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

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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9 Responses to Why is ‘Underdeveloped’ a Euphemism for ‘Poor’?

  1. Kevin says:

    I have sometimes used “minorty world” and “majority world” when speaking with people who don’t seem to realize that most of the world lives in poverty. Although, this says nothing of how our minority-world lifestyle contributes to it…

  2. Fiona says:

    I agree with Kevin – I tend to use Majority World. New Internationalist also favours this term.

  3. Victor says:

    The Economist has been using the term “rich world”.George Lakoff has written that conservatives view themselves as the wise, strict father and that the struggling countries are the metaphorical children who are “underdeveloped” and need guidance.

  4. Joe Deely says:

    I agree with the comments on terminology.. we need to come up with some new terms. Although, in my mind most of the measurements are useful especially if you look at them in a composite.As for other comments: “GDP has been discredited” – by whom? by any reputable economists? I don’t think so. Oh, I forgot , economists are wrong about everything! For anyone who wants to look at some reputable thinking on this subject read Sen’s “Development as Freedom”Population growth as a cause of a country being “underdeveloped” – This has a very low correlation. Many countries have had both high population growth rates and good economic growth. There may be an argument here for countries with “very high” population growth rates but I don’t think that was your argument.”Countries became full of misery” – the implication here is that people in these countries once led a “reasonable life” and now they have sunk into a life of suffering, misery and poverty. The reality is …It used to be that most of the world lived what we would call a “life of misery”. Lives of people on Earth have improved tremendously(with some ups and downs) over the past millenium and continue to improve. Besides the huge improvements in lifespan and health there has also been great strides in the standard of living. In fact even though we have had a huge growth in population figures the ABSOLUTE number of people in poverty worldwide has actually decreased over the past century. One other thing… what is the “shocking data”? I must have missed something there.

  5. Martin-Eric says:

    I’d like a source URL on this map. Thanks!

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin/Fiona/Victor: Thanks for the alternative names (though I still like ‘affluent’ and ‘stuggling’).Martin-Eric: Map can be found at http://hdr.undp.org/statistics/data/hdi_rank_map.cfm

  7. Meg says:

    Sending this along to a development master’s student who might have some interesting comments for you. Thanks for another thoughtful piece, Dave.

  8. Pearl says:

    I can see and agree with all the problems for the labels on the dichotomy of economics and standard of living (infant mortality, lifespan, health care, nutrition, education and assets accumulated by average citizen) between clustered countries. Struggling and affluent is better than most.

  9. Kevin Carson says:

    I especially like your comment on natural resources. Legacy ownership of resources by the heirs and beneficiaries of colonial rule is the elephant in the living room. The faux “free market” rhetoric of the ASI and other neoliberals will be nothing but bullshit until they first acknowledge that justice in the starting distribution of property is an issue. The REAL free marketers, both the Georgists and the left-wing Lockean followers of Rothbard, are willing to face the issue, and void all state grants of land and resources to absentee rentiers.

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