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Re-Thinking the Idea of “Developing Countries”

Do CounterPunch, Março 14, 2022
Por BRADEN SHEEHY


Attributed to twentieth century American sociologist and activist Irving Zola, the upstream-downstream parable invites the listener to imagine seeing person after person drowning in a river, and repeatedly diving in to rescue them. This is, according to many analysts, analogous to emergency aid. In the second part of the thought experiment, Zola comments that “I’m so busy jumping in, pulling them to shore and applying artificial respiration that I have no time to see who is upstream pushing them all in”. Later versions of the story have asked, more euphemistically, why all these people are ‘falling into the river’. The difference is subtle, but it brings to light a fundamental question.

While Zola’s view is that people are drowning in the river because they keep being thrown in — people are living in poverty because someone is impoverishing them — another view is that poverty does not need to be explained, because it is the default state of humankind. The public health crises impoverished areas have experienced, such as the HIV epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa (for which treatments are made inaccessible by patent laws) and the devastation caused by second-order effects of the coronavirus pandemic in the Global South, therefore, must be seen as natural consequences of insufficient ‘development’. Instead of asking what creates poverty, we should be asking what creates wealth, and then doing more of that, enabling the poor to be ‘lifted out’ of poverty by economic growth.

This idea is closely linked to modernisation theory, which was popularised as part of American post-WWII rhetoric. In his 1949 inaugural address, President Harry Truman professed plans to alleviate the suffering of ‘underdeveloped areas’ through ‘capital investment’. This was not backed up by any real policy, but it was an attractive idea because of the explanation it implicitly offered for global inequality: poor countries are simply behind rich countries on a universal, linear arrow of ‘development’, and, with the right domestic economic policies, they can catch up. Redistribution of wealth is not required.

Modernization theory has been criticised for ignoring external influences, specifically colonialism, and for its normative extolment of European and Western societies as exemplars of ‘modernity’. Some argue that any society that exists in the present must, by definition, be modern. The assumption that ‘progress’ inevitably leads to liberal, competitive markets only makes sense if these are axiomatically assumed to be ideal. In short, modernization theory holds that the countries of the Global South can and should strive for the degree of wealth enjoyed by Europe and North America, and the same systems of governance. Rich countries, meanwhile, can help them to do this by incentivising liberalisation — which, it’s assumed, helps countries get rich — and providing aid.

If the ‘developing’ world is simply a more juvenile version of the ‘developed’ one, it should follow that it can use the same economic strategies in order to mature. But Western Europe and North America, now viewed as the archetypal ‘free markets’, have long histories of a) protectionism and b) building wealth at the expense of people in regions we now condescendingly refer to as ‘developing’. For example, trade in North American precious metals between Spain and China, which increased the rest of Europe’s wealth, was based in the enslavement of native people in mines under the threat of murder or maiming, reportedly killing three million people on one island, Hispaniola, in the Caribbean between 1494 and 1508.

Such colonial projects, which laid the foundation for Britain’s rise to superpower status during the industrial revolution and the development of capitalism, are sometimes referred to as simply ‘trade with colonies’, but this phrasing is misleading because it unduly naturalises the terms of ‘trade’, as if trade takes place between equal parties within a universal culture of private property ownership.

In fact, many regions had abundant commons, and economies of reciprocation, before being colonised. The European act of ‘buying land’ on Turtle Island, or North America, simply did not make sense to its native inhabitants, to whom land was not a commodity. In the words of a Blackfeet chief, who described an entirely different relationship to land, “We cannot sell the lives of men and animals; therefore we cannot sell this land. It was put here for us by the Great Spirit and we cannot sell it because it does not belong to us. As a present to you, we will give you anything we have that you can take with you, but the land, never.” In contrast with a dominant European version of human history, characterised by unending, mutual conflict between peoples for finite resources, indigenous people have been able and willing to coexist with settlers on their ancestral lands since contact.

In India before British colonisation, forests were used for subsistence by both villages and tribal communities; colonisation transformed forests into supplies of timber to be cut down and exported. While estimates vary, the British empire caused the deaths of many millions of Indians, in large part due to manufactured famine, and India’s share of global GDP declined from 24.4% in 1700 to 3.1% in 1973, the year of origin of the Chipko Movement.

Political theories that fail to take the historical — and ongoing — plundering of the Global South into account are, at best, myopic; at worst, they are instrumental in justifying and building monumentally detrimental policies. John Locke’s ideas on land acquisition, published in his Second Treatise of Government, offered a moral rationalisation for the forcible taking of land from people indigenous to North America. The charismatic, theoretically appealing ‘free market’ ideology which is sometimes claimed to be the best solution to poverty, thanks to its wealth-building capacity, also has an intimate history with colonialism.

Taking Chile as an example, Salvador Allende was elected as president in 1970, promising to address the nation’s extreme poverty and land and wealth inequality through social reforms including lower rent, public education and healthcare, and liveable minimum wages. His aims to nationalise large sections of the economy posed a threat to US interests in Latin America, despite full compensation being pledged to capital owners. After three years of failure of economic sanctions and propaganda campaigns against him at reducing his public support, the CIA resorted to a coup in 1973, installing Augusto Pinochet as dictator.

