12/03/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2015

International Development Is Selfish Work

At a certain point, I think that everyone faces the same question -- is what I'm doing meaningful?

I have always wanted to use my life to help people, but on the road to adulthood, the challenge has been in finding a way to make my passions profitable -- both financially and socially.

As the daughter of immigrant parents, growing up with the inconsistencies between my life in the U.S. and life in my parents' native Indonesia sparked an interest in global affairs. Since I have been old enough to travel on my own, I have dived headfirst into the field of international development. But from my field experience, what I have realized is that as altruistic as it may outwardly appear, international development is selfish work.

The simple definition of international development isn't as telling. International development is an interdisciplinary field that seeks to raise the socioeconomic standards of life in various parts of the planet in a culturally and politically sensitive manner, primarily for regions such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia that are categorized in the global south. Interestingly enough, international development and development agencies are dominated by those that reside in the global north.

Development discourse itself propagates a divide between developing and developed nations. The outdated terms of "first world" and "third world" insinuate an inherent hierarchy to a nation's global status. Ironically, these terms were never attached to a country's developmental status in the first place. They instead originated in the aftermath of the Cold War in reference to a country's political status, with those countries aligned with U.S. capitalist and democratic ideals categorized as first world, Communist countries grouped into the second world, and all other countries defined as third world.

This allowed for the creation of a hierarchy of powers that dodged the taboo colonial image for those countries claiming democracy. And while the language of development has evolved from the "first-third world" categories to newer terms like "fat-lean economies," or nation-states that do and do not make decisions with thought to scarcity, these terms still invoke the same idea of have vs. have not.

Many of the nations where development work takes place have a complex history of colonial heritage. "Colonization is to a society as slavery is to the individual," notes Eric Sheppard, 2012-2013 President of the Association of American Geographers and current UCLA professor. Sheppard's work in the uneven geographies of globalization has drawn attention to the impact colonization has left on many countries in the global south. Colonization is slavery's societal counterpart. The act of colonization can drastically alter the trajectory of fledgling countries. The enduring sentiments of monarch-subject or donor-recipient have arguably restricted developing economies from maximizing their natural resources to their full capacity.

The rich historical legacies of colonization in developing countries are more evident than ever in a modern setting. The development frameworks that have evolved, though well-intentioned, inadvertently promulgate neo-imperialistic attitudes of dependency on foreign aid.

In July, I had the opportunity to revisit a development project in Ecuador with which I had briefly collaborated in 2011. While in the field, I conducted basic surveys in order to evaluate the impact of the rainwater catchment systems that had been orchestrated by the Amazon Partnerships Foundation three years ago.

The results were astounding.

Preliminary results revealed that 95% of the community were still using the rainwater catchment systems to access clean water, and of this 95%, 100% of the users were still maintaining their tanks as originally directed three years prior.

Nevertheless, even with these remarkable strides, ideas of paternalism are still apparent. While I clearly articulated that I was only visiting the community to conduct surveys, I received incessant questions about funding. Community leaders equated my presence with an opportunity to receive more funds. The community had made incredible strides, but still had the mentality that they could not move forward without foreign assistance. To me, these attitudes can partially be attributed to colonial legacies, and it is a reminder of the role history has played in these communities even in a contemporary world.

This is not to discredit the labors of dedicated development workers, but to highlight the intricacies of working responsibly in the field of international development.

I think the challenge regarding development work lies in the fact that people with good intentions must cross not only borders, but they must also cross cultural backgrounds, histories, and realities in order to "help."

It's unbelievably easy to become jaded as a development worker. For every success story, there is double the amount of failed projects. What I've learned is that my job isn't necessarily to fix years of colonial heritage or deeply embedded cultural ideas, but to enter these communities humbly and encourage those around me to act more thoughtfully.

In my most recent field experiences, a fellow traveler pointed out to me that international development work is completely counterintuitive. Successful development means that development workers put themselves out of work.

If international development is truly successful, a country will not need development projects or the people who run them.