Are we all developing countries now?

By Rory Horner

Development is not something which the global North has achieved, and which only the global South still needs to work on. It requires changes and commitments in all countries.

The Sustainable Development Goals have given mainstream prominence to this argument. The intensifying impacts of climate change, overwhelmingly caused by high income populations, and the pervasive challenge of inequality cement the necessity of this universalistic understanding.

We can also see that many high-income populations, predominantly in the global North, benefit from the current international trading, financial and governance systems, amongst others. Prosperity for some is often linked to marginalisation for others. Problems of underdevelopment are not caused by the lack of integration of “poor people” in “poor places” into the global economy, finance, or technology – but often by adverse incorporation into political, economic and social systems which cut across global North and South.

We’re all developing countries now

If we’re serious about confronting the treat of climate change, setting economies and societies on a sustainable footing and confronting inequality, then we are “all developing countries now”.

The statement has been frequently iterated by Kate Raworth, proponent of Doughnut Economics. For her, this is a recognition that no country meets its people’s essential needs while falling within the Earth’s biophysical boundaries. The aim is to stimulate action on addressing the gap, especially in the global North, so that we live within the Earth’s biophysical boundaries. At the same time, major improvements are needed to achieve social thresholds, especially in the global South.

An increasingly widespread and mainstream group of actors have started to eschew using the terms developed and developing countries. These include The World Bank, the Overseas Development Institute and philanthropists such as Bill Gates. This shift is made with the goal of recognising shared challenges across all countries and avoiding macro-generalisations that obscure differences (e.g. between China and Chad as part of the global South).

Obscuring differences?

Yet there’s a flip side. Framing all countries as ‘developing’ can lead to some erroneously ignoring the vast inequalities that continue to exist in the world today, including between most parts of the global North and South, especially at a per capita level.

The suggestion that “we are all developing countries now” can lead to politics retreating inwards and excuses such as  “therefore, we’ll just focus on ourselves”. Think Angus Deaton’s op-ed in The New York Times, which argued that “the needs of poor Americans (or poor Europeans) have received little priority relative to the needs of Africans or Asians”. As we have seen with Donald Trump, a nationalist exploitation of this sense has led to the withdrawal of development assistance, trade preferences and perhaps most significantly, from climate change commitments.

The huge unevenness that continues to exist between global North and South, especially at a per capita level, could be lost sight of. As Björn Hettne said more than 20 years ago, even if we are all travelling in the same boat, “the passengers do not travel in the same class”.

Challenges which are particularly acute in the global South, such as state building, structural transformation or extreme poverty, must not be overlooked. While important opportunities are opened from framing development in relation to the whole world, we can’t take for granted that global development is interpreted and applied in a cooperative and egalitarian manner.

Global development with differentiated need and responsibilities

Of course, developing countries are not all the same and never have been. The category (like that of ‘developed’ countries) has always included highly heterogeneous groups of countries, from more typical examples of extreme variation of Chad and China or Mexico and Mali, to India and Nepal. While going beyond the idea that some are ‘developed’ and others are ‘developing’, we can recognise considerable variation amongst the ‘developing’.

The claim we’re “all developing countries now” doesn’t mean arguing for the abandonment of aid or development cooperation. “Developing countries” can help each other. In fact, much as some may associate such international assistance with a rich North helping a poor South, South-South cooperation or development assistance has a long tradition and is vibrant today. Lest it be suggested that richer countries should take care of their own before helping others, they already do. The current levels of domestic assistance to poor people in the North dwarfs that to the foreign poor, as Charles Kenny and Justin Sandefur rightly highlighted in response to Angus Deaton.

But let’s be clear, ‘development’ is about much more than aid, which international development is often associated with. Governments, firms, NGOs and people in North and South all shape the world we live in, for better or worse, through everyday policies, production, consumption, citizenship, activism and more. These systems and processes are both the causes of problems and can offer the solutions. While there might be different understandings of what we mean by development, and what the key priorities may be, as the recent Development and Change Forum issue highlights, those need to have relevance across North and South.

A new paradigm of global development

We need to shift beyond thinking of international development towards a new paradigm of global development, which better fits with the complex challenges facing our world today. We can recognise the different socio-economic statuses, capacities, and histories of people and places rather than being inhibited by rigid, outdated binaries and boundaries.

Many people involved in development studies and policy are committed to, the sometimes pejoratively invoked, ‘making the world a better place’. As this naturally relates to both global North and South, the separation of the two is an obstacle. Despite the North-South binary being critiqued for decades, taking seriously the challenge of the SDGs and the Paris Climate Agreement offers the challenge to move beyond that.

A geographic shift towards global development relating to the whole world offers constructive potential, as well as requiring critical attention. In many ways we are all developing countries now, but we need to be alive to the political risks of understanding development in these terms, as well as to the huge benefits from confronting the challenges we all face.

Read more open access research by Rory Horner around these issues:

Rory Horner is Senior Lecturer in Globalisation and Political Economy at the Global Development Institute, University of Manchester. His research focus is on the geographies of globalisation, global value chains, pharmaceuticals, South-South trade and their development implications.

Image by The Milon on Unsplash




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