Designing Like You Give A Damn, About What Exactly? 

Exploring the ethics of 'humanitarian' architecture

Conference Paper: XXV World Congress of Architecture, Durban 2014


A leitmotiv that architects have an essential role within solving world problems has become common rhetoric. However, recent discourse surrounding the ethics of designing on behalf of the disenfranchised has begun to highlight the egalitarian criticism that 'humanitarian' architecture might in fact be holding back the 'developing' that 'developing' countries need to do. In 2010, Bruce Nussbaum wrote an article entitled 'Is humanitarian design the new imperialism: Does our desire to help do more harm than good?', setting off a critical on-line debate questioning the role and ethical responsibilities of western designers within international development. This contention bought to the forefront important polemic questions around the controversies of 'humanitarian' architecture and disclosed weaknesses in the (lack of) understanding of the long-term impacts of 'architectural-aid'.
Regardless, the debate was seemingly (dis)missed by important players within the architectural and humanitarian development fields. As a result, critical questions have been left unanswered, unintended consequences of good intentions continue to go unchecked, and the true emancipatory potential of architecture as a transformative agent in poverty reduction and development remains undefined and itself susceptible to become party to new imperial subversions. Driven by the introduction of a Third way - Emancipatory Architecting - proposed as a potential solution to the 'moral dilemma' found in current international expanded practice, and, as an analytical tool for probing the socio-political workings inscribed in glocal (global-local) do-good design. This paper begins to explore the ideological and ethical dimensions of the architectural 'humanitarian' movement. Providing a background to the sectors, the subsequent problems facing current 'architecture-as-aid', and the potentials of an altered, or alternative egalitarian praxis.