The other SWEDOW

by David Week on 18 August 2011



“SWEDOW” is an acroynm for:

Stuff WE DOn’t Want.

It was coined by @talesfromthhood, and has spread into the lexicon, to the point where it has its own wordspy entry.

Up until five minutes ago, when I researched the term, I thought that the “we” in SWEDOW referred to the recipients, as in “please don’t send us stuff we don’t want”…such as T-shirts, expired drugs, old shoes, old handbags and the like.

So I felt rather dumb that I got that wrong: it actually refers to donors who send stuff they don’t want. But in retrospect, I think it works better in my interpretation, because sometimes what’s sent is in fact perfectly good in the country of origin, and is still not really appropriate in the country of destination.

An example is the brick association which sent some 10,000 bricks to post-tsunami Aceh. These were perfectly good bricks. The trouble was that the landed cost was probably 100 x the local bricks, and it took management time to figure out what to do with them, in a way that would satisfy the donor. (I suspect selling them on the local market and using the money for something else would not have been well received.)

In the bigger picture, it would have been better for that well-meaning association to take all the money they’d spent on the bricks, and sent the cash.

Donor push vs recipient pull

The underlying problem is that these efforts are driven by supplier push, rather than recipient pull. No-one in East Timor asked for a container load of old shoes, but they arrived, because people had them, and decided to send them. And no-one in Aceh, given the choice between the bricks, and the cash they represented, would have chosen the bricks: since for that cash they could have bought local bricks, and had a tonne of cash left over for other things.

Rather it’s:

  • we got bricks; we’ll send you bricks
  • we got shoes; we’ll send you shoes
  • we got T-shirts; we’ll send you T-shirts.

The other SWEDOW

As an architect, I’ve become increasingly aware of another SWEDOW:

Services WE DOn’t Want.

In architecture, this takes the form of sending architectural services in the form of building designs.

I recently critiqued the $300 house competition along these lines. Elsewhere, it seems that there are at least a dozen architects who think that converting an end-run container into a house is a Really Good Idea. Then there are entire magazine editions where they get a cohort of Famous Architects to improve on the tent.

But none of these efforts ever takes off. Local builders or users never adopt the technologies; local householders never copy the designs; disaster response agencies are still using tents. Most designs end up as displays in an art gallery, a magazine, or an entry on the architect’s web page, under “Unbuilt Work”.

Here are some examples:

  • Housing for tsunami victims: never adopted

  • Housing made from a container: never adopted

  • Housing designed for Haiti: not adopted

These designs haven’t been cherry-picked. What’s much harder is to find schemes for post-disaster or development contexts, designed by OECD architects, that have been accepted. Even harder are designs that have been taken up into the local building culture.

Now the problem with these solutions is not that these architects aren’t well qualified, or good designers. Rather, what makes these SWEDOW is the supply push:

We’re architects. Architects design buildings. We’ll give you building designs. (Subtext: even if that’s not what’s anyone asked for…)

(Confession: In the early days of my career in development, I too thought it was all about “design”—though not those kinds of designs.)

Typically, only 5% of architectural time is involved in design. Architects need, and have, all kinds of other skills: costing, logistics, materials science, construction, manufacturing, project management, finance, law, needs analysis, environmental analysis, project management, contracts, environmental control—which if brought directly to bear on the needs of the poor, can produce results.

But when they decide beforehand that what’s needed is a building design, the results are rarely, if ever, usable. Building designs are SWEDOW: Services We Don’t Need.

Further reading

Witold Ribzynksi writing in Slate on post-disaster housing here.

Analysis of a cardboard post-disaster house here.

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