There is certainly no shortage of need in the world and there are many people willing to help. Yet it is incredible to see how many failed humanitarian efforts there are. Most of these efforts fail because no one asks people with obvious need what they need. The agency of the “needy” is not considered; they are victimized and therefore deemed helpless.
Asking people what they need is the first step to a successful aid effort. By asking you are gaining understanding as well as affirming agency. Generally people giving aid and people receiving aid are very different. When you ask you gain insight into a different culture. This culture has specific traditions, foods, shelter, religion, calendar. It is critical to understand all these things when designing. This makes designers especially well suited to meet humanitarian needs.
In industrial design we create products that must sell. In order to ensure that they sell we must understand our user groups’ wants, desires, and needs. Often these user groups are very different from us in their wants and needs, yet through research and testing we are able to get outside of ourselves in order to create something, which may not be at all desirable to us, but fits the needs of our user group. Despite this many designers create humanitarian aid solutions which fail. Architecture for Humanity, however, has a model which goes a step further in “de-victimizing” the needy.
Not only does Architecture for Humanity ask people what they need but they involve them in the design. This happens in several different ways. In some projects, mostly in third world countries, they help communities to design their own villages and buildings. First they facilitate conversation to discover needs and desires. Then they come up with different plans which are brought before the community for approval. When a final design is agreed upon the entire town signs off on the plans. Once the plans are done building begins. Under the supervision of the architects the whole town helps to build their new village. When everything is finished no signage is put up to indicate the town as a AFH project.
By working this way the people being helped have ownership. Perhaps the design would have been largely the same whether the town was involved or not but the involvement is crucial none the less. If people understand why a design is the way it is they are more likely to embrace it. If people work for something they are more likely to value it and feel like they own it. If people own something they take responsibility for it and they care for it.