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Alternative Inspiration

March 30, 2010

We at Do No Harm thought it would be interesting for people to write about specific books (nonfiction/ fiction, whatever) or journals or ideas that have inspired them in development but that have either not or only partially been covered by their particular courses.

So to start, here’s my suggestion for important-but-overlooked book.

Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (1995)

Arturo Escobar

One thing I’ve noticed on the courses I’ve taken has been the relative side-stepping of post-development theory.

We’ve touched on it occasionally in DESTIN – whether it be De Waal’s criticism of the Institutional Humanitarian machine, or more general critiques of aid effectiveness such as Dambiso Moyo. But these criticisms are of how the system operates as opposed to critiques of the system itself. There has been little discussion over what development is, and why we are working towards it.

A notable exception is the work of Zoe Marriage, whose readings we’ve touched on in Complex Emergencies   and who calls for the entire re-working of the humanitarian aid industry.

I can only speculate as to why our lecturers have not included post-development theory in the ‘mainstream’ DESTIN lectures, and as a result isolated the theory to anthropology classes.  As students of development studies and management, is it assumed we are already within the system and therefore duly accept the general collective goals of what development should be? Maybe because it is seen as too leftfield or alternative? Does post-modernism not fit in with the LSE?

Nonetheless asking such questions does not mean you have to oppose the ‘neo-liberal western liberal hegemon’ that many (most?) are critical of, but instead to remember the question of development of what and by whom and into what. These are the fundamentally important questions post-development theory has added to the development discourse, and Encountering Development did much to raise them.

Indeed, Escobar’s book is in many ways the pinnacle of post-development theory, up there with The Anti-Politics Machine by James Ferguson (in my humble opinion). Escobar argues that development should be understood as a historically specific representation of social reality, and that it only permits particular modes of thinking and doing, whilst disqualifying others. He talks of how social change has to be redefined by communities themselves to go beyond ideas of what we current envisage as ‘development’.

Oh, and for an academic, he has a cool homepage too.


What book have inspired you? Please email your contributions to

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Taylor permalink
    March 31, 2010 8:15 am

    Robert Chambers Rural Development is probably the only development book that’s left a really lasting mark on me. I know it’s on the reading list but people should really read it, then read it again. A practical guide to how to conduct development with humility, and easy to read too.

  2. Jim permalink
    April 17, 2010 8:10 am

    We studied Escobar and some other post-development work as part of Dr Leslie Sklair’s Sociology of Development course when I was at LSE in 2001. It was an excellent course, and one I think I took a lot from. Sadly I think Leslie is now retired.

  3. April 22, 2010 9:49 am

    I’m not a huge fan of Escobar so – personally – I don’t think you’re missing much. On the subject of Escobar and LSE scholars you might find this critique interesting though:

    Corbridge S. 1998 ,’Beneath the pavement only soil, the poverty of post development’, The Journal of Development Studies, Aug 1998, 34, 6.

    Not available online but I’m sure JSTOR or Proquest or Web of Science will have it.

  4. Sophie Stevens permalink
    May 4, 2010 1:41 pm

    This might come a bit out of leftfield, but when thinking of books that have inspired me to think about what development means I could only think of novels… while this might say more about me as a person/student (!!) I thought I’d recommend a few here for interests’ sake…

    Isabelle Allende- Ines of My Soul
    – About how the life of a poor girl in Spain in the 15th century is impacted by Spanish colonisation in Latin America, and the parallel story of her lover trying to get over the Andes to conquer what is now Chile… some interesting insights into the colonial mentality and the bravery they believed they were fighting for.

    The Poisonwood Bible

    A provocative story of a Southern Baptist family who go as missionaries to the central Congo in the 1950s, set during the time when Lumumba comes to power and is then shot down by the CIA during a plane journey to celebrate the revolution… really brings home the tragedy of how different things might’ve been if people had been allowed to chose the future of their own state, and tries to give an impression of the confusion and fear running through the villages when their hope in Lumumba was quickly destroyed. As well as some very humorous cultural encounters between the children, and their different perceptions of what is good and bad in the world around us.

    Khaled Hosseini- A Thousand Splendid Suns

    – An insight into what you could call the de-development of Afghanistan through the many invasions and overthrows, written through the eyes of one family in Kabul from the 1970s-2000’s. I was deeply shaken by the way these people’s lives were shattered by events that were almost completely out of their control, and I was even more shaken by the fact that often these are not the stories that come to mind when I’m thinking about processes of ‘development’. It got me thinking, could things have been different? What could have been done differently, by whom?

    Sebastian Barry- the Secret Scripture

    Set in the Irish civil war, again through the life of one woman and her memoirs (I’m noticing a pattern here in my book choices!). The descriptions of poverty in Ireland, only 70-odd years ago, provoked me. Again, got me thinking about the individual choices people make when facing adverse circumstances.

    To me, understanding what development means has a lot to do with understanding what a person would do, what I would do, if I had this certain set of choices before me. Would I join a militia? Would I flee to another country? Would I do what my government told me even if I knew it was it was totally corrupt, if it meant my family would have a better chance of getting educated, being safe? Ultimately, we’re not that different from each other… we just live in different circumstances. That’s what I think anyway… for what it’s worth!

    I hope this was in some way relevant! I find what we often miss in our discussions are the personal choices people have to make that ultimately define a society as a whole. These stories often teach me the most about why we’re seeking development in the first place and what that really means.

  5. Judith permalink
    October 31, 2010 6:08 pm

    Personally the book that has inspired me the most is Paulo Freire’s “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed”. Here some quotes from the book to give an idea:

    “Our converts, on the other hand, truly desire to transform the unjust order; but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.”

    “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle.”

    “Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that must be saved from a burning building.”

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