Posted to the Ethnos Project by on March 1st, 2011

Escobar’s Encountering Development evolves around the thesis that “the discourse and strategy of development produced its opposite: massive underdevelopment and impoverishment, untold exploitation and oppression.” He approaches this through a discursive analysis of the components and relationships of what he calls “the three axes that define development”: its forms of knowledge; the system of power that regulates its practice; and the forms of subjectivity fostered by this discourse (10).

Escobar first tackles the “problematization of poverty” which he contends is a result of the formulation and solidification of development discourse from the early post-World War II period to the present. Through a brief historical overview, he illustrates that the professionalization of development knowledge and the institutionalization of development practices were the main vehicles for development’s deployment. The post-war economic arena and the formation of capitalism made systemic pauperization inevitable and “if the problem was one of insufficient income, the solution was clearly economic growth” (24). However, Escobar argues, people were left out of the equation. “Development was—and continues to be for the most part—a top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic approach” (44). He draws on two examples, that of development in communities in Nepal and among the Gapun of Papua New Guinea to show the development encounter and illustrates how discursive homogenization was the “key to its success as a hegemonic form of representation” (53).

In the third chapter, Escobar engages in an analysis of the emergence of underdevelopment as a notion of post-World War II economic development theories. He employs a cultural critique of economics via the discourse of development economics using what he calls “the anthropology of modernity” (61). Providing an overview of classical, neoclassical, Keynesian and growth economic theories, Escobar composes a picture of how the development discourse grew due to “the fact that a certain historical conjuncture transformed the mode of existence of economic discourse, thus making possible the elaboration of new objects, concepts, and methodologies” (84). Drawing on the Gudeman’s and Rivera’s work (1990), he examines “communities of modellers,” as a method for engaging the dominant economic discourse. By exploring local and dominant models as conversations, center and periphery emerge as a perpetual field rather than fixed points, as a place where both models are accorded a say (98) – a stance that acknowledges “subjects as agents of self-definition whose practice is shaped by their self-understanding” (101).

Chapters four and five are simply put, about how development works – about the first axis Escobar lays out in his introduction, forms of knowledge. They demonstrate the way in which the mechanisms of development function through the systematic production of knowledge and power in specific fields—such as rural and sustainable development and women and development.

Chapter four examines the rise and fall of a set of disciplines, or forms of knowledge, in nutrition, health, and rural development. In this section of the book, Escobar uses institutional ethnography as a means of understanding the massive development programs established by World Bank, United Nations, and several universities (Food and Nutrition Policy and Planning, and the Inter-Agency Project for the Promotion of National Food and Nutrition Policies, for example). He does this by “investigating how professional training provides the categories and concepts that dictate the practices of the institution’s members and how local courses of action are articulated by institutional functions” (109).

Chapter five extends the analysis of chapter four by focusing on the regimes of representation that underlie constructions of peasants, women, and the environment. Escobar begins with a discussion about discourse and visuality in which he “follows the displacement of the development gaze across the terrains in which these three social actors move” (155). He explores the contradictions and possibilities inherent in the processes of integrated rural development, incorporating women into development, and sustainable development. Despite the repeated branching of development into these areas, Escobar argues that “nothing has really changed at the level of the discourse” (210).

Admitting that the process of unmaking development “is slow and painful” and that “there are no easy solutions” (217) doesn’t stop Escobar from trying. In chapter six, he imagines a postdevelopment regime of representation and how to pursue alternative practices in the context of the social movements in the Third World today. He sees “hybrid cultures” in Latin America as a mode of cultural affirmation that allows traditional cultures to survive through their transformative engagement in the face of modernity’s crisis. He doesn’t reach for grand alternative models or strategies. Instead, he argues for the investigation of alternative practices and representations in local settings, especially as evidenced in contexts of hybridization, collective action, and political mobilization.

Escobar’s Encountering Development accomplishes what it sets out to do: creates a dialectic that examines the discourse of development – one that reveals how development ultimately created the very problems it was trying to solve. He doesn’t just present the elements, but looks at “the system of relations established among them” (40). Although written fifteen years ago, the book is pertinent to today as much of the dominant development discourse persists unchanged.

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