Crucially, his regime was advised by free-marketeer graduates of the Chicago School, famously a cradle of neoliberal thought. While the human rights violations committed by Pinochet’s government are too numerous to list, the fall in per capita daily calorie consumption of the country’s poorest 40% from 2,000 under Allende to 1,600 at the end of Pinochet’s rule, along with the drop in average wages, attests to the material damage inflicted by these economic policies.

These reforms are an extreme and archetypal case of the broader, systematic ‘structural adjustment’ of the Global South: lower-income countries are provided with loans on the condition that they employ austerity and liberalisation, prioritising repayment of their ‘debts’ over public services. Structural adjustment stifled increases in per capita GDP (constant 2015 dollars) that had taken place in both aforementioned regions under the Keynesian social reforms of the 1960’s and 70’s, and even led to periods of immiseration (see World Development Indicators).

The problem of debt was raised by Thomas Sankara, former president of Burkina Faso, at the 1987 summit of the Organisation of African Unity. Speaking of its origins, he stated that African countries’ creditors ‘are the same ones who used to manage our states and economies’, and that debt constituted a ‘skilfully managed reconquest of Africa’, requiring states to compromise the public services their people needed and become financially enslaved. According to Sankara, African countries could not repay their debt: they lacked both the means and the moral obligation, and, if they didn’t repay it, creditors ‘will not die’. He called for a united front against debt, and was assassinated in a coup allegedly backed by France three months later. This should not come as a surprise. France needs Africa to continue to supply it with raw materials and interest payments, as expressed by former French President Jacques René Chirac, who stated in 2008 that ‘without Africa, France will slide down to the rank of a third [world] power’.

One of Sankara’s points was that Europe is truly indebted to Africa, because it is Africa that has enriched Europe through stolen labour, land and resources. Aid and loans without redistribution of power will not level the playing field. African countries disproportionately lack power, in part because they own relatively small proportions of global GDP, and are therefore unable to buy more shares in international financial institutions, meaning they have less voting power (i.e. less ability to influence international rules on how national economies can be run) in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and less leverage when it comes to influencing richer countries via sanctions.

Under the current system, it is effectively impossible for countries in the Global South to ‘catch up’ with their wealthy counterparts, as modernisation theory predicts that they will. In order to grow, their young industries require government support, e.g. tariffs to limit competing foreign imports, but such regulations cannot be implemented because of the ever-present threat of sanctions, by which the ‘free trade’ regulations-on-regulations of international financial institutions are enforced. Countries also risk falls in economic activity within their borders, as corporations have powerful incentives to seek out places with the lowest tax rates and lowest minimum wages.

What are the ‘developing’ nations of the Global South owed? This question must be answered in the context of their disproportionately low responsibility for climate breakdown, and the fact that they bear a disproportionately high share of its impacts. In an open-access 2020 paper, the economist Jason Hickel calculated a ‘fair share’ of cumulative carbon emissions for each country to determine the extent to which individual countries had ‘overshot’ or ‘undershot’ them. The ‘fair share’ was determined by the proportion of the world population living in a given country multiplied by a carbon budget of 830 gigatonnes, the quantity corresponding to 350ppm of atmospheric CO2. This concentration was reached in 1990.

Overshooters included the USA, Russia, Japan and several EU countries, while undershooters, who have not yet used their share of the 830Gt budget, were, unsurprisingly, poorer on average, and included China and India. This method for calculating responsibility should help to counter the scapegoating of these developing economies for climate breakdown, as it focuses on cumulative emissions, rather than just the carbon being emitted today, and takes population into account. Its premise is that every person is entitled to an equal share of natural resources, including the atmosphere, and this is difficult to argue with.



The Global South, for the purposes of the study, includes around 84% of the world population.

When we look upstream from problems affecting billions – poor healthcare access, widespread food insecurity and lack of access to safe drinking water, to name a few – we see continual repression by the joint action of Global North governments and transnational corporations. The progress that has been made in spite of ongoing colonial exploitation has been undercut by enforced liberalisation, or Structural Adjustment. The rising costs of natural disasters and other impacts of climate change driven by the wealthy threaten to reverse the progress completely.

To truly get behind climate and economic justice, we must address the disparity between our perception of history and reality. For those of us in wealthy ‘former’ colonising nations, this means changing our understanding of our place in the world system. ‘Aid’ is dwarfed by the flow of money from the South to the North, both yesterday and today.

Suggested reading.

The Divide: A Brief Guide to Global Inequality and its Solutions by Jason Hickel

An accessible, engaging anti-imperialist analysis of the sustained impacts of the ‘colonial era’, and the evolution of twentieth- and twenty-first-century economic policy in the shadow of multiple economic crises, this book was hugely helpful to me in structuring the above post.

Neo-colonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism by Kwame Nkrumah

Authored by the former Prime Minister and President of Ghana, this book argues that the relationship between African states and their ‘former’ colonisers is a neo-colonial one: they are still subject to economic imperialism despite having ostensibly gained independence. Some of the information is specific to the 1960s but the general ideas are very relevant today.

23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang

Outlines thought-provoking arguments against tenets of neoliberalism and criticises Structural Adjustment Programs imposed on the Global South

Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy

A short book describing many of the negative aspects of capitalism in India, including pollution, poverty and debt


Braden Sheehy’s writings can be read here.

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