Book Review: The Encountering Development

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Book Review: The Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World by Arturo Escobar

In this review, I will discuss the key points from Escobar’s The Encountering Development and the strengths and weaknesses of the book. 

The author started his book with a quote from US President Truman’s inaugural speech in 1949, which is about his policy called a ‘fair deal’. According to Truman’s speech, there are many countries in difficult situations in terms of economic development. Thus, the West should play an active role in the development of third world countries through capital, science and technology. Truman’s speech was one of the examples of hegemonic policies of Western countries. In the last few decades, the West has influenced many of the third world countries through this kind of policy. According to the author, the vision of a western style of development not only failed but also brought great damage to third world countries. In his strong statement, he called it a “nightmare’. The nightmare includes economic crises, poverty and violence.  Even though critics like McKinney (1995) who stated that the author did not mention his definition of development, has seen him as a nightmare.

The author also mentioned that the West influenced to third world countries through its politics, economy and culture. Thus, development as a discourse was distributed under the same western principles and ideas. In general, it can be seen that the development is a totally western-oriented experience, so if it is not in this frame, then you are not developed. We can understand it simply as modernization. McGregor (2007, p. 156) described clearly that a common post-development argument is “development has artificially naturalized an ideal state, modeled upon the developed west, and promoted this state as universally desirable and achievable for all peoples and cultures.” To the author, not only the economy, politics and culture, but the whole system of knowledge is based on western hegemonic discourse. The author says that the West thinks that a non-western system is not a qualified one. To put these ideas into simple one, he tried to liberate or deconstruct the current global trend and theories related to this development. From my personal point of view, his goal was to liberate, not to bring the systematic new alternative models into the development theories.   

According to the author, the main objective of the book was to analyze the discourse of development, the idea of underdevelopment, economic theories and also current trends such as rural development, sustainable development and women in development within the period from World War II to the present. Interestingly, the author dedicated five chapters out of six to explain what was happening in the third world. It was only in the last chapter that he mentioned his alternatives to development.    

Now I will discuss the book chapter by chapter, which will also reveal the main points clearly to me. I have already covered the first chapter, so I will begin with the second one.   

In the second chapter, the author illustrates how the West created the idea of poverty and how three worlds divided. One of most interesting statements in the book was concerning poverty. He mentioned that the West found poverty in third world countries like a discovery. It is clear that the third world itself also had a western-oriented idea. While constructing the idea of poverty, the West tried to solve the main problem in third world countries, which was poverty. Poverty was the center of all the ideas related to the discourse on development and the solution was science, technology, planning and international organizations, which generally came from the West. From my personal point of view, it is true that creation of poverty and a great emphasis on poverty itself was significant. We can see it from a motto of one of the most influential organizations in the world, the World Bank. The World Bank declared that they were “working for a World Free of Poverty” (World Bank, 2015, p. 1). McKinnon (2007) confirmed that the fundamental concern of post-development was to decrease poverty and social injustice.

In the third chapter, the author argued that economic theories have emphasized economic development in the last few decades. In general, it was claimed that the Western economy and its economic theories determined the economy of third world countries. There were few economic schools that were powerful in this sense such as the interventionist Keynesian economy and free-market-based neoliberal economy. In this realm, the author tried to see the economy from an anthropological point of view. As an anthropologist, the author tried to use his professional attributes, and even created a new term, which was to ‘anthropologize’ the economy. He explicitly mentioned that there is a strong social power in the economic discourses and economy. According to Ziai (2015) post-development texts clearly showed certain relations of power. It was significantly useful for me to see the modern economics from a totally different angle, that is, an anthropological angle.    

In the fourth chapter, the author illustrated how hunger and food related language was constructed. His main argument was food dependency, which generally went with food aid from the western world, particularly, from the USA and European countries. It was argued that in order to understand the development, we must understand how development institutions work in reality. For example, Smith (2014) clarified that the USA has a $2 billion annual budget for food aid and 80% of this aid must be sourced from US farmers and businesses, and 50% of food aid should go with USA vessels. Escobar’s points related to hunger and food have shown clearly the logic of this kind of generosity. It is a common criticism that food aid is creating food dependency in third world countries.  

In the fifth chapter, the author discusses issues related to women, peasants and the environment. One of the interesting features of this book was the starting quote of every chapter. People can understand his argument from those quotes. In this chapter, the author quoted from Trinh T and Minh-ha, a women’s rights organization that usually applies a similar practice of western women in African women (Escobar, 1995). To put it simply, Escobar argued that the West tried to direct modernity in every aspect of development. Not just women’s issues, but also rural and sustainable development had the same attitude toward the development discourse. The author argued that there are no fundamental changes even in the newly development models. It was interesting to challenge new trends like sustainable development. Salman (2009, p. 162) said, “I am, therefore, surprised and disappointed at the extent to which Escobar rejects the idea of sustainable development. After all, the environmental movement did begin at the grassroots level, which is exactly what Escobar proposes as his only solution.”

In the sixth chapter, the author shows what would happen after deconstructing the development. McKinnon (2007) acknowledged that one of the most important influences of the post-development idea was post-structuralism and its denial of the modern world. The author admitted that the process would not be an easy one and there was no simple or grand solution to the post-development era. For him, it was more suitable to talk about complex hybridization and grassroots cultural movements. He even stated that the cultural variation is fundamental for the post-development era. According to the author, there was no need to seek for grand alternatives, so it should go more likely in the local settings. One of critics, Salman (2009), pointed out that even though it is appealling, Escobar’s solution was not strong enough to fight with the global trend and global institutions. Also, Escobar did not clarify how culture could help to avoid the development (Salman, 2009). Ziai (2015) agreed that post-development ideas were not alternatives to development, and rather doubted them.

