We are all developing countries now!

In analytical terms globalisation poses essentially the same political economy challenges to all countries in the world

Tony Payne
Tony Payne

One of the puzzles (to me at least) of much contemporary comment about the global political economy is why there remain so many references to the (so-called) ‘developing countries’.  If you look, the phrase is still everywhere, especially in journalistic writing but also in lots of academic works.

Admittedly, a new category is now also frequently discerned – countries separated off by success, as it were, from the vast mass of ‘developing countries’ as a whole.  These are the ‘emerging countries’.  This phrase dates back to the mid-1990s when former President Clinton’s administration in the US began to talk about the ‘big emerging markets’, or BEMs.  These trade specialists were referring here to something quite simple, namely, the ‘Big Ten’ markets to which they thought the US needed to sell more in future.

But the phrase stuck and has come to be widely used to capture that group of countries (China, Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia etc. etc) that these days seem to be ‘developing’ pretty well.  But ‘developing’ here almost boils down to ‘growing’ and nobody has ever set out seriously what they have ‘emerged’ from or when we shall know when they have fully ‘emerged’ and, presumably, become something else.

For academics working in the field of development studies, as it used to be called, this type of language and thinking is redolent of the tenets of modernisation theory, that body of ideas that so confidently shaped Western perspectives on the decolonising world in the 1950s and 1960s.  New states were supposed to embark on and follow assiduously the path of modernising development previously set out by the already developed Western countries (most notably, the US).  That was the only (non-communist) way forward.  A few countries were already ‘developed’; the rest were still ‘developing’, albeit at different speeds and with regular setbacks, in that very same direction.

It sometimes seems that we have not got much further forward today.  A few ‘developed countries’ command the world stage; quite a number of ‘emerging countries’ are catching up pretty fast, with multiple associated opportunities and threats for everyone else; some other ‘developing countries’ look as if they might be on the verge of joining the ‘emerging’ group; whilst the rest are still ‘developing’ at various speeds.

Few bother to ask, as I did earlier, what it means to ‘emerge’, or when and how a ‘developing country’ crosses some kind of line to become ‘developed’.  Nor is much consideration given to why we might sensibly describe countries characterised by highly visible and deep-seated social and economic problems (such as the US, the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Greece: need one go on?) by reference to an apparently completed process of development.  For that, unavoidably, is what the word ‘developed’ (past tense) proclaims.

No doubt some of this can be explained by simple laziness.  There are 193 countries in the world, all annoyingly complex and different.  For journalists or politicians, or even academics, in a hurry, it is bound to be hugely tempting to sweep up so many places and predicaments in grand (and surely well understood?) phrases like the ones we have been discussing here.  Life is busy, deadlines are imminent: let’s not mess around with too much awkward detail!

Well, there is another view, which is that academics exist to grapple with complexity and that academic political economists in particular ought to be able to chart some sort of way through all of this crude labelling.  What is more, there does exist another way of thinking about all of this, which I for one have been trying to argue through for some while.

It is to remember that we live now in an era of globalisation and thus to begin to think of development as an ongoing, universal problematic facing all countries in the world system. Let’s try to forget the idea of development as some advanced, desirable condition that we perhaps get to as a country and society if we are either brilliant or blessed.

Think of development instead as nothing more (or less) than the collective building by the constituent social and political actors of a country of a viable, functioning political economy, grounded in at least a measure of congruence between its core domestic characteristics and attributes and its location within a globalising world order, and capable on that basis of advancing the well-being of those living within its confines.

That may sound a bit wordy, but the implications of such a definition are immense. On this basis, we are all developing countries now!

Suddenly we are freed of the restricted terminology and crass teleology of the ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ continuum.  No country is ever fully developed.  Everyone, everywhere has to go on negotiating and renegotiating  – not only effective and reasonably stable domestic settlements, but also positions within this fast-changing globalising world which can generate resources and thereby underpin a functioning, and indeed improving, society back home, as it were.

It is really quite a leap of conceptualisation, and it has proved far too difficult for many to take.  But I have found it immensely liberating intellectually, because you can suddenly start to make interesting comparisons of development strategies across borders and categories that once forbade this.  You can even begin to classify and rank different types of development achievement.  After all, this is only what the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been doing every year since 1990 with its Human Development Index.  (Norway is still top by the way!)

You can also begin to unpick and understand better many of the well-known contemporary conflicts in and around the global political economy by conceiving of countries as necessarily pursuing both aggressive and defensive development strategies in relation to their current positions in the overall global order.  But that will have to be a story for another day.