Development Labeling

As a geography teacher with lots of non-traditional students, I often face an uphill battle in trying to dissuade them from using terms like “first world” and “third world” to describe different countries based on their historical status from the Cold War era.  It’s not their fault, after all it’s still part of the popular discourse and most Americans don’t hear enough about other countries to really change their understandings of how the world works.

Rather, I’ve endeavored to get them to use phrases like “more developed countries” and “less developed countries” (abbreviated as MDC and LDC) as is vogue now, peppering them throughout my lessons and not once dividing the globe in to three worlds.  But even that is problematic, because the lines between what more and less developed mean are more or less developed in a given year and that threshold of moving to an MDC is pretty vague.  Add to that a constellation of economic blocs and strategic alliances like the “Tigers” of eastern Asia (Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia), the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, Indonesia, China) countries, and the G20, and the lines become even more blurry.  It really is an art trying to put countries in to categories to suit our ideas of what they are or should be.  The lesson here is that there aren’t two categories of country, or three worlds in one, but a constellation of economic situations and international interactions that could lead to a country being lumped together in a definition with others when there is no real fit.

Herein lies the problem - we, as the West, love to categorize the rest of the world in relation to ourselves.  The legacy of empire is strong.  When the British gave up the majority of their possessions it was only in formal control.  They still drew the boundaries existent today, and continued to rank countries based on an Anglo-centric definition of development.  Hell, the whole world uses the Greenwich Mean Time as a standard for their markets.  If that doesn’t demonstrate the Western world’s modern economic dominance I don’t know what does.

But should we really rely on our own ideas of development?  People aren’t necessarily happier in the “most” developed countries in the world.  In fact, the Happy Planet Index Consistently ranks Costa Rica, Colombia and Vietnam as among the happiest countries in the world, with the United States being damn near last.  Perhaps it’s time to re-think what we mean by development to mean more than just economic affluence.  Here are some questions I can think of to measure “development”:

  •     How well do you know your neighbors?  Do you feel like you belong in your community?
  •     How often would you say you feel “relaxed” as opposed to “overwhelmed”?
  •     Do you have control of the major decisions and directions in your life?  Who does?
  •     How would it affect you if you lost your job tomorrow?

Note the common themes of belonging and agency.  If you feel like you have control (even if you really don’t), there’s a lot less to make you unhappy.  A country cannot, I don’t think, create happiness in development.  But, it can remove the barriers to happiness like the incessant drive towards the economic understanding of development as the only important type of development.  Let us work more towards using metrics like community and a sense that each and every one of us is important in some way, even without being rich.  The folks in Costa Rica figured this out a long time ago, and they’re part of that “third world” or “less developed” countries that supposedly rank below us by those archaic measures.

“When you get up, and walk out, and look down the street.  Say to yourself ‘Damn right I’m somebody!’” - James Brown

Zach Rubin, 2018