Is there still such a thing as a developing country?

Published on 22 June 2016

James Georgalakis

Director of Evidence and Impact

The term ‘developing world’ may go the same way as ‘third world’ and end up being used almost exclusively by embarrassing relatives.

If you work in the international development bubble then you have probably experienced the acute discomfort of listening to a relative or even a friend talk loudly in front of your work colleagues about people in ‘third world’ countries. This term appears to hang on stubbornly for the sole purpose of making Guardian readers shift uncomfortably in their seats at dinner parties. It harks back to the cold war and the categorisation of the Western and Eastern blocs plus everybody else. To be completely fair to all those still using this term it doesn’t help that elements of the charity sector and the media have continued to perpetuate development stereotypes of needy and helpless Africans.

Has universal SDG agenda made ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ distinctions irrelevant?

However, now even the preferred language of the ‘developing world’ is also falling out of fashion. The World Bank have decided that in terms of data analysis around economic development there is no such thing as developing countries. When it published the latest edition of the World Development Indicators, World Bank data wonks, concluded that the term was becoming less relevant, and with the focus of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the whole world, they should start phasing out the term “developing world” in data publications and databases.

So perhaps this is just an issue for economists and not for us ordinary folk writing about and discussing development, or indeed our friends and family. Traditionally, the term is used to mean a combination of low- and middle-income countries. This is a very broad category in terms of national income. Countries such as Malawi (GNI per capita of $250) find themselves in the same group as Mexico (GNI per capita of $9,860). The Bank has fallen foul of its categorisation of countries before.

Back in 2011 IDS’ Andy Sumner produced a report that found that more people living on under $1.25 a day lived in countries classified by the World Bank as middle-income than in low-income. Meanwhile, critics of the term “developing world” point out that there is an increasingly blurred distinction between developed and developing. Celebrity scholar Hans Rosling has argued that what most people think of as the divisions between the “developed” and “developing world” no longer exist and that using the term developing world’ is intellectually lazy. The global poverty debate has indeed shifted to be more about inequalities within countries than between them. The universality of the SDGs has opened-up an important new framing for development that challenges the traditional rich north helping the poor south narrative.

Is a continued focus on least developed countries still needed?

Despite all this do the most under-developed and fragile countries still warrant special attention? Bilateral donors such as the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) seem to think so. Are there particular challenges, calls to action and knowledge we need in relation to these places? The UN’s Least Developed Countries Group argues they do. Its members are 48 nations that are some of the poorest in the world. They have been subject to decades of underdevelopment, both in the colonial and development eras. Many are highly dependent on external support, and inequalities and deep poverty undermine opportunities for sustainable development.

The economists vs the political discourse

If the World Bank’s decision was purely based on a desire for more analytically useful data then I would have no issue. I am not qualified to judge whether this is a good move. What worries me, as someone who tries to engage expert knowledge with the wider development discourse, is World Bank data analyst Tariq Khokhar’s view that: “This is about updating people’s mental models as well.” The suggestion seems to be that development progress over the past decades has rendered most ‘regular peoples’ perceptions of what is a developing country as unhelpfully clichéd. What the Bank seems not to have realised is there may be a deeper trade-off here between statistical accuracy and the political debate. The language we use has implications way beyond the technical challenge of defining what is, and what is not, a developing country.

Just look at how the Daily Telegraph gleefully used the World Bank’s decision to announce the victory of the markets over global poverty. I am really concerned that if other multi-laterals, development agencies, governments, charities and researchers abandon the terminology we’ll really undermine the emerging new narratives around development. Of course we need to be able to explain to that well-meaning but embarrassing uncle that development is universal – climate change is global, that we have child poverty in the UK and we have growing gaps between the rich and the poor in the US as well as in India.

However, we also need to sustain political will and popular support for addressing both urgent development challenges in the most underdeveloped countries and growing inequalities in middle income countries, at a time when international aid is under real attack. In the UK the government’s 0.7 commitment to aid spending is ridiculed on a daily basis in sections of our media and the EU referendum has become another platform from which nationalistic, pro-market and anti-immigration activists lampoon the entire development agenda.

The World Bank’s statistical dilemma seems to ignore the multi-dimensional nature of poverty and inadvertently gives ammunition to those deeply opposed to the SDGs and all they represent. We need people to stay angry about extreme poverty and injustice in both the poorest parts of the world and in rising economies. So, despite what the analysts are saying I’ll still be referring to developing countries, even if they represent a diverse picture of developmental progress and their exact categorisation remains murky.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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