How does one create good in the world? How does one help those less fortunate?
These are questions many of us have probably asked ourselves before, whether in wonderment of how to participant or in skepticism of the ability to affect actual improvement. Within the realm of design, at least, the idea of saving the world, ending poverty, or bring education to the less fortunate through design has almost acted as candy sprinkled on every sort of idea, particularly in the student projects here at the Rhode Island School of Design.
Bruce Nussbaum wrote an op-ed piece for FastCo back in 2010 about this very problematic subject. Referencing several recent projects that garnered much press coverage, Nussbaum focuses his attention the state of humanitarian design as it currently stands and whether American and European designers take on an effective role when initiating such projects. Although he doesn’t give any affirmative answers, the questions he frames are brutal, to say the least.
“Might Indian, Brazilian and African designers have important design lessons to teach Western designers? And finally, one last question: why are we only doing humanitarian design in Asia and Africa and not Native American reservations or rural areas, where standards of education, water and health match the very worst overseas?”
One of the projects he references is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative, better know by its moniker “the $100 Laptop.”
Nicholas Negroponte is the founder of the MIT Media Lab, and his intention to build a cheap personal computer for the developing world was a bold one. There were many challenges to realizing such an idea. Ultimately OLPC was not successful, or at least, not as successful as the hype it had created.
The Harvard Business School uses OLPC as an example of a broken business model. At the most intrinsic level of the business, the value proposition of OLPC was broken. Their offer of a $100 laptop for educational achievement was unproven. U.S. schools were in the midsts of dropping their current laptop programs because “there was literally no evidence it had any impact of student achievement” (11). It begged the question whether the laptops were the right path towards bettering education, as OLPC was continually accused of discounting the role of teachers. The $100 Laptop misnomer was also crippling to their offer, because in reality the laptop cost $150 plus an extra $30 per year to own and run. OLPC failed to give a good offer in making this laptop actually affordable, considering Motorola stated in the case study how even launching a $40 cellphone was “brutal” in its undertaking. The channels through which OLPC wanted to bring these laptops to children were not well thought out. The company tried to appeal to nations and their ministries of education and asked them to carry the costs of the product. The benefits to these nations didn’t seem too attractive, especially when many of these children receiving the laptops were struggling with poverty, malnutrition, or poor sanitation.
In summary, OLPC went about the route of becoming a social enterprise rather poorly and failed to meet the hype that it had created.
I question whether Negroponte’s strategy was a wise one from the outset. Was social enterprise the most effective means to achieving what he had set out to do or was Negroponte just another example of the growing trend of philanthrocapitalism burgeoning in the late 1990s/early 2000s? Philanthrocapitalism, the belief that business methods can solve society’s social problems, has become an increasingly popular, or at least a highly publicized, trend due to the the large sums of money accrued by individuals within the IT and financial sectors. Philanthropy from the rich is not a new idea in America. The industrialists of the early 20th century felt this same obligation to society, industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and Peter Cooper, although one must not leave out the desire to leave a legacy as a key component of the philanthropy.
This pattern of becoming wealthy and giving back has continued well into our 21st century. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was founded in 2000, the Clinton Foundation in 2001, Bloomberg Philanthropies in 2004, and Bono’s (Red) campaign in 2006. In difference to the philanthropy of the industrialists, these foundations all are very much global campaigns. Their missions extend past the borders of the United States in order to help people all over the world.
Michael Edwards writes about this development in philanthropy is his book Just Another Emporer? He contrasts the work of the philanthrocapitalist and the philanthropy of what he calls civil society. While he likens philanthrocapitalism to a method of passive patronage, the work of civil society (nonprofits and NGOs) advocates active volunteering within local constituencies. It’s a classic argument between a top-down or a bottom-up approach to solving societal problems. Edwards clearly gives his support to civil society to bettering society’s problems.
And he has firm reasons to believe in the abilities of civil societies. According to Edwards, 70 percent of US households give money to civil society every year, which equated to $295 million in 2006. If calculated correctly, this sort of investment will equate to $55 trillion from 1998 to 2056 in America. The power of civil society, fueled by ordinary people, to affect social change has much more potential than the power of individual philanthrocapitalists when you look at it from a quantitative standpoint.
From a qualitative standpoint, there has been zero evidence that business methods applied to philanthropy have any beneficial influence on societal problems, and yet philanthrocapitalism has been heralded as the answer to these issues.
