The Inseparability of Development and Design

Eric Keller, Contributing Writer

Distinguished professor of anthropology, Arturo Escobar of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill visited Clark to highlight the need to fundamentally rethink design in terms of global development. In his lecture, “Designs for the Pluriverse: Autonomy, Territoriality, and the Communal,”  Escobar argues that we must stop viewing design as an isolated process – one that is done solely “in the studio,” so to speak. Academia must recognize the complexity of communities throughout the world and cease planning their future under a single, ultimate worldview. Such development practices that pervade public policy are unsustainable because they too often reach for a one-size-fits-all solution.

Much of the crowd was already familiar with Escobar’s outlook. Although the event was free and open to the public, most attendees were those involved in the university’s Graduate School of Geography, which held the event last Thursday as part of its annual Atwood Lecture. Escobar’s ideas first reached world-wide recognition in his 1995 book Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World. Escobar summarized the book’s thesis as follows: even when development undertakings succeed, they also fail because they are done without the consent of the communities involved.

In his talk, Escobar highlighted the recent struggles of the indigenous Nasa people of Colombia. The constitution of Colombia grants autonomy to the roughly 80,000 Nasa located in the Cauca highlands along the country’s southwestern coast. However, in recent decades that autonomy has been called into question due to the longstanding conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group and the Colombian military. One of the last major escalations of this Cold War era conflict occurred in 2012, when President Juan Manuel Santos ordered an influx of 10,000 government troops to the Nasa city of Toribio. Rather than preventing attacks, the Nasa tribe’s elder members have argued that the number of attacks in the area actually increased. Moreover, the government failed to protect the lives of civilians because it was more interested in protecting sugarcane plantations owned by foreign businesses.

Since then, tensions have cooled considerably. Colombia made national headlines in October 2016 when a peace treaty between the FARC and government forces was signed. Juan Manuel Santos received a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in ending the conflict. Nevertheless, an increased military presence in the region remains.

It is within this context of improving quality of life for the many at the expense of the few that Escobar repeatedly iterated: “we can’t avoid design, so we must embrace it.” Embracing design means taking a bottom-up approach. One must intimately know a community before change can take place. This is unlike the top-down approach typical of the government organizations that fail to preserve the history and integrity of these minority communities.

While the talk was largely critical of modernist development practices, in the Q&A that followed, Escobar offered a more optimistic perspective. When questioned about the role of empathy in preserving autonomous territories, Escobar acknowledged people’s capacity for compassion, and said that he has personally witnessed the growth of societies based not in bureaucracy, but in love for the place they call home.