There’s an old adage that goes, “First they break your legs, and then they want thanks for giving you crutches.” New York City’s, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum has mounted an exhibit that adheres to that truism. Dedicated exclusively to historic and contemporary design, Cooper-Hewitt’s exhibition, Design for the Other 90 %, is the museum’s presentation of innovative tools allegedly created to tackle and eliminate Third World poverty, technologies that supposedly “help, rather than exploit, poorer economies. (….) Design for the Other 90% demonstrates how design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives, at home and around the world.”
The exhibit displays some 30 devices created with the world’s poverty stricken in mind, and the show focuses on the design qualities of low-cost lighting systems, water purifiers, shelters, latrine kits, load-carrying bicycles, and other such devices. The show features a low cost home made of cardboard and plastic, as well as a hand-powered laptop computer that sells for $100. But therein lies the catch, all of these items supposedly meant to temporarily alleviate poverty in the Third World are being manufactured as items to be sold to the destitute; or, as the Associated Press described the designer’s concept behind Design for the Other 90%, “Instead of advocating aid giveaways with uncertain results, these socially conscious designers hew to the profit motive and sell their products to the poor. They say their strategy fosters dignity, not dependence, and ensures sustainability.”
The legacy of Western colonialism in the so-called Third World entails hundreds of years of merciless pillaging of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, leaving large parts of the world impoverished and despairing. Today the West’s new colonial governors, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, continue to extract tremendous wealth from the world’s poor through the “neo-liberal” economic policies of globalization, and the statistics bare-out this grim reality. Half of the world’s population – nearly three billion people – live on less than two dollars a day, while the Gross Domestic Product of the poorest 48 nations is still less than the holdings of the world’s three richest people combined. Over a billion children around the world live in dire poverty, and UNICEF reports that the daily “toll of children in the world who die before their fifth birthday” is nearly 30,000. Almost a million and a half children under five years of age die each year from poverty – while at the same time poor developing nations spends $13 on debt repayment for every $1 received in Western relief grants.
In that context, Design for the Other 90% seems more an insult than a solution. Even the name stinks of privilege and imperial arrogance. “We,” the 10%, can go on enjoying our luxury chrome plated Hummers and other accoutrements of a thoroughly unsustainable lifestyle, and we can do so guilt-free as we’ve devised consumer goods for the other 90% of the world’s population – you know, those dark skinned people with vacant eyes and swollen bellies. In a world were a few hundred billionaires now own as much wealth as the poorest 2.5 billion people, no amount of spiffily designed water purifiers and latrine kits sold to the impoverished will end poverty – only a fair distribution of wealth and resources can do that.