Why Talking About “Developing” Countries Is Inaccurate

For ages talking about “developed” and “developing” countries was the norm, and many of us still tend to think about the world in these terms. However, this is actually quite an inaccurate way to conceptualise global development.

As explained in this post by Bill Gates, looking at the world through this binary lens is quite simplistic, and lumping together countries as different as China and the Dominican Republic doesn’t serve to increase our understanding of the world. The biggest problem with this framework is mostly that most countries are neither wholly “developed” or “developing”, but instead have a wide range of socioeconomic groups within their borders that fall at different places on the scale from “developed” to “developing.”

So, what is a better framework for understanding global development? In his book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, Hans Rosling proposed a framework for thinking about the world in terms of four income groups:

Level 1: 1 billion people

This group lives in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $2 a day. People on this level get around by walking barefoot, cook their food over an open fire, sleep on a dirt floor, and spend most of their day collecting clean water.

Level 2: 3 billion people

This is the largest group, with people in this group surviving on between $2 and $8 a day. These people may have shoes or a bike so getting water doesn’t take up as much of their time. Children in level 2 may go to school, instead of working all day. Food is cooked over a gas stove and people sleep on mattresses instead of the bare floor.

Level 3: 2 billion people

People in level 3 survive on between $8 and $32 per day. They have running water and a refrigerator in their homes, and may even have a motorbike. Some of the children in this level start, and maybe even finish, high school.

Level 4: 1 billion people

People who spend more than $32 a day are in this level. These people generally have at least a high school education, a car, and can afford to take a holiday every once in a while.

This way of thinking about the world is a lot more dynamic and accurate than simply labelling countries as “developed” and “developing”. The idea of “developing” lumps everyone in the first two, or possibly even three, levels together, when in reality there is a huge jump in quality of life between each of the levels. Additionally, most “developed” countries have groups of people living in the first three levels, and “developing” countries have people living in level 4.

So, let’s change the way we talk (and think) about development!