While attending a debate tournament at Harvard this weekend, it seemed like every debater was categorizing aspects of international problems into two areas: developing and developed world. “How does this affect the developed world?” they’d say. “How does this affect the developing world?” I think sometimes we forget these are basically just more politically correct ways of saying first world and third world. Consequently, if it’s not acceptable to say first and third world, why is developed and developing any better?
It’s very tempting to utilise this simplistic dichotomy as a worldview and as a means of analysing social and geopolitical issues. I’m certainly guilty of using these terms myself. However, the truth is that the world doesn’t fit neatly into these two boxes of progress and that to use these labels may hinder our ability to solve global issues.
What’s the actual problem with these words? After all, they’re awfully convenient.
To begin with, they’re just inaccurate. It’s impossible to come up with a perfect way to categorize different countries because each individual nation is amazingly complex and can’t be encompassed in a singular word, and to think that it could be is idealistic. While most people on some level recognise that this is the case, internally we still harbour the sentiment that countries of the world must fall into first world or third world, into developed or developing, into them and us, into good enough and not good enough. It probably stems out of some deep psychological need to categorize things that I won’t pretend to understand, but it seems humans are always keen to decide there are two tiers of items in a set and cling to that belief with all of our might. But while there might be two tiers of cake (chocolate or else disgusting) or two tiers of raisins (horrible or more horrible), there simply aren’t two tiers of people. I think it’s a little demeaning to think that you could somehow summarize an entire nation, or even multiple continents, as “developing” and then try to deal with them as one homogenous entity.
In addition, the standard of measuring “development” in and of itself is vague. Originally, developed and developing referred specifically to the economic state of a country, but its usage has evolved to include connotations of high quality of life, and of social liberalism. With this in mind, the actual meaning of these terms becomes muddied. Does development always mean a high GDP? Does it mean basic needs are met? Equality of ethnicity and sexual orientation? Civil rights for all people? Political stability?
While we like to believe that being a democratic nation goes hand in hand with economic prosperity, this isn’t actually the case. Singapore has great access to socioeconomic human rights, but its democracy is questionable at best. Meanwhile, India has a highly developed democracy, but still has issues with poverty, especially in rural areas. The U.S., regarded as a very developed country, has a lot of freedom of speech (perhaps a little too much), but its obesity rate is one of the highest worldwide and has the second highest amount of gun-related deaths per year. And note that GDP isn’t really an accurate means of identifying countries with high wellbeing of citizens, because wealth can be concentrated in certain areas or the value of goods and services may differ, even with currency exchange and inflation factored in.
But even if we narrow down on one specific aspect of development, say, education, it’s still vague as to what constitutes a developed or a developing country. Does a country like China having high academic performance rates but high student suicide rates mean it’s developed? How about a country with high student wellbeing rates but lower rates of achievement? And what exact rate of student performance would make a country developed or not?
These terms aren’t just inaccurate, though: they also actively harm the way we view the world.
I think one of the main harms of these words is that they embrace a eurocentric view of the world. Due to the fact that countries we normally consider to be developed are usually Western nations, we’re unable to recognise the social and economic progress that “developing” countries have made. This is because when we find such convenient categories we can use on just about everything, we automatically refuse to expose ourselves to the possibility that the world may have outgrown these labels. While the media tends to focus on sensationalizing the great failures of the African continent, this progress does exist, from the excellent democracy in Mauritius, to Tunisia’s improvement in gender equality, to the life expectancy of Algeria, which is just under that of the U.S. From an economic perspective, globalization and foreign investment means that North African and Middle Eastern economies are growing at an incredible rate. These hidden victories are especially meaningful when considering the fact that many of these countries are still in the active process of recovering from colonization, an injustice which many Western countries didn’t have to contend with.
This change does exist, but our boxes are so rigidly formed that a country can make immense change in the wellbeing of their citizens and overall development, and still be unable to escape the label of being one of the other countries. It seems to subscribe to the view that an African nation, for example, will never be present on the world stage in a meaningful way.
These neat and organized boxes might seem like a super convenient way to categorize global issues and a nifty trick to summarize conflicts. It’s perhaps unrealistic to propose eliminating them altogether. But through using these labels, we excuse ourselves from the responsibility of having to actually comprehend and process the complexity and nuances that individual nations have, and we can never truly understand the world.
March 13, 2019