How did some parts of the world get categorised as 'developed', and others as 'developing' or 'underdeveloped'?
How did some parts of the world get categorised as ‘developed’, and others as ‘developing’ or ‘underdeveloped’? Such terminology did not exist, at least not in frequent global currency, until some 50 years ago. High levels of global inequality—long set in motion by imperialism and colonialism—became a matter of global debate after World War II, decolonisation, emerging American hegemony and the setting up of the Bretton Woods institutions. (See ‘The Development Project’).
The day US President Truman took office, January 29, 1949 , metaphorically opened the ‘era of development’. He talked of working for the “growth of underdeveloped areas” of the world. “Never before had a word been universally accepted on the very day of its political coinage….” Gustavo Esteva, economist, journalist and political activist, writes in an essay on development. “Underdevelopment….began on January 29, 1949 . On that day, 2 billion people became underdeveloped.”
The word had been used earlier in global meetings. Wilfred Benson, a former member of the Secretariat of the International Labour Organisation, had referred to the “underdeveloped areas” in 1942. Others in the emerging post-war global order had talked of “economically backward areas” and the gap between rich and poor nations. But Truman’s pronouncement made ‘developmentalism’, to use a term from Richard Peet, political geographer, the dominant ‘ism’ for decades.
Many post-developmentalists such as Esteva question the terms of the development discourse. The claim is not that gross global inequalities do not exist—indeed it is argued that levels of inequality are growing and are in part the outcome of centuries of colonialism. Instead, the argument stresses that American imperialism was itself manifest in the terminology that emanated from its shores after the war, which thenceforth became the basis for chopping and categorising the world according to its ranking on the development ladder. The very notion of ‘development’ (see ‘Theories of Development’) was derived from the West and mainly referred to economic growth.
The institutional pillars of the post-war world—the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariff (now the WTO) and the United Nations—with charters observed by many as closely replicating American geopolitical and economic interests in the Cold War years -- soon set forth a torrent of quantification. Countries began to get classified as high-income economies (developed), middle-income economies (developing) and low-income economies (underdeveloped).
Simultaneously, terms such as First, Second and Third Worlds began to be used. Originally, these were political categories: the First World was the Western capitalist nations, the Second World was the socialist states under the umbrella of the USSR and the Third World implied ‘positive neutralism’ in the context of the Cold War. “However,” Alan Thomas, development academician writes, “well before the collapse of…the Soviet Union , the main connotation of the term Third World had become ‘underdeveloped’ or simply ‘poor’.” The Third World became a geographically discontinuous region covering a disparate group of countries. Similarly, terms such as ‘North’ and ‘South’, originally hemispheric, became synonymous with the ‘developed’ and the ‘developing/underdeveloped’ world or with the First and Third Worlds.
How was this world to be defined? By what measures would a country fall in the dreaded underdeveloped category? Defining ‘development’ has never been easy, even when development is viewed in purely economic terms. Esteva says it is like an amoeba, constantly changing shape. The busy post-war Bretton Woods institutions themselves were never sure on what basis they could assume to classify the world. (See box: ‘A brief history of development’)
Thomas narrows down these multiple measures to five aspects of development, which may be used separately or in combination to attempt to define the ‘ Third World ’:
(i) Independence from colonial rule and recognition as an independent state by other countries and the UN. (ii) GNP is the most common method of attempting to rank countries according to economic well-being. However GNP does not indicate development status: it is an average and does not indicate inequalities within a country. The World Bank has also used exports and external debts as indicators of development (iii) Industrialisation : Implies an increase in GDP and a transformation in production methods (such as even industrialised agriculture), which also implies social and cultural changes. (iv) National and global integration : Or how countries are linked to the global economy and how they are internally economically structured. Countries of North America and Western Europe supposedly have modern, integrated economies; the others don’t. (v) Social indicators of development : Such as health, literacy, status of women, access to clean water. Included here is the PQLI (the Physical Quality of Life Index), which measures life expectancy, infant mortality and adultliteracy. As well as the UNDP’s Human Development Index as a composite indicator combining economic and social welfare . HDI gives equal weight to longevity, education, and utility derived from income. Yet another index of development is rights and freedoms -- right to life, to security, freedom of thought, of expression, of religion. According to this index, countries can be classified as most free or least free
These measures, as well as the very idea of ‘development’, have been frequently challenged from the beginning of the ‘era of development’. As Peet writes, “Developmentalism is a battleground.” Environmentalists, feminists, Marxists, combinations of these movements and others, have questioned what such quantification—and the proliferating attendant ‘development’ policies and budgetary allocation, which severely alter millions of lives—have achieved. Why has the world become more unequal half a century of ‘development’ later?
InfoChange News & Features, January 2005