Did you know: Saying “developing countries” is more controversial than you think

By Kerri Whelan
February 9, 2021

Here’s the problem with labels: They limit. They come with biases. And sometimes, they get it wrong.

Categorizing is something we do by nature. It’s convenient to compare things as good or bad. In some cases, it works. But when it comes to comparing countries with that approach — “developed” or “developing” — it doesn’t quite get it right.

Saying “developing countries” as an alternative to “Third World” is reasonable. But as language evolves, we know we can always do better. Here are three reasons why you should avoid using the terms “developing country” and “developing world,” and what you could perhaps say instead.

1. Saying “developing countries” implies a hierarchy.

If you were to list every country from best to worst, which would be first? Which would be last? What makes the top half superior, and the bottom half inferior? If you’re ranking based on each country’s gross domestic product, that still doesn’t define what makes a country “developing” or not. There are no established benchmarks from the UN for what constitutes a country that is “developing.”

When we separate nations by “developed” and “developing,” it not only creates a false “good vs. bad” division, but also an “us vs. them” mentality. It suggests that the countries that are “developing” must follow the models of the “developed” to progress. But even the countries believed to be some of the world’s most advanced are, in some facets, falling behind some of those that are “underdeveloped.”

There are too many factors to consider to ever create a just and fair hierarchy. And we shouldn’t use terms that suggest one exists.

2. We’re all “developing.”

No country in the world is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. If that’s the case, is any country truly “developed”?

Let’s take a moment and consider the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Across news channels, journalists compared the attack to something that happens in “developing countries” or the “Third World.” We must take ownership — without comparison. The insurrection happened here, and it’s dangerous to simply ignore the long history of violence and inequality that led us to this moment, and instead point the finger at other parts of the world.

And then there’s COVID-19. While there are a number of factors to consider, European countries and the U.S. are among those with the highest number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths. Major successes in COVID-19 response are coming from countries in Africa: Senegal created a 10-minute COVID-19 test without complex technology very early on in the pandemic. But we didn’t hear about it. We’re only hearing about the successes from other “developed” countries, like New Zealand, as if there is nothing to recognize or value in the “developing world.”

Download the cheat sheet

3. The “developed” are built off resources from the “developing.”

The history is clear: “Developed” countries often stole and continue to steal the resources of the countries that they colonized. And comparing countries with the vague terms of “developed” vs. “developing” is almost a modern way of describing “colonizer” vs. “colonized.”

Look at the computer or phone you’re reading this from right now. There’s a good chance your device is made out of tantalum, and that the tantalum came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s one of many minerals that comes from the country — the Congo is home to an abundance of resources, making it one of the world’s richest countries in terms of natural wealth.

So then why is it also one of the world’s poorest countries?

Because of foreign exploitation. Colonial powers have stolen the country’s resources for hundreds of years, fueling severe poverty and oppression. The very people who walk above such precious minerals are the ones suffering from foreign greed and domestic corruption. And although we hold the Congo’s resources in our own hands — phones, cameras or computers — we’re blind to the journey of how they got there.

So, if you shouldn’t say “developing countries,” what should you be saying?

Language is tricky. Broad, dividing labels just can’t capture the whole story. And we’re all aiming to get this right.

We’ve laid out the problems with blanket terms, so maybe the solution is not to use them. If you are grouping countries together, perhaps instead use their geographic location. Say exactly what a country’s strengths and weaknesses are. It may require more work to lay out all the facts, but convenience shouldn’t come at the cost of integrity. Details tell the better, truer story.

The “developing world” is the majority of the world. It’s where most of the people on our planet live. We have to look at the world through an inclusive lens and see each country’s unique challenges as parallel to our own. And from a place of understanding each other, supporting each other and progressing together, comes the language we use.

Download the cheat sheetDownload the cheat sheet