series of as-built drawings and conducting a series of similar drawings and measurements. In honesty, my work was but a small part of the class’s larger goal to discern the various needs of four proximal villages and make proposals for future Humanitarian opportunities in each.

A large part of the analytical study was technical. We spent a good amount of time discerning measurable results and variables from quantifiable elements of the Health Center in Roche, but much of the study was also subjective. For every quantifiable aspect of my study I had to also be aware of many unquantifiable cultural and social constraints.

Maintaining awareness of these factors was at times both cumbersome and enthralling. Obstacles ranged from the purely technical (returning to the metric system, which I have rarely used since moving to the States in 2000) to linguistic (learning Luo and Swahili phrases in order to accurately obtain post-occupancy information) to team-dynamic (operating as part of a team of cross-cultural workers and responding to the team’s diversity as we conducted our studies).

All of these factors play into the role of a Humanitarian Designer. It was an incredible blessing to work with local Tanzanians and experience their spirit of positive energy and optimism. I would have only accomplished a fraction of the work if it had not been for their help and willingness, as well as a great deal of assistance from other UC students who took part in the post-occupancy report and lengthy process of obtaining as-built measurements.

As I’m sure you can imagine, Humanitarian Design is a swiftly evolving field. I remember beginning my studies simply with a passion for Africa, as well as the people and circumstances I knew existed “over there”. However, I came to realize over the course of the project that it is less important where work is being done as why the work is being done. Several neighborhoods in Cincinnati need as much, if not more, Humanitarian attention as we gave to Roche and surrounding Tanzanian villages. What is most important is that Humanitarian Designers, wherever they are, be passionate about the work they do for others.

One last piece of advice I have for aspiring Humanitarians Designers is this – if you are genuine in your approach, you will surely find a means to make the work you do beneficial to your chosen cause. As for me, I am trying to keep the words of Matthew 25 close to heard as I work, treating all people as if they were my own brother or sister. Check it out. Matthew 25: 37-40, it’s good stuff. I would venture to say it's Jesus' own guidance to us aspiring Humanitarian Designers.


Thanks for your insight, Perspective. And sadly it seems we’ve each finished our cups of Rooibos - I’ll have to get us a full kettle next time!

You say our next chat will focus more on your day-to-day adventures in Tanzania and Kenya? Maybe you can bring some photos instead of just talking the whole time. Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you.

And yes, in fact I wish I could stay for another cup of tea but I really must get back to my apartment, we have a Fourth of July party scheduled with some other students. Take care on your way back home! Oh, and if you need an extra set of clothes, please let me know, I think we wear about the same size. Totsiens! See you on Wednesday!

Rooibos Tea, proudly South African

-quote of the day-
"Then the righteous will answer him 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothing and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'
"The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'"
Matthew 25: 37-40

-listening to: Twenty-Four by Switchfoot-

1 comment:

  1. This was very inspiring! And Rooibus tea just happens to be my very favorite. :)