It is embodied in human nature to seek the solutions needed to solve problems we believe we have, or that other people have, before even taking the time to speak with them to gain a full understanding. We usually see other people’s problems or misfortunes from our own ethnocentric perspective, influenced by our cultural identity, heritage, and beliefs, however the solutions and outcomes that we create may not be what these people truly need. Creating a solution without hearing, experimenting and observing their habits, behaviors, and culture, and understanding their emotions and goals may lead us to create programs and products that would not be accepted nor have value for them, while we thought that we had created what they needed. How can they see the value in our ideas?
The first thing that I want to address is how we generally perceive the poor. Our mind projects and compares our way of life to theirs, and we classify the poor in relation to the perceived disparity between them and us. Most of the impoverished haven’t any clue nor care about the way in which we live; they only need to have a little bit more of what they already have, perhaps some emotional support, perhaps the need to cover their basic needs and requirements, and this very well may be all that is required in order to sustain themselves and their families.
When we go to places where very poor people live we may experience a feeling of guilt or anger and we tend to think in terms of how unhappy they must be. How could it be that they have been so neglected? How can we bridge he gap between them and us? We may find that they are happier than we are with far less materialistic concerns. What we can learn from them could change our lives forever. Happiness is a choice that we make; they have made choices, which result in our amazement to see peace, joy, and happiness in places that look like hell from our perspective.
It is important to make a distinction between their needs and wants, and also about our wants for them. Needs and wants are not the same but we often misunderstand and misuse these terminologies. Finding what they need is the kick-start in the journey of a social entrepreneur. We need to be humble and to hear clearly without making imprudent judgments. We need to feel as they do and see through their eyes and listen to their hearts. Our ultimate goal is to help the less fortunate live meaningful lives. This can be accomplished by observing, feeling, analyzing their needs, finding solutions to their problems, and validating the solutions with them. They need to be part of the solution because they are the end users, and they will need to accept and implement the solution we have designed. We cannot create such solutions in design labs without having a deep understanding of their needs.
To further reinforce and explain my viewpoint, I would like to tell you about an indigenous tribe in Chaco, Argentina. The Toba are an ethnic group residing in Argentina, Bolivia and Paraguay. They are part of a larger group of indigenous inhabitants of the Gran Chaco region. As of 2005, there were 47,951 Toba in Argentina.
Quechua is the native Toba language, and in this language, Chaco is the word for hunting, which was the main source of food for these aboriginal people prior to the Spanish colonization of the Americas. These aborigines live in a reserve deep in the woodlands and, along with hunger and disease, contend with indiscriminate deforestation. Soy farming requires fewer workers than typically needed in Chaco's traditional cotton fields, driving people from the countryside to the tin-roofed shacks that circle the main city.
Key to the tribe's decline is the indiscriminate and sometimes illegal deforestation that is paving the way for more commercial and profitable plantations, in the process destroying the Toba's natural habitat.
The Toba have always been dependent upon algarrobo trees, but many of have been felled to make way for the soya plantations, depriving the people of the highly nutritious algarroba bean, and driving out the prey they used to hunt with bows and arrows.
"Hunger is growing day by day in the area, and that, added to the constant presence of tuberculosis and Chagas, and lack of medical attention is making this to seem like the mechanism of a silent genocide." (1)
As an architect, the first thing that came to my mind when I saw their informal settlements and their precarious housing was that we needed to design an improved form of shelter. I imagined several layouts of shelters, materials, construction methods and costs, and I started to draw up some ideas. By seeing the initial sketch design with my own eyes I created a possible solution. But something deep inside told me that I was wasting my time in an attempt to create solutions without really understanding the way the Toba live. Subsequently I learned that these aborigines live in informal settlements due to their nomadic lifestyle; they go where food can be found. They do not put much time or effort into building homes they do not anticipate residing in for more than a few years, and meanwhile I was trying to create their permanent homes. How can we deal with such a problem of this magnitude? How can we deal with 8,000 years of indigenous nomadic culture? How can we convince them continue to reside in the same place for an extended period, something the Toba are not at all accustomed to doing? Furthermore, should we attempt to convince them to remain in place, adapting their culture to one more modern in order to better fit our design? These were some of the questions that I had.
As I Continued learning about their habits I found out they also build their homes in this precarious fashion, because when a family member dies there is a tradition that the house should be burned in order to liberate the spirit of the dead. What is going to happen to our beautiful shelters when somebody dies? Will they burn it? I think we have another problem to solve here…
These are just two examples of how deeply we need to be involved with the poor so that we may create outcomes that truly help them escape the poverty trap. This is a very complicated task that begins with opening our hearts to their needs. Sometimes it is necessary to feel the needs of the poor because, in the case I have demonstrated, they are not able to put into words their true needs. This is our first phase. Subsequently, we can create meaningful products, programs and services and deliver superb solutions to help improve our world by helping those in need.
Thanks for reading,
Francisco Gonzalez Blog Founder http://www.social-innovation-blog.org/
(1) Andres Schipani, “Aboriginal Victims of Argentina’s Silent Genocide,” The Independent, (October 2007)