So long to the World Bank's 'developing' nations

So long to the World Bank's 'developing' nations

We need a sliding scale of responsibilities and assistance

There aren't any developing countries any more.

So says the World Bank, which banned the term from "World Development Indicators", its flagship data publication. "There is no longer a distinction between developing countries [defined in previous editions as low- and middle-income countries] and developed countries [previously high-income countries]," the Bank says. Two World Bank statisticians recently noted that "the developing world" includes Malawi (GNI per capita of US$250 or 8,900 baht) alongside 40-fold richer Mexico (GNI per capita of $9,860).

The move made sense. There is a lot to be said against a sharp distinction between "developing" and "developed" based on a specific income cutoff -- the Bank's traditional approach, which used $12,763 per capita as the magic number. Such groupings are usually unwieldy and artificial, the terms for them imprecise at best, and condescending at worst. And there is no sign of natural country groupings with a cluster of poor countries and a cluster of rich countries separated by a wide income gap.

Instead, there's about an equal distribution of countries spread all along the income line from the poorest to the richest. And the development outcomes of countries like Brazil, just below the cutoff in 2014, aren't too different from countries like Croatia, just the other side in "developed" status. The "developed"-"developing" terminology also suggested an odd complacency among "developed" nations, as if we've crossed some finish line past which we exist in a state of nirvana.

Then there's the confusion of what amounts to moving goal posts: thanks to global progress on pretty much every indicator of development, today's developing nations look more advanced on many measures than yesterday's developed nations. About 1.7 billion people live today in countries with an income per capita above $10,000, which is more than the average (inflation adjusted) income in France or Germany in 1960.

Widespread development progress suggests that "developing" countries are far from victims of a global system stacked against them. Nor are they doomed to abject destitution and handouts from rich countries. To the extent that's what people think of the division between developed and developing, it is an unhelpful misconception. For one thing, thanks to economic growth, developing countries are responsible for a considerable majority of the world's greenhouse gas output. If we want to slow climate change, "developing" countries have to be part of the solution rather than sidelined on the grounds of incapacitating poverty.

The income gap still yawns between countries like the US and middle-income countries like China. For all the convergence in incomes between rich and poor worldwide over the past two decades, those in developing countries are still only one-fifth as well off as the average person in the developed world. Rich countries still have far more obligation and ability to take the lead and provide the bulk of financing to deal with global problems.

This complex reality of growing capacity and wealth in the world's poorer countries against the backdrop of a persistent spread in global incomes demands more than just abandoning a crude bifurcation of the countries of the world. What we need is a sliding scale of responsibilities and assistance -- with the emphasis on assistance for the poorest countries and responsibility for the richest countries. But the international community is still some way from that vision.

The tottering nature of the baby-step that the Bank itself has taken is suggested by the online version of the "World Development Indicators". The developing country aggregate is still there, and still defined to the last dollar. In fact, the developed/developing cutoff is joined by the similarly unjustifiable cutoff between low- and middle-incomes as well as a bonus lower-to-upper middle distinction. And even while the World Bank is busy declaring such divisions passe, it still decides which countries get access to cheap loans largely based on a particular income level and which countries can participate in its greenhouse gas emissions reduction support schemes based on (you guessed it) yet another income-based cutoff.

The Bank is far from alone: the global treaty that limits the production of chemicals which damage the ozone layer has a list of countries that get support to help them phase out production -- largely decided by income level. And the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisations has a cutoff for support to countries to buy vaccines -- decided by income level. No sliding scale there, either. All the evidence suggests that, when they put their mouth where their money is, staff at the World Bank and other international organisations will continue talking about "developing countries" -- at least until we invent another term for the same thing. © 2016 Zocalo Public Square


Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development and is a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek¸ where he writes on global development and its impact on the US. He is the author of 'The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West and Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More'.

Charles Kenny

Bloomberg Businessweek contributor

Charles Kenny is a senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development and is a contributor to Bloomberg Businessweek, where he writes on global development and its impact on the US. He is the author of 'The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West and Getting Better: Why Global Development is Succeeding and How We Can Improve the World Even More'.

Do you like the content of this article?
COMMENT

Covid hospital gunman faces six charges

Police have pressed six charges against a former soldier who shot dead a Covid patient at a field hospital after killing a convenience store employee earlier, as they took him for a crime re-enactment on Friday.

20:31

Selective lockdowns

Construction workers’ camps in Bangkok area locked down for a month, along with hot spots in southernmost provinces, as authorities strive to avoid a broader Covid shutdown.

19:14

Police weigh charges over Thursday rallies

Leaders and supporters of Thursday's unauthorised pro-democracy rallies in Bangkok face a range of police charges.

17:10