In “Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World”, Escobar poses the question of how the industrialised Western countries came to be the unquestioned role models of economic development for less-developed nations. Escobar wants to ‘contribute to the development framework for the cultural critique of economics as a foundational structure of modernity, including the formulation of a culture-based political economy’. The book actively criticises development economics and the development agencies for having taken a “naïve” and “oversimplified” approach, as well as underestimating the requirements for development in these countries.
Mainstream economists have debated this topic for some time, with specific emphasis on the development literature on planning (McKinney, 1995). Escobar is not concerned merely with the efficiency of development programs, rather he tackles the problems related to development economics and the institutions more deeply. According to the author, previous efforts can be characterised as arrogant, ethnocentric, and misguided failures. Further, Escobar underlines the importance of consideration for ethnography as essential for the development of new models.
It is worth noting the time of publication of this book as the 1990s saw a stream of Post-development theorists’ criticism on development and that development strategy has changed significantly as a result. Six years later, Duffield (2001) published “Global Governance and the New Wars”, which outlined the introduction of ‘New Interventionism’.
Escobar does not critique the Western development models for being inefficient, but for the introduction of “pan-optical” institutions in societies that did not have them before, or had other ones. He talks about “the panoptic gaze”, which he argues has become synonymous with apparatuses of social control. Here Escobar follows Foucault’s discourse analysis, whose idea of the “panopticon” was introduced in “Discipline and Punish” (1975). Foucault argued that the “panopticon” is the ideal architectural figure of a modern disciplinary power and believed that societies have a pervasive inclination to observe and normalise.
Panopticon = type of institutional building allowing a single watchman to observe (-opticon) all (pan-) inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behaviour constantly.
Food and nutrition programs, Women and Development & Sustainable Development movement. A rather cynical view of food and nutrition programs of international development agencies is presented in the book, as well as Escobar being skeptical to the motives involved. The argument that the programs were not implemented in order to alleviate suffering, but that the provision of low-cost food was distributed as a means of sustaining cheap labour for multinational corporations, is a rather grave and depressing one. The author does not consider whether the food and nutrition programs did effectively improve the health and life expectancy of people in less-developed countries or not. The author is more concerned with the programs’ effects on power relations. ‘Regardless of the results in terms of increased income and production, DRI (the Integrated Rural Development Program) introduced new mechanisms of production and control’.
The “issue” of women and development is closely related to development programs. The attempt to bring women’s issues into the forefront in development efforts led to an emphasis on traditional gender roles, which caused a further repression of women.
The author fears that it leaves a false impression of environmentally sound economic development is possible with only minor adjustments in the market system instead of essential fundamental changes.