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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.