Fleur Johns argues that the contraposition of a ‘bottom-up’ approach of politics of prototypical technique rather than the ‘top-down’ politics of the master plan or normative principle no longer seems as straightforwardly radical as it appeared when James C Scott posited the value of local knowledge or métis against grand plans of high modernization, just over 20 years ago. This paper seeks to follow Johns’ call, ‘to capture and probe some of the effects of sensibility, rationality or style widely reproduced in the details of development work’. It draws upon fieldwork in Nairobi to open up a discussion of a shift in sensibility from a ‘bottom-up’ or ‘postliberal’ approach to a framing of open-ended encounter. The paper critiques this imaginary of relational encounter by engaging contemporary work in critical black studies. It suggests that the problem of critique is that it reproduces the problems of governing imaginaries, continually seeking to rework the human subject via adaptive capacities, sensitivities to difference and openness to alterity, while leaving intact the coloniality of being, the antiblack world.