Today, we stand at a crossroads in development. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), originally proposed in 2000, provided eight targets to reduce global poverty by 2015. While progress has been made in reducing poverty around the world, evidence suggests that the MDGs may not have directly contributed to global development progress. In one study, Howard Friedman, a professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, found that the MDGs did not actually result in the acceleration of any global progress metrics. Another study by Michael Jennings, lecturer in Development Studies and chair of the Centre for African Studies at SOAS University of London, found that in sub-Saharan Africa, some global development metrics have actually gotten worse.
This year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) will establish a new set of goals (the Sustainable Development Goals) and touts 2015 as “the year of global action.” This sentiment is reflected across the United States, where, in particular, several development and humanitarian engineering programs are cropping up at universities across the nation. As we shape the global development agenda and frame our thinking during this historical juncture, we must be reflective of development work so far and critical of our thoughts, actions, and motivations moving forward.
Many initiatives, programs, and organizations dedicated to development work express a similar desire to “help” those in “need.” Professional organizations, such as Engineers Without Borders, and academic institutions, such as Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) at Purdue University, provide engineers with the opportunity to use their technical skills to solve global problems. “Help,” by definition, assumes that a person external to a situation gives, aids, saves, or rescues another. The need-help model of development is closely linked to a problematic deficit model, where we recognize those “in need” for what they lack, rather than value them for what they have.
When we say that a person or a community “needs help,” do we suggest that they are less than, and that we as “helpers” and “problem solvers” are inherently better or more capable? Perhaps we don’t consciously view ourselves in this light, but our word choices may reflect our underlying thoughts, assumptions, and motivations to engage in development work. The need-help paradigm is paternalistic and self-gratifying, and focuses the action on those who “help,” without much thought to those who receive. It assumes that those coming to “help” have the right idea, the right approach, and the right tools.
In “The Stranger’s Eyes,” author and anthropologist Joyce Carlson tells the story of a North American aid worker sent to Mali to build a mill. The effort is a failure, largely due to the aid organization’s and the aid worker’s inability to recognize the local culture and context. The mill failed shortly after it became operational. This story is a cautionary tale of how overestimating our capacity to “help” distorts our perception of what a community actually wants and will benefit from.
Aboriginal educator and activist Lilla Watson said: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. If you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
By viewing development work through the “help” lens, we neglect our own stake in global development, and tend to inevitably and unintentionally perpetuate the systems of oppression and injustice we seek to break down. Instead, we have to recognize that we too are harmed by global injustice, and therefore must work with the global community toward mutual liberation. Models of “allyhood” in social justice and “accompaniment” in human rights parallel this theory. We cannot just be external visitors; we have to engage with the communities we serve and recognize how our own privileges and social behaviors impact our roles.
To move beyond good intentions, the development paradigm must shift toward collaboration, community involvement, and empowerment. Instead of “I’m here to help,” we might try: “I’m here to work with you, to leverage both of our skillsets.” We have to recognize our place in the local context of the community we seek to serve and to work with. We should not assume that our presence is wanted or even beneficial. We have to rethink the oppressive notion that the global community “needs our help” and that we are uniquely qualified and able to contribute to any sort of good. We have to stop neglecting local capacities, skills, and desires.
Of course, changing our vocabulary isn’t the end point, and it would be overly idealistic to think that a shift in language would immediately benefit global development efforts. However, a change in our semantics reflects and supports a change in our mentality. People living in resource-constrained areas aren’t less than, and they aren’t others. They don’t need pity (a point that serves as the focus of Mama Hope’s Stop the Pity campaign), and they certainly don’t solely depend on external “aid.”
As Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich said: “Come to look, come to climb our mountains, to enjoy our flowers. Come to study. But do not come to help.”
Aid, as it stands, is not enough. If we reframe “aid” and “help” into a more empowering ideology, and thus engage in more critical reflection, we can set ourselves on a course toward a more just model of global development. We can draw inspiration from companies like WaterHealth International, which partners with underserved communities around the world to provide water purification and distribution systems. We can encourage societal and technological leaders to engage in the conversation about development, empowerment, and engagement, as Krista Donaldson of D-Rev has done.
We have to be thoughtful about our involvement in global development efforts, realizing that good intentions do not translate into mutually beneficial outcomes. We have to be humble about our societal roles, recognizing that the world is not crying out for our help. And, finally, we have to support the continuing conversations around global progress, politics, and development, contributing to a broader movement toward collaboration.