Capitalism is philanthropic, says Matthew Bishop, because “sooner or later everyone benefits through new products, higher quality and lower prices”—not exactly an inspiring vision to get you out of bed, but entirely logical for business. “We should see every poor person on the planet as a potential customer.”
It’s interesting to her such a declaration. I understand some reason to it. Within the private sector lies some of the most well constructed channels of bringing products to market. The level to which Coca-Cola, for example, has percolated their network of distribution to the local level is astonishing. You can buy a Diet Coke pretty much everywhere in the world. Just imagine if a social enterprise utilized such an extensive network to bring a low-cost, beneficial product to market.
This idea sounds nice enough, but look deeper. First of all, would a new consumer item really help someone in a developing nation? Would a product designed in the U.S., financed by an American philanthropist, and offered by a company another part of the globe really resonate with someone, say, from Africa? Of course, the company making this product would have to make money in some way, and so the goal of the company reverts to adhering to the sustainability of their business model, to keep revenues greater than costs. This has nothing to do with whether the product works, just whether it looks appealing enough for someone to buy. Furthermore, PR campaigns by the company would circulate the U.S. in order to compel donations for financing. Again, the offer doesn’t need to actually be effective. It just needs to looks good, very similar to the tricks advertisers use to make food look delicious in commercials.
Edwards argues that this sort of heralding of philanthrocapitalism is misguided. Rather, philanthrocapitalism has much to learn from the effectiveness of civil society. Societal transformation occurs from grassroots motivation to help their local constituencies. This is facilitated by sound infrastructure, health systems, and food distribution offered by the state, and in this way creates cooperation, collectivism and a greater willingness to work to solve these issues.
Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that this type of philanthropic effort isn’t all that sexy. Helping a homeless shelter down the street will never sound as impressive as a billionaire feeding the hungry in a far away nation. It’s the reason why designers are preferring to involve themselves with the latter. We are in the business of making things look sexy. It is so much easier to do this when the idea to start the project is sexy as well.
A large part of this conversation grounds itself in the still continuing idea of the white imperialist as savior complex that the western world seems to still grapple with, particularly in the United States. As Nussbaum referred to in his article, many other nations perceive this humanitarian effort as a new age form of colonialism, wherein Westerners believe they have the answers to transforming these nations and fixing the issues that, in many instances, were created by Western intervention in the first place.
A such a perception blinds us to the issues of our own country where, for example, there exists 120,000 orphans from which 27,000 age out of orphanages every year. Another 400,000 children live in the U.S. without permanent families. http://www.sos-usa.org/our-impact/childrens-statistics. At the same time, we constantly see in the media celebrities acquiring their adorable brown accessories.
Please don’t perceive this as criticism of Angelina Jolie’s adoption choices. I think it’s wonderful when a child, regardless of where they come from, is adopted and brought into a family. At the same time, I do see this as a reflection of a cultural mindset inhibiting our abilities to effectively tackle social issues. Trever Noah of South Africa framed it perfectly in his skit on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
The system of humanitarianism in which this mindset lives is broken. It’s ineffective. This is exactly what Edwards brings forth in his argument, not that it isn’t working, but humanitarianism could be so much more transformative. How can there become a better conversation between philanthrocapitalism and civil society? How can we conflate the two ideas, to harvest the activism of civil society and add to it the rich resources of the philanthrocapitalists? A new discipline is required, one full of the small victories of civil society and the alluring appeal of philanthrocapitalism. This, Edwards states, is what will affect the social transformations we wish to see in the world in the future.
Of course, what this system looks like is unknown. The is for the future. Edwards lists what he believes this new system must contain, but in terms of its implementation, how will this look? How will this work?
The question I think about is this: How can design work to create such a vision of societal transformation?
Michael Edwards “Just Another Emperor: The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism”. http://www.futurepositive.org/edwards_WEB.pdf
Bruce Nussbaum,. “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism.” Fast Company, Co-Design, March 2011. http://www.fastcodesign.com/1661859/is-humanitarian-design-the-new-imperialism
John A. Quelch, Carin-Isabel Knoop. “Marketing the $100 Laptop.” Harvard Business School. rev 9/18/08.
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/
Clinton Foundation. https://www.clintonfoundation.org/
Bloomsberg Philanthropies. http://www.bloomberg.org/