Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2018-19/Imperialism and Humanitarian Architecture

Literature review edit

Various aspects of imperialism have been defined throughout the past century. Lenin wrote that imperialism is “the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general”[1] and more specifically “the monopoly stage of capitalism." Kautsky also argues that imperialism results from advanced capitalism[2]. Robert Young suggests that it is a concept or an ideology rather than an actual practice[3]. According to author Esther Charlesworth, humanitarian architecture aims at helping vulnerable regions and communities[4]. But it can be harmful. W. Easterly wrote that a lack of understanding of the populations’ needs and the wish to supply as much as possible in a limited amount of time result in failed projects[5]. The rise of humanitarian architecture through volunteer tourism agencies generates small unhealthy interventions led by inexperienced people. S. Nutt has explained how the idea that western countries should and can help poorer regions is a vestige of colonialism[6]. Moreover, Bussell and Forbes have underlined that volunteer-tourists are driven by egoistic thoughts although they might have the feeling of being altruistic[7].

Introduction edit

In 2014, a clinic in Turkana, Kenya, was built by a group of MIT students as part of a humanitarian architecture project[8]. Such projects aim at helping communities in need and vulnerable regions through the construction of buildings or diverse facilities. It is, however, striking to observe how many of them do not succeed. In the studied case, the volunteer students failed in various aspects and did not manage to respond efficiently to the local emergency[9]. This kind of failure is a result of westernized perceptions, which raises the question to know how a humanitarian project can reveal itself to be an imperialistic legacy.

The pretext of altruism edit

The pretext of altruism in some humanitarian projects is an imperialistic legacy. Volunteering for instance often uses false pretences to conciliate personal benefits and altruism. The motivations of the workers can revolve around selfish reasons, like looking for other's gratifications or personal benefits [10] . The case study chosen is an example of humanitarian work done for the benefit of the students themselves, as the initial goal was to develop the student's skills, and not to solely help the pastoral population of Turkana. As Raymond and Hall [11]state, there is a difference between volunteer tourism, and using developing countries as 'training grounds' for students. This mirrors when Western powers colonized Africa for personal purposes (like exploiting resources) – pretexting to help locals [12].

The clinic built by MIT students contributes to a new form of colonialism called "educational neo-colonialism". This new wave of action is a legacy of imperialism, using the so-called "inferiority" of a population in need to impose westernized help [13], without proper research of the population's actual needs. This type of volunteerism focuses on "the other" and reinforces conceived ideas, rather than questioning them, to legitimize Western actions[11]. The clinic was built for educational purposes while mirroring imperialistic mindsets.

Disregard towards Turkanas edit

While intervening in foreign countries for personal purposes, international agencies often disregard locals. Hugo Slim says local people should be considered "as human subjects and not the humanitarian objects of others"[14]. This isn't respected by the clinic project as its aim is educational and not humanitarian. This project, thus, seems to use Turkanas' health need as a pretext for a personal project, but this isn't consequence-free. For instance, Samantha Nutt evokes the possible psychological consequences on a child of such projects, like a hyper-affective syndrome[15].

A nutritional report identifies health issues in the region as a cause of the rising mortality [16], but the project lacks anthropologic and geographic research to really consider local health as its motivation. For example, the students had to change the planned architectural techniques and materials because, once there, they discovered that these weren't adapted to the local resources and the Turkanas' traditional nomadic life [17]. The modern design of the clinic is a form of cultural imposition as it strongly contrasts with the culture and the natural surroundings [18]. Previous humanitarian projects also didn't conduct enough research about Turkanas before launching their projects. In 1971, Norway wanted to develop fishing in Turkana, which failed as fishing is not part of Turkanas' culture [19]. This lack of research is a sort of humanitarian disdain or dominance, and thus as a legacy of imperialism.

Temporality aspects edit

Architectural humanitarian projects often focus on short-term benefits, without providing a learning opportunity to the local community. This project was designed to benefit the students while testing their technical capabilities [9]. The lack of inclusion of locals highlights the imperialistic aspect of this project by disregarding the local know-how. Thus, demonstrating the occurrence of knowledge and architectural imperialism.

The total budget of the project was $60'000, which one third was used for MIT's team travel and accommodation. This starkly contrasts with the local economy: Turkana is considered to be the poorest county of Kenya[20], and Kenya has 46% of its population living below the poverty line[21]. This sort of budget raises questions about the ethics of such monetary discrepancies: as how could such a structure be reproduced in the future by the local community.

Sustainable urban development is increasingly important within humanitarian architecture. Renzo Piano's architectural firm called RPBW is working on the construction of a children's surgery centre to help the NGO EMERGENCY and to promote healthcare in Uganda. The project will provide training grounds for the local medical workforce and highly qualified international staff, with responsibilities transferring fully later to the local staff [22]. The roof will be made of photovoltaic panels – allowing the clinic autonomy in terms of day energy supplies. The project also challenges materialistic stereotypes; the architects have decided to use earth as the main material – it is widely available there [23]. Hence, challenging the rudimentary perception of it as well as using a material suited to the region.

Disciplinary tensions edit

The clinic in Turkana is a praiseworthy project. Even if humanitarianism wasn't its main aim, the project used education to carry out aid, which can be argued, is better than doing nothing. The project is at the frontier between two disciplines: educational architecture and humanitarianism. The issues making this project post-imperialistic are due to where the boundary between these two disciplines lies. To complete a good humanitarian project, less importance should have been given to educational and architectural aspects, and more importance should have been given to local people and resources.

However, if the project had done this, it may not have been a good educational one. The interdisciplinarity of this project, combining disciplines involved in humanitarian aid – anthropology, economy, geography, etc.- and architecture is what makes this project challenging, perhaps too challenging for MIT students that aren't specialized in humanitarianism.

Conclusion edit

The humanitarian architecture project led by the MIT students shows how a humanitarian project can reveal itself to be an imperialistic legacy. For instance, the project was undertaken for the personal benefit of the volunteer-tourist students. Local professionals were not included in the project, which led to an improper understanding of the needs of the pastoral population of Turkana and short-term benefit from the clinic. Thus, such poor consideration for the local culture and actual humanitarian emergency perpetuates stereotypes and westernized perceptions over vulnerable and poorer regions.


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