Humanitarian Design Isn't the New Imperialism, It's the New Compassion

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Nathaniel Corum in the cabin of the Plastiki; Photo by Matthew Gray

A few weeks ago, Bruce Nussbaum started a firestorm of controversy with his post in Fast Company: Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism? In it, he asked,

Is the new humanitarian design coming out of the U.S. and Europe being perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism? Are the American and European designers presuming too much in their attempt to do good?

Nathaniel Corum, a humanitarian architect with Architecture for Humanity, responds to this question in discussion with Alice Rawsthorn in the New York Times.

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Nathaniel Corum at Michelle Kaufmann's Glidehouse, Photo by Lloyd Alter

Rawsthorn writes:

Unsurprisingly, Mr. Corum rebuffs the charge. "The richer the dialogue you have with the people you're working with the better," he said. "I spend lots of time with them, and learn so much, especially from people living close to the land. Humanitarian design isn't the new imperialism, it's the new compassion."

As well as humanitarian work, Nathaniel had some fun on the Plastiki, describing AfH's and his role. He designed the cabin and was the sustainability consultant.

"David came to the office to see Cameron in early 2008," he recalled, referring to David de Rothschild, the expedition leader.... We went out for a curry and hatched this idea that AfH could work on a shelter and communications hub to sit on the catamaran, which would be a useful model for our other projects."

The Plastiki experience was useful in teaching Nathaniel how to use different materials.

"Up until this point, I've been a little bit religious about using natural materials, but figuring out how to use plastic for the Plastiki got me thinking about being less picky and working with whatever's available," he said. "It's a question of looking at what's piling up around you, in the ocean it's plastic, and in Haiti it's concrete. We're discussing options now, but when the right eco-concrete build project comes along in Haiti, I'd be keen to get down there."

More from Alice Rawsthorn in the New York Times