Towards a Humanitarian Design Charter

New York — Two days following World Refugee Day, designers and humanitarians will convene in New York City to explore how both sectors can incorporate human-centered design principles in their responses to humanitarian crises that cause displacement.

The first Design for Humanity Summit will be held on June 22 and is co-hosted by the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs and the UN Migration Agency (IOM). It is a starting point for the IIHA-IOM Design for Humanity Initiative — a multi-year project that aims to direct humanitarian response in a more dignified, inclusive, and sustainable direction.

This initiative has been led by the IIHA’s Visiting Humanitarian Design Fellow and IOM Program Manager, Alberto Preato, and Angela Wells, IIHA Communications Officer and Co-curator of the Summit.

Alberto brings years of experience incorporating his perspective and skills as an architect as well as a humanitarian practitioner in Haiti, Vanuatu, Colombia, Mozambique, Morocco, Nicaragua, and Niger.

 Alberto Preato, IIHA Humanitarian Design Fellow and IOM Program Manager, during the IOM -UNDAC Mass Evacuation in Natural Disaster (MEND) preparedness mission in Vanuatu.

Alberto Preato, IIHA Humanitarian Design Fellow and IOM Program Manager, during the IOM -UNDAC Mass Evacuation in Natural Disaster (MEND) preparedness mission in Vanuatu.

Angela Wells interviewed Alberto in New York today to talk about the evolution and goals of the Design for Humanity Initiative and how the creativity of designers can inspire the future of humanitarian action.

How did the idea for this initiative come to be?

For a few years, the IIHA had been discussing with designers, academics and humanitarian workers about starting an initiative that looks more critically at the humanitarian sector through the lens of design — like housing, health, graphic design, communications, etc.

The director Brendan Cahill had this vision for a collaborative approach that could bring in so much of the expertise that could be harnessed for research or publications or events or pilot projects. Humanitarian design is a research area that complements or even strongly encompasses the other research areas of the Institute like innovation, urban crises or education.

IOM has been a partner of the IIHA for a few years and so Brendan approached me after I took the International Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance to see if I would spearhead this initiative on behalf of IOM.

It was a natural fit given IOM’s strong background in shelter and camp management in humanitarian contexts all over the world. IOM has really embraced this initiative and we’re excited to see how we can take it further and further.
 IOM Incremental housing units and community infrastructures in Port au Prince, Haiti (Alberto Preato / IOM)

IOM Incremental housing units and community infrastructures in Port au Prince, Haiti (Alberto Preato / IOM)

How did you personally transition your career in architecture and design to humanitarian response?

Since I was a student of architecture in Venice, I have always been fascinated by how design could answer a community’s needs. I was convinced that architecture, urban planning, and design are powerful tools to transform society and to reinvent a different future. My interest began in housing rights and housing development, but these issues became much more systemic and far-reaching as I experienced the reality abroad, first in Spain, in Morocco, then in Mozambique, Central America and Haiti.

As a practitioner, I experienced the tension between the way humanitarian action is conceived, the urgency to provide immediate solutions to very urgent needs, and the need for a more long term solution that can at times be neglected from the typical humanitarian intervention.

What challenges does this tension present to the humanitarian community?

Following a crisis, both after a natural disaster like the earthquake in Haiti or in the aftermath of conflict or mass persecution, as we are seeing with the Rohingya fleeing into Bangladesh, the decisions made at the beginning of the humanitarian response deeply influence not only the immediate response itself but also the lives of people affected for years and years to come.

The harsh reality is that an emergency response is actually cyclical and persistent. This presents a challenge that both the humanitarian and design community can help address.

 Community Members unloading food supplies and NFI kits in Mataso Island, Vanuatu (Alberto Preato / IOM)

Community Members unloading food supplies and NFI kits in Mataso Island, Vanuatu (Alberto Preato / IOM)

How do you see the design community embracing this cause?

The processes that designers use to identify problems, iterate ideas, and craft solutions can be adapted to shape a world more resilient to crises. This could be done, for example, by architects who ensure the right to adequate and sound housing in disaster-prone areas; by urban planners who conceptualize more inclusive and resilience cities alongside communities, or by humanitarians who improve access to water, educational facilities or public space in areas with high levels of displacement.

More and more design professionals around the world are declaring good design as a public right that should be accessible and available to everyone, but especially those most affected by injustices, crises, or disasters.

Reclaiming this right for humanitarian design means working within a framework of ethics, inspiring activism for social change by civil society, and educating future humanitarian and design professionals.

So what is the role of design in a humanitarian context?

If humanitarian action is grounded on the principles of impartiality, neutrality, and independence, designing for humanity is the ethical and social action that goes beyond the core humanitarian mission of alleviating suffering or saving lives in the immediate.

Fundamentally, this is about having a long-term positive impact for people whose lives have been perversely disrupted. We should not only see these people as beneficiaries or victims. In every crisis I have worked, the people who are first affected are the first responders.

I saw this in Vanuatu where community members rebuilt their own shelters, prioritizing vulnerable community members who were not able to rebuild their own homes such as widows, persons with disabilities. They used local materials and locally adapted construction techniques.

The humanitarian community is there to bring in the necessary resources and expertise to respond on a mass level, but they are also responsible for including and designing alongside the community.

In the recent years, we’ve seen academia and think tanks engaging in design challenges aiming at designing solutions to the most pressing world issues. What are your thoughts about this?

I’d like to see the focus shift from the product into the process. The famous IKEA shelters or many other innovative inventions being tested in humanitarian responses may have some positive benefits, but I’m concerned that the focus on the end product has diverted our attention from systemic approaches.

To borrow the concept of lo-fab from MASS Design Group, there is a need for a local fabrication, not only in terms of materials or ideas, but also the definition of the problems we really want to solve.

Humanitarian issues and global injustice are much bigger problems than what humanitarian and design practitioners can solve. So why should we care about designing for humanity?

Today we have 68.5 million people displaced due to conflict, persecution, and natural disasters. Entire generations live in temporary conditions that become permanent. Millions of young people have never known what a sound home or a permanent school looks like. Crises can happen in a matter of seconds and then disrupt the fabric of a community for decades.

But there is no reason why people living in what we call a “protracted crisis” should not be able to experience beauty, good design, or sound and safe infrastructure. Good will is not enough, and there are plenty of examples of ‘good design’ gone terribly wrong because of a lack of time, experience, and professionalism.

 IDP settlement in Diffa, Niger (IOM)

IDP settlement in Diffa, Niger (IOM)

Luckily, there are champions of this cause. I am thinking for example of the work of Raul Pantaleo with TAM associate or MASS Design Studio, who use a built-environment perspective to train and change the narrative of humanitarian and design professionals globally to find beauty where beauty is most difficult to be found, among the rubbles of an earthquake that happened yesterday or in a refugee camp where people have been living since the 1990’s.

Alleviating suffering is no longer enough, we have the duty to make a change for the better. In the preface of his most recent book “Dirty Beauty” Raul Pantaleo writes, “I donʼt know if beauty can really save the world but it can certainly make it better.”

What is your way forward?

The June 22nd Summit is the first step of a much broader initiative aiming at establishing some joint research projects, developing publications, and catalyzing similar events in other locations around the world.

We also want to develop a new “charter for humanitarian design”, or a code of conduct, inspired by creative design and rooted in humanitarian principles. We’ll start from the contributions of our impressive presenters that could guide the work of humanitarian and design professionals working in crises for years to come.

Angela Wells, IIHA Communications Officer and Co-curator of the Design for Humanity Summit