Why To Stop Using The Term Developing Countries Now

We have many ways to divide the world.

One of them is in developed and developing (or underdeveloped) countries.

The term usually refers to a country’s economic and social status, but it’s without consensus.

The world is complex, and simplifying things can be helpful. But we risk oversimplifying and defining the world based on outdated concepts.

We’ve reached a critical juncture where it’s imperative to let go of this outdated concept. It’s no longer a useful indicator of economic progress, and worse, it fosters inferiority and superiority complexes, setting a detrimental example.

Let me give you four reasons why we should retire the terms developed and underdeveloped countries. 

1. It's perception, not data

The GINI and the poverty index are two common indicators used to define developed and developing countries. 

The GINI index shows income inequality, and the poverty index shows the percentage of people living below the poverty line. If we compare The U.S. and Vietnam, we’ll see that according to the latest available data, the US had a GINI index of 39.8 and Vietnam 36.1. The higher the index, the more unequal. So, Vietnam is doing a better job than the U.S.

The poverty rate in the US in 2022 was 11.5% (almost 38 million people) versus 4.2% in 2022 for Vietnam. We’re not comparing apples with apples here because the baseline differs per country, but it does raise an important question.

Does it make sense that Wikipedia calls the United States one of the most developed countries and Vietnam a developing country with a lower-middle-income economy?

2. We often overlook history's shadow side

In the 21st century, the EU and North America hold roughly 57% of the world’s wealth but only 13% of the world’s population. How did they get here? 

While factors like trade, industry, and geography played a part, it’s impossible to overlook the role of colonialism in this wealth accumulation.

In the 19th century, some 50% of the state revenue and 4% of the total GDP came from Indonesia. Indonesian farmers had to use 20% of their farmland to cultivate cash crops for export, such as indigo, coffee, and sugar. 

As a gift from the Belgian government, the giant multinational Unilever got a head start on producing palm oil on almost two million acres in Congo.

A large part of today’s wealth was created by exploiting what belonged to others. It’s important to remember this in the search for economic development to avoid glorifying developed countries and repeating mistakes from the past.

3. We're not treating each other as equals

Learning from history and trying not to repeat past mistakes requires collaboration. But marking countries as underdeveloped risks discarding them and not taking them seriously. 

Are we open to learning from developing countries? 

When a developing country strives for progress, is it akin to a younger sibling yearning to follow in their older brother’s footsteps, or do they value their unique identity? 

And does the older brother, in this case, the developed country, truly listen to their younger counterpart, or do they dismiss them as a bothersome teenager?

Let’s take indigenous peoples like the Maya, for example. Many indigenous communities are examples of what it means to live in harmony with nature. But are we willing to listen? Are we willing to connect, be humble, and learn from each other in an equalitarian way instead of seeing them as ‘underdeveloped?

4. We put the climate at risk

Similar to my second point, we shouldn’t blindly follow the old recipe for becoming a developed country. Aside from the part that came at the cost of people, it also came at the expense of the climate. To give you an example, China, in its race for development, went from 5% of global emissions in 1990 to 15% in 2022.

We see the same pattern if we look at Earth Overshoot Day, which measures when humanity’s demand for ecological resources in a year exceeds what Earth can regenerate. If the world lived like the US, we would use up all the resources the Earth can generate before the end of March. If we all lived like the Netherlands, we’d have until April 1st.

It’s high time for developed nations to lead in reducing emissions, as some countries have been doing already, and support developing nations in their efforts to combat climate-related disasters. But most importantly, we need to foster a spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding, working together to devise models that ensure the habitability of our planet for all.

If not division, what then?

In this inspiring TED talk with Palestinian peacemaker Aziz Abu Sarah and Israeli peacemaker Maoz Inon, Aziz said:

“People look at us and think we’re divided because you’re Israeli and I’m Palestinian, Muslims and Jews. But if you must divide us, divide us into those who believe in justice, peace, and equality and those who don’t yet.

We can arbitrarily divide the world and groups of people. 

We don’t have to, but if we feel it’s helpful, let’s at least do this based on data and principles of equality. 

And more importantly, let’s ensure we don’t go down a path of division and disconnection. 

Instead, let’s connect, learn from each other, and realize that any division is always imaginary. 

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