Strengths and weaknesses of the book
Most importantly, the book effectively challenged current theories and trends related to development. Ziai (2015) acknowledged that most critics agreed that discourse related to development is western-oriented, which was illustrated clearly in Escobar’s book.  On one hand, I agree with him that we should think twice about current trends and theories of development, because of global issues like climate change and overpopulation. On the other hand, if we see the long-term statistics, we can find good results easily. I will mention some statistics later in this paper. 

One of the strengths of the book was its opposition to top-down approaches and locally-based responses to any issues (McGregor, 2007). I agree that governmental involvement in people’s lives is increasing in many ways. People should have the freedom to make decisions on everything related to their lives unless their decision is intervening someone else’s life.

As mentioned previously, in order to alleviate poverty, international organizations and western countries are involved in the lives of people in third world countries. It is a simple example of a top-down approach of development. For example, according to the United Nations, if you are earning less than $1, you will be considered as poor (UNESCO, 2015). From my personal experience, I can say that you can live a normal life in the Mongolian countryside with less than $1. Thus, the idea of poverty is problematic in that sense and the author has shown it successfully.  I would say that I found more weaknesses than strengths and will explain this further in the following paragraphs.

Firstly, Ziai (2015) mentioned that some East Asian countries and China are catching up to western countries in terms of their economic development. Thus, it would have been better if the author had discussed from the Chinese and Japanese models of development in the book. There was no information in the book, as to how the post-development theory would see the success of Asian tiger countries and China. Even though they had great influence from the West, their development practices were based on their cultural norms.  

Secondly, I argue that Escobar sees the third world countries and their people as victims of western-oriented development. For example, from a public opinion poll of Mongolia in 2001, ninety percent of the total population thought that democratic revolution was a good choice for Mongolia (Baabar, 2006). Democratic revolution of Mongolia was definitely a historical choice for western-style development for Mongolia. Politicians usually make the decisions but they follow the opinions of the majority of the population most of the time. Storey (2000) mentioned that most of the people in the third world want to have access for development and not its rejection. If there were options, I would definitely choose the way of development as a regular citizen of a third world country.    

Thirdly, the author does not want to see the successes of development. For example, in the last twenty years, life expectancy has increased from age 60 to 68 and the child mortality rate has decreased three times. The average income grew from $6 to $100 per week, and students at tertiary level rose from 16,000 to 120,000 in Mongolia (Baabar, 2006). These are just a few statistics from one third world country. “The author does not support with evidence his thesis that the peoples of the less-developed countries have on balance been made worse off by the development programs of the past forty years” (McKinney, 1995, p. 818).

Finally, from my personal experience, I can say if the criticism does not give a solution, it will most likely amount to ineffective criticism in many situations. For me, the fifth chapter was the weakest part of the book. Even though the goal was to deconstruct the whole trend of development, it seems to me that, even for Escobar, the post-development era has not become clear yet. If there are no certain solutions to the problems, deconstruction of development will remain just as an idea.   

In general, his approach was anthropological and post-structural (McKinney, 1995). The title of the book is Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Thus, it is clear that the author tried to see things from a Third World perspective. McKinnon (2007) acknowledged that the idea related to power relations comes from a post-colonial theory and the denial of modernization comes from post-structuralism.

From my personal point of view, his analyses of the issue of poverty and food aid were a valuable contribution in the theoretical dialogues. I totally agree with him that western countries and international organizations emphasize poverty too much. There is a problematic question such as – poverty to whom?   

As an anthropologist, Escobar has successfully seen how people construct their knowledge related to development. The book has shown clearly that there are certain matters that need to be seen from a different angle of the whole development discourse. As mentioned earlier, the author did a good job in challenging the current global trend. However, Salman (2009) criticized Escobar’s idea that post-development revealed a lack of strength to stand against development.

After I weighed up the strengths and weaknesses of the book, it became clear that there were more weaknesses than strengths. Most importantly, the general attitude of the book was paternalistic. I think that we should not forget that people who live in third world countries are smart enough to make decisions about their lives and their future. Ziai (2015) admitted that most post-development authors have little evidence toward their discontent of development. I think that Escobar’s book also lacked evidence. As mentioned earlier, people in third world countries are not passive recipients. For example, McGregor (2007) mentioned that the Timorese people are not simply victims of western development. 

Even though its general attitude sees development as a discourse, the author did not state clearly what development was. Ziai (2015) acknowledged that whatever development was supposed to be in the post-development, it was far from clear. Development is a “buzzword”. For some people, local cultural movements of post-development can be seen as development. I totally agree, “If development can mean anything, how can the post-development authors be so convinced of its rejection?” (Crush, 1995a. p. 3).

In considering that the goal of the book is about third world countries, the author should have looked at developed countries. If developed countries are sustaining a high quality of life, third world countries will follow their paths no matter what. One of the disadvantages of the book was an attitude of pessimism. If we want to see the good side of something, we will definitely find it. As mentioned earlier, concerning the case of Mongolians, I would argue that western-style development is bringing more opportunities and more freedom to regular citizens of third world countries.    

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