Dave Pollard's environmental philosophy, creative works, business papers and essays.
In search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.

October 17, 2005

Why is ‘Underdeveloped’ a Euphemism for ‘Poor’?

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard @ 17:01
The term “underdeveloped” is defined as “having a low level of economic productivity and technological sophistication”. These terms are in turn very subjective. “Economic productivity” is generally measured by GDP, which is actually a measure of the total price charged for all economic activity plus a measure of the aggregate number of hours worked for paid wages, and which has been completely discredited as a meaningful measure of economic well-being. “Technological sophistication” is a measure of how complex (and costly) technologies are, not a measure of their efficacy or value.

Despite this dubious definition and distinction between “developed” and “undeveloped”, we in the “developed” West almost blindly accept these arrogant propositions:

  1. The “underdeveloped” nations have always been full of misery, suffering, deprivation and abject poverty. This has been entirely their own fault.
  2. Their salvation lies in learning the lessons (political, economic, educational, cultural, technological and social) of the West and changing to be just like them. There is no other route to improvement.

It is almost ironic that this arrogance prevails at the same time the West is realizing that we are in fact “overdeveloped” — too much waste and pollution, and overuse of soil, water, land, and oil, among other things.

It is impossible to wade into the discussions of how and why “underdeveloped” countries became full of misery, suffering, deprivation and abject poverty without getting into the political quagmire of the ‘clash of civilizations’. It is clear that there are at least three routes to this state, each of which has its share of examples from the current world map of poverty:

  1. Exploitation: Theft of land and resources, political and military repression of native peoples by outside forces. It is pretty hard to get your country out of poverty when all the land and resources of any value are owned by foreigners, and their fruits all sold for rock-bottom prices and exported to “developed” nations.
  2. Overpopulation: When imported health care solutions cause death rates to plummet, there is at least temporarily a huge surge in population, to the point it completely outstrips the ability of the land to support this population. The result is ecological catastrophe (Rwanda being one of the worst examples), and a vicious cycle of famine, foreign food aid, land exhaustion and human deprivation ensues.
  3. Tyranny: The ruthless suppression of the majority by a rich and powerful minority can create a similar vicious cycle by which the majority is starved of the land and resources needed to support themselves, by theft or expropriation by the minority.

Some countries are burdened with more than one of these misfortunes. Indeed, it is not uncommon for local tyrants to work in cahoots with foreign exploiters. Saddam Hussein had it down to a fine art.

Some of the “developed” world (notably North America — I don’t know enough about early European history to comment on their situation) actually began as exploited “underdeveloped” countries. The vast majority of the First Nations of the Americas were killed by genocidal European campaigns. After awhile the European settlers who stole their land got tired of their colonial status and used their isolation, familiarity with the new land and European technology to liberate themselves from their European exploiters, and become exploiters of other countries in their own right.

But the answer to the plight of the “underdeveloped” nations is not more development. It is an end to exploitation, tyranny and overpopulation. These countries need to reclaim ownership of their own land and resources, and work in partnership with democratic nations to put in place the institutions of constitutional liberalism that foster democracy and prevent tyranny from taking hold. That ownership must, absolutely, be spread equitably among all the inhabitants of the country. That equity not only makes tyranny harder to take hold (less concentration of wealth means less concentration of power, and less motive for protecting inequitable wealth by unpopular means), it also allows communities to once again self-manage, instead of relying on foreign handouts (the same argument could also be applied in the poorer parts of “developed” nations), and such self-management and self-sufficiency encourages democracy and family planning (women who have large families in poor nations generally do so because children are the only asset they can afford).

The point of this essay is that we need some new terminology: The terms “underdeveloped” and “developed” no longer make sense (if they ever did). The term “Third World” begs the question of why it is still called that when there is no longer a “Second World”. The term “West” is also inappropriate: “North” would be a more accurate geographical term for the more prosperous nations of the planet. Using the term “market economies” as synonymous with prosperous nations is no longer appropriate (some countries with such economies are horrifically poor). Nor is the use of the term “democratic” or “free” nation unambiguous — many apparent “democracies” are a sham and are decidedly “unfree”, and even “free” is a term fraught with judgement.

I’m tempted to be mischievous and suggest we call the affluent nations the “overconsuming” world and the rest the “overexploited” world (exploited by those both inside and outside, and by exploding population). But somehow I don’t think I could get conservatives to use these terms. We could settle on “rich” and “poor”, except that many countries have an abundance of riches that none or few of its residents share in. We could use the Gini index to identify “rich, fairly distributed” nations from “poor or unfairly distributed” nations, but then we would have to include the US in the latter category. The UN uses the unfortunate term Human Development for the composite of three measures — income, education and life expectancy — and they are in fact the “overconsuming” nations. But this measure uses that term “development” again, and it ignores some very important quality of life measures (inequity, poverty, infant mortality, illiteracy — take a look at some of this shocking data).

But perhaps quality of life isn’t what we’re really looking for here. What the UN calls “high HDI” countries are the ones we are usually referring to when we want to contrast them with the economically struggling nations. So I propose we replace “developed” and “underdeveloped” with “affluent” and “struggling”, and use the 55 “high HDI” countries, pictured in the map above in dark blue, to define which countries are “affluent”. An even better list would cut the “affluent” off at #37. That would eliminate all Latin American countries from the list. No African countries, and only Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and S.Korea among Asian countries, make the list. Canada, the US, Australia, New Zealand, and Israel are the only other non-European entrants.

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