The Global North’s superhero complex and how Escobar can help us save ourselves by Carolyn Yu

This week Arturo Escobar is delivering a lecture at the ISS on the topic of post-development. Escobar’s work on rethinking development is crucial in a time when the development field is still plagued by a superhero complex. This article sketches how his work contributes to the deconstruction of the Global North’s own portrayal as a saviour, and serves as a background to his lecture.

Oddly enough I find myself thinking of Hollywood superhero movies as I sit here writing about Arturo Escobar’s upcoming visit to ISS. Online advertisements relentlessly propose that I watch summer blockbusters while I am busy reading about Escobar and his work on development.

When I watch these blockbuster superhero movies, I always think about the extras running around getting squashed in the carnage, and how the audience is invited to see that the only solution to the tragic situation is a superhero to calm the chaos. In the latest generation of movies, we now have the trope of the self-aware superhero. Now, superheroes realise that in their interventions they have inadvertently killed many victims, or even that their very existence as superheroes relies on the villains and inevitably leads to the chaos, as they relentlessly save lives. As the movie draws to a close, the storytellers set up a sequel for the next summer by continually justifying the need for superheroes, and the plot neatly sidesteps the growing question of the superhero’s own involvement in creating the mayhem.

The superhero mentality can be heard also in the development industry. We don’t want to be involved but we have to be involved. How can we stand idly by and do nothing when the world is so full of inequality and unnecessary suffering? People are literally dying in front of us!

The saviour complex is a romantic story for the privileged among us in the Global North; private citizens and development practitioners alike. It is very tempting to leap into action when we are confronted with carefully constructed images like that pesky fly on that starving baby’s cheek. We hear horrible stories of oppression, poverty, and disease; yet, like this recent generation of superhero movies, we fail to question deeply enough the role of the interventionist countries in creating or exacerbating the story.

Escobar’s remedy

Now, to Arturo Escobar’s visit at the ISS. This celebrated anthropologist who has provoked many existential crises for development scholars and practitioners asks uncomfortable questions. He points to how the Global South has come to be seen as an impoverished and underdeveloped world and most of all, how it is framed as a place where the rescuers from the Global North can intervene (Escobar 1992).

His work on post-development is a call for all of us who are living a world of privilege to critique why rescuing and changing other peoples’ lives is still at the heart of development. Escobar states that whatever the context, it is the need to develop itself that must be questioned. At the core of development, you are dealing with an external definition of what the world should look like.

Escobar argues that development is not merely a bug that needs to be recoded and re-released– it is a faulty framework. Why is it that standards of living are largely produced by the privileged of the Global North, and why is their help needed at all? Buzzwords such as inclusive and sustainable development can only go so far when ideas of progress and good living are still overwhelmingly dictated by development institutions and governments from the Global North. Instead, development thinkers should be searching for alternatives to development.

Escobar, originally from Colombia and teaching at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shares alternative imaginaries and narratives to development drawn from his research and dialogues with Indigenous Colombian, Afro-Colombian, and peasant communities in Latin America (Escobar 2018). He shows how these societies are exercising their ability to live in line with their identities and their relations with not just other humans, but also to non-human and non-animal beings.

His argument is not that we must return to pre-colonial ways of living. This ignores how cultures, environments, and people change over time. We cannot ignore the problems and struggles that may have existed in history. Instead, the challenge is to recognise how industrialised, developed countries do not always have the answers about how to change ways for the better. This is a major shift away from the mainstream message of development with its linear views of what is progress and what is failure. Otherwise, imperialism and colonialism will continue to thrive through an imposition of foreign standards and norms (Escobar 1995).

Escobar sees today’s challenge is to think of a “pluriverse” — a world where many worlds fit. The concept he borrows from the Zapatistas of Chiapas (Escobar 2018: 16-17). He suggests that this new imaginary will expand our imagination of what is possible. His argument is for radical interdependence and understanding peoples’ roles in constructing the realities around them. His work provides ways forward that complicate the power dynamics inherent in our privileged world’s superhero complex.

The development industry needs to deconstruct its own portrayal as a saviour and recognise its continuing role in erasing pre-existing relations and forming new oppressions. Rather than continuing the same patronising imagery of a world of passive victims, Arturo Escobar’s radical interdependence imagines a radical equality, of worlds where no singular individual is the eternal consummate hero; of narratives that are complexly interwoven without one story overshadowing the rest. Global situations and conflicts may be dire, but we need a paradigm shift where foreign intervention is not always the default answer.

Escobar, A. (1995) ‘Introduction: Development and the Anthropology of Modernity’, in A. Escobar (ed.) Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World, pp. 3-20. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Escobar, A. (1992) ‘Planning,’ in W. Sachs (ed.) The Development Dictionary: A Guide to Knowledge as Power, 132–145. London, New York: Zed Books.
Escobar, A. (2018) Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham, London: Duke University Press.

Carolyn Bliss Photo (1)About the author: 

Carolyn Yu is a recent graduate from the ISS MA program, majoring in Social Policy for Development and specialising in Women and Gender Studies. She is coordinating the events surrounding Arturo Escobar’s visit to ISS.

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