By IMTFI researchers Anke Schwittay and Paul Braund
In a recent article in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review, I use IMTFI’s Design Principles, published in 2010, and the IMTFI-funded project Following the Bean: Navigating Value Exchange and Vulnerability with Farmers and their Stakeholder (Melissa Cliver, Fellow 2009 and 2010) to examine the emerging practice of Humanitarian Design in financial inclusion. Drawing on anthropologists such as Lucy Suchman, Peter Redfield and Bruno Latour, I interrogate the ways in which professional designers who are using their expertise towards social ends have redefined the problem of development as a lack of creative ideas and innovation as well as inattention to systems and the absence of client feedback. Through this reconceptualization, humanitarian designers are positing themselves and especially their methods of design thinking, empathetic research, co-design and prototyping, as the experts best placed to address this problem. Design as an integrative discipline is seen as well-suited to solve the ‘wicked problems’ presented by persistent global poverty.
"Following the Bean" presents a good example of such design expertise. The original proposal was for the creation of a visual financial management tool for farmers of a coffee cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico. Through the process of fieldwork, which encompassed ethnographic observations, story boarding, behaviour journal models and participatory design workshops, Cliver and her team discovered that farmers had a greater need for cash. They also discovered that coop members’ various ways of spending money stood in a special relationship of how that money was earned. Income from coffee and corn, for example, covered everyday expenses, while extra money made from enjoyable activities like selling flowers was spent on enjoyable things like butter and hard-earned cash from the US was used for serious work like house construction. What was referred to as savings, namely putting money aside for an undefined future as opposed to for specific occasions, did not have a paired cash stream, expressed in the observation that ‘there is never enough money left over to save.’ The designers then conceptualized a new income stream for savings into a concept called Send the Change, where a US consumer would buy the coop’s coffee and round up the change, the difference of which would be sent electronically into a special savings scheme. Unfortunately the team was not able to test the concept’s prototype in the field. In the article, I show in much greater detail how to team carried out its work and the opportunities and constraints they faced in the process.
"Following the Bean" was just one project whose findings informed IMTFI’s Design principles, which were published as part of the first annual report. For IMTFI, design was a way to make the findings of its researchers actionable. You can see all of the principles here. In my article, I synthesize them as principles corresponding to codes (related to social status and rank), convertibility (related to different value scales and conversions among them) and cycles (related to temporal rhythms and obligations attached to them). I argue that these principles constitute poor people as innovators whose calculative and other logics inform humanitarian design, which on the other hand also contributes to disciplining them through financial practices. The result is a particular form of hybrid knowledge which is characteristic of what Daromir Rudnyckyj and I, in the special PoLAR issue of which this article is a part, have called the Afterlives of Development. This knowledge seeks to enable the coexistence of calculative and cultural rationalities in financial inclusion.
Last but not least, I am also interested in how design and anthropology (which are coming together in the emerging field of design anthropology) can inform development practice. I argue that both hold complexity in view rather than trying it render it technical. Design and anthropology offer development novel ways of looking, listening and learning, working with an experimental approach that questions the very assumptions that most development interventions take for granted. Rather than assuming what people need, humanitarian designers are wondering whether they are even asking the right questions. Having said this, we cannot overlook that humanitarian design practitioners and expertise have Western origins and in that regard present a continuation with orthodox models of development. The challenge is to find, in the words of Bill Maurer, “collateral, collaborative praxis” whereby anthropology, design and development can be drawn into relation and begin to create alternative figures of development. I think IMTFI is a great place to explore these questions further and I would love to hear your thoughts on this, or on the article itself. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Preview Anke Schwittay's upcoming book, New Media and International Development: Representation and Affect in Microfinance, coming out September 2014.