defining development

I had an interesting exchange today with Sentletse and MvelaseP on what defines a developing country.  The context was a broader discussion on how terms like Third World and developing country seem pejorative, suggesting an idea of linear ‘progress’ through which nations need to move before being regarded as First World or developed.

There was a fair amount of discussion over whether China is a developed country or not after I made the point that changes in the nature of the global economy in the last thirty years have sapped terms like developing country of their meaning because countries that have formerly been defined as developing, such as China, India, Brazil, and South Africa, are by many economic indicators doing pretty well.  Sentletse produced some interesting stats on China – e.g. China’s public debt to GDP is only around 18% and unemployment is 4.3%, both figures much lower than many developed countries.

Anyway, I began searching around for definitions of developing country, expecting I’d find a cast-iron definition that would offer us some major insights.  But it’s not as clear-cut as you might have thought.

Even the United Nations Statistical Division says ‘There is no established convention for the designation of developed and developing countries or areas in the United Nations system’. (Footnote c, Composition of Macro Geographical (Continental) Regions, April 2010).  The document, however, describes what it calls ‘common practice’ by which

Japan in Asia, Canada and the United States in northern America, Australia and New Zealand in Oceania, and Europe are considered developed regions or areas. In international trade statistics, the Southern African Customs Union is also treated as a developed region and Israel as a developed country; countries emerging from the former Yugoslavia are treated as developing countries; and countries of eastern Europe and of the Commonwealth of Independent States (code 172) in Europe are not included under either developed or developing regions. (Ibid.)

Developed and Developing Countries (Source

The IMF draws distinctions between Emerging and Developing Economies and Advanced Economies.  And the World Bank uses four classifications for countriesLow Income, Lower Middle Income, Upper Middle Income, and High Income countries.  This system defines countries by Gross National Income per Capita. (US$975 is low; US$11,906 is high).  Other terms that are commonly used are Newly Industrialized Countries and Big Emerging Markets.

According to these definitions, South Africa is classified as a developed country, an Upper Middle Income country, Newly Industrialized country, and a Big Emerging Market.  I can’t work out whether it’s a Third World country or not because definitions vary so much.

So there was no cast-iron definition to illuminate our discussion, only the realization on my part that countries are defined, or define themselves, differently according to the context. Probably because that’s so useful.