Thursday, September 23, 2010

Developing Communities - Not Countries

Guest post by Felipe Cabezas.

"There is no such thing as the Western world and the developing world." – Hans Rosling

The speakers at Monday’s TEDxChange stressed countries’ progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Even though countries have not universally met them, they have made impressive strides in a relatively short period of time – so much so that classical divisions between the “developed” and “developing” worlds are now muddied.

Yet we still refer to developed/developing countries, North/South and First/Third Worlds in our discourse.

But data implies that development functions on a smaller scale rather than on a larger one. When Hans Rosling dissects country bubbles in his visualizations, he illustrates that average information hides vast differences between regions’ development achievements. He argues that, because “there’s such a lot of difference within countries, it’s not relevant to have [average data] on a regional level. We must be much more detailed.” Bill Easterly takes that extra step and, by zooming into New York City, reveals that significant socioeconomic differences exist even in neighborhoods consisting merely of city blocks.

We already know this. So why do we still refer to developed and developing countries?

This linguistic habit blurs details and positions communities in need to disappear from view. Take Bennett County, South Dakota. Life expectancy in the United States is 78.11 years but in Bennett County is 66.6 years – on par with Azerbaijan, considered a developing country in the 2009 Human Development Report. But by using a developing-country framework, funders will invest in health initiatives in Azerbaijan – not in the United States. What about Bennett County? Doesn’t it warrant assistance, too?

This is not to say that organizations do not assist communities. They do. So then let’s reflect that in the way we speak!

Let’s refer to developing communities instead of developing countries.

This may seem like an insignificant change, but it alters the underlying cognitive framework that serves as the basis from which aid organizations operate. Incorporating developing communities into our lexicon portrays the world as a patchwork of variably developed communities that does not conform to national boundaries – a framework that more accurately reflects the reality of development.