Building Humanitarian ‘Expertise’ in Ouagadougou

AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF GEOGRAPHERS, BOSTON, MA, APRIL 2017

Transnational architectural projects are opportunities for built environment professionals to problematize the encounter with the Other and to recognize the “symmetry of ignorance”. However, especially in the realm of aid and development, asymmetries of knowledge (experts vs popular sectors), entitlements (providers vs receivers), and geopolitical influences (global North vs South) play crucial roles in the process.

The design and construction of the Women’s Health Center G. Kambou was an opportunity for my Italian architectural practice to problematize these assumptions; to navigate between the ideal and the viable in the process of becoming “humanitarian” experts. 

The building, located on the fringe of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, is a counseling and educational center for women’s sexual and reproductive rights. The reduction of Female Genital Mutilation in the neighborhood was among the expected outcomes of services offered. FGM, a deeply rooted practice in Burkina’s culture, involves 77% of girls, causing reproductive and psychological complications throughout their lives. The Italian Left Party and the European Union funded the Center, which was promoted by an Italian NGO with the involvement of local organizations. My firm designed the Center pro-bono and supervised the construction work. 

The Center was an opportunity to encounter different values, thinking frameworks, and forms of expertise. The construction phase, in particular, facilitated this transnational encounter by providing “material” ground upon which to daily negotiate different approaches. On the other hand, however, our mutual overreliance on technical solutions at times eclipsed the very socio-cultural attuning required by the circumstances. 

Looking back at moments of friction and uncertainty through the entire project, I will chart the landscape of unexpected actions, provisional realignments, and deep collaborations among all parties involved. The relentless (re)arrangements that took place in the processes of construction and meaning-making provide valuable insight on both the theory and practice of humanitarian expertise.