About Arturo Escobar: "Encountering Development"

Literature Review 2011 8 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: Development Politics


Arturo Escobar:

Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World

"It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." (Maslow, 1966)

The field of development studies has seen an endless coming and going of various new paradigms in the latter half of the 20th century. They all claimed to be highly innovative, stirring hope that, after all the dissatisfactory experiences prior to their emergence, the big problems of developing countries can finally be solved. A vast body of major theory on development emerged since the 1940s, such as Modernisation theory, Dependency theory, World-Systems theory, and Neoliberalism with its strucural adjustment programms (Chant & McIlwaine, 2009, p. 27-58). In the early to mid-1990s, an outraged collection of texts, highly critical of all those conventional development approaches, emerged. In contrast to former controversies, these writings were novel in the way that they casted “a serious doubt not only on the feasibility but on the very desirability of development” itself (Escobar, 2000, p. 11), making use of newly revised poststructuralist and discursive approaches. This way of criticism became known as post-development. According to McGregor (2009, p.2), the “most influential and widely read text however” was Escobar’s (1995) Encountering Development: The Naking and Unmaking of the Third World.

This article aims to review this book and is divided into three parts. The first section provides a brief summary of the text, followed by an analysis dealing with major potential contradictions and their relative insignificance, closing with the final part by highlighting the huge and unique impact the book had in the field of development studies and especially in the branch of post-development theory.

Summary of the Book

Escobar’s main intention of the book is to unearth the discursive field of development. He attempts to deconstruct the development discourse by telling the story of a certain “dream and how it progressively turned into a nightmare” (p. 4). His metapher of dream refers to the project, conducted from the end of the Second World War until today, that intends to do not less than radically transforming the so-called Third World in the “pursuit of the goal of material prosperity and economic progress”. Throughout the history of developentalism Escobar finds the persistence of a monotonous discourse that constantly repeats itself through all the conventional development practices. The backward Third World has to be taken by the hand into the progress to modernity and this can only be the task of the wise white man from the West in form of development experts. This process of constructing categories such as ‘Third World’ or ‘underdeveloped’/’developing’ constitutes a certain dominance over the Thirld World with significant political, economic, and cultural implications. In this sense, Escobar applies insights of Foucault’s work on dynamics of discourse and power in socially constructed realities.

The first chapter of the book provides the setting for his main line of argumentation. It relies on the provoking assumption that non-Western areas of the world have been systematically tried to be transformed according to Western cultural contructs. The first demonstration of this discursive formation can be found, according to Escobar, in the inaugural adress of U.S. President Truman in 1949. This speech, often refered to as the starting point of the development era in standard textbooks of development studies (e.g. Lumsdaine, 1993), also serves as the beginning of his “history of the loss of an illusion, in which many genuinly believed” (p. 4). He then states that, parallel to the decolonization process taking place in this post-World War II, the implicitness of this hegemonic thought colonized reality and thereby the identity of the Third World. Hence the reality of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America could only be perceived according to conceptions produced in the modernistic West. Drawing on others’ work (e.g. Mudimbe on Africanism and Mohanty on Third World women), Escobar applies these epistomological insights to the context of development. He further overviews the few and limited academic work that has dealt with the deconstruction of development to this date, showing that his attempt is the first comprehensive one in this field of study.

The second chapter reveals the particular set of conditions that contributed to the establishment of the development discourse and strategy, starting with tackling the “problematization of poverty” (p. 21) as the main facilitator for cementing the mechanisms through which development was deployed from the early post-World War II era to the 1980s. By digging for the historical roots of the problematization emergence and by providing the striking example of the first World Bank mission to Columbia, Escobar looks in detail how this “representation of the Third World as a child in need of adult guidance” in oder to catch up with the West in economic terms became dominant. This form of discursive homogenization was constantly sustained through the professionalization of knowledge and institutionalization of practices.



ISBN (eBook)
File size
484 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Auckland – Centre for Development Studies
Arturo Escobar Escobar Encountering Development Third World Development Post-Development Postdevelopment poverty World Bank anthropology poststructuralist poststructuralism Development Studies book review Foucault hybrid cultures




Title: About Arturo Escobar: "Encountering Development"