How the other half live

mumbai
Mumbai, India

One of the exciting things about the current sustainable development goals (SDGs), agreed last year by governments, UN and citizens, is that they really are global – they apply to the rich world as well.

It seems obvious now. But the SDGs’ predecessors (agreed in 2000) were focused on the developing world, aiming to push them towards certain benchmarks of progress: primary education enrolment, maternal health, daily income, and so on.

It was us and them, and responsibilities were divided according to which half of the world you inhabited. Rich country governments: cough up the cash and make sure your taxpayers see that their aid is working. Poor country governments: introduce policies, enforce laws, make wise investments.

The SDGs, however, recognise that rich countries fall far short on many standards of sustainability — meaning they have to do some of the ‘doing’ as well. That applies especially to the environmental targets (energy use, responsible consumption, water quality, etc.) — but also many of the wide-ranging social targets, from the gender pay gap to health to levels of violence. Research by the Bertelsmann Stiftung, for example, finds that 17.4 percent of Americans live below the national poverty line, while the USA generates 725kg of municipal waste per capita each year. The UK, meanwhile, performs poorly (29th of 34 OECD countries) on the income gap between rich and poor, and one in four Brits are obese.

The SDGs’ new focus on the whole world is also one of the reasons the World Bank announced last month it was “phasing out” its use of the terms “developing” and “developed” country.

It’s a minor change, in some ways. And clearly some classification remains useful. The World Bank is still categorising countries according to their gross national income per capita (between low, middle or high income). The UN classifies nearly 50 of the poorest and weakest nations as Least Developed Countries (LDCs) — a status that helps aid providers target those most in need, or the EU to offer its preferential trade agreements, for example. And geographical classifications help draw attention to particularly vulnerable nations, like the small island or landlocked groups of poor countries.

But while these have some data-driven basis (however arbitrary the cut-off point), the “developing country” definition, it turns out, was never really agreed anyway. The International Monetary Fund talks of “advanced” versus emerging market or developing economies, but says this distinction “is not based on strict criteria, economic or otherwise”. The UN offers no formal definition. And the World Bank says the term refers “colloquially” to “a group of countries that fare relatively and similarly poorly in social and economic measures”.

So getting rid of the “developing country” tag won’t lose much. All the more so since it covers such massive variation — say, from low-income Malawi (GNI per capita $250), to middle-income Mexico (GNI per capita $9,860).

It should also help to “update people’s mental models”, according to World Bank data scientistst Tariq Khokhar, as quoted by Quartz: “If the regular person’s mental model of the developing country is a big family [and] bad health outcomes, that might be a shorthand. [But] in a lot of countries, you have far improved infant mortality numbers. The old way of thinking of the developing world as this place where there’s been no progress is not that helpful.”

The implications of a less than black-and-white classification are mirrored in the debate around whether (and how) we should give aid to middle income countries, which are now home to nearly one billion poor people.

The middle income tag (and its sub-divisions, lower middle income and upper middle income) already muddies the water; as more and better data becomes available, the variations will become more evident. It’s less a tale of two halves, more a messy patchwork. In many ways, it never has been as simple as developed/developing, but as a shorthand it has made many things easier; it’s what the international aid industry has been built on. Avoiding the dichotomy complicates things, but it might help edge us beyond us and them. How would that change the aid world?

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