“The process of unmaking development, however, is slow and painful, and there are no easy solutions or prescriptions.” [1]

I find myself unsettled after taking a class trip to Bolivia in January. The graduate class from New York University’s Center for Global Affairs was a case study on sustainable development. Bolivia was chosen as our case study because of its impressive development initiatives on the local and state level. In La Paz, government officials outlined Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth, which grants the natural earth comprehensive legal rights. In theory, this means the environment must be considered and respected when developing and implementing initiatives or policies. On paper, I think it’s an incredible contribution to the fight against climate change. However, in reality, there are still many entrenched systems that need to be overcome for such a progressive law to have a real impact.

After meeting with government officials in La Paz, we traveled to Santa Cruz to meet with academics and indigenous activists to get a broader picture of sustainable development in the country. During these honest chats and lectures, I was reminded of an ugly consequence that often lurks behind development: economic growth conquers all.

“...the essential trait of the Third World was its poverty and that the solution was economic growth and development became self-evident, necessary, and universal truths.” [2]

Traditional development values a country’s economic growth over any social or environmental concerns. This economic development paradigm has been the foundation for most of development since its inception after WWII. Despite the UN, IMF, IDB, World Bank and every other development abbreviation out there, Bolivia still experiences extreme poverty; it is currently the poorest country in Latin America. There are some who argue this is because of those development institutions. In his groundbreaking book, Encountering Development (a must read for anyone in the field), Colombian author Arturo Escobar unravels the history behind development and its liability for creating the different classes of the world. Through a critical and postcolonial lens that analyzes the politics of knowledge in development, Escobar demonstrates in six chapters examples of how development has done more harm than good: that despite the advances of financial, technological, social and human capital that exist today, we still witness extreme poverty, starvation, vast socioeconomic inequality, political unrest, violence and global warming.

 Why? Not a simple question to answer.

While I am keenly aware of the irony of studying poverty at one of the most expensive schools and cities in the United States, my trip to Bolivia forced me to reflect on what my graduate degree on development really meant. I ask myself: is my degree merely an extension of the development paradigm Escobar illustrates in his book?  In the past two years, as I studied development from an academic perspective, was I reinforcing a problematic mentality? – becoming part of the problem instead of part of the solution?

 I’m always in search of great organizations that have managed to create social and economic impact without bowing to the economic pressures.  If you have organizations that you think should be lauded for their empowering approach, please leave suggestions in the comments.

- Ana Defillo

[1] Escobar, Arturo (2011-10-10). Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World (Kindle Locations 5889-5894). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.


[2] Ibid