‘Third World problems’?

We may all be developing countries now, facing similar broad challenges, but our capacity to respond to the rapidly transforming developmental context is highly unequal

Matthew Bishop
Matthew Bishop

In late 2011, the Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, became a Twitter sensation when he posted a series of imaginative tweets condemning the ‘false and condescending’ tendency to refer to the minor inconveniences of life as ‘first world problems’.

The idea is that whenever people in the richer parts of the world complain about a bad cup of coffee, poor service in a restaurant or a crappy iPhone app, these are ‘first world problems’. They are not, therefore, worthy of our self-obsessed moaning (also known in the blogosphere as a ‘white whine’) because they pale into insignificance against the supposedly gritty horror of life in the ‘third world’.

Yet, as Cole consequently – and quite rightly – noted: ‘not every aspect of the life of those who are terribly poor is terrible poverty’, and ‘people don’t wake up with “poor African” pasted on their foreheads’.  For him, a real ‘first world problem’ is simply ‘the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are’.

In short, there is far more that unites us than divides us. Developmentally-speaking, life might be more difficult in some places than others, but this does not map easily on to a North/South, developed/developing geography anymore, if ever it did.

London is perhaps the epitome of this: Canary Wharf, one of the most expensive parts of real estate on the globe, looms over the rest of Tower Hamlets, which is one of the poorest areas in Europe, and probably one of the most relatively poor areas in the world. Average salaries in the former before the crisis were in the region of £100,000; in the latter today they are barely £12,000 (which is less than half the UK median). A similar story can be told in pretty much any city in the world, from Accra to Athens, Paris to Port of Spain, and Shanghai to Suva.

In short, the boundaries between supposedly ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries have long since dissolved and are today largely meaningless (in a conceptual sense, at least).

Of course, as a regular reader of SPERI Comment, this is not news to you!

The practical problem, though, is that even if we may all be facing fundamentally the same challenge – how to create political economies which can engender progress and development – not every state and/or society has the same capacity to meet it.

The consequent theoretical problem is that, in jettisoning the ‘old’ language of development, we are yet to craft a new lexicon which adequately captures the problems of those who truly are at the margins.

So what do we do, both practically and conceptually, about the many societies which are struggling today, which do suffer from many intractable social, economic and governance challenges, and where the state is not a force for developmental transformation?

This conundrum represents the third critical puzzle of the rapidly changing global political economy of development that I mapped out in my first SPERI Comment, the other two of which I subsequently explored in my second (what does the notion of development signify today?) and third (what is the role of the state in the process?) posts.

I don’t pretend to have a fully convincing answer. But I can suggest three issues which we might consider in order to help us move closer to finding one.

The first is conceptual, and it involves recognising and thinking through again, the huge diversity of developmental experiences of countries that can be deemed to be struggling to come to terms with the changed global order.

To take one example: the many small island developing states which are scattered around the globe almost all enjoy solid levels of governance and medium or high levels of human development.  Their central development challenge is about coping with extreme vulnerability to external economic and environmental shocks. How do we account for this, when most of our understanding of ‘third world’ development homogenises experiences in the ‘Global South’ and generally assumes much lower levels of human development, poor governance, endemic poverty and so on?

The second issue is contextual. Human geographers have often stressed how concepts like North-South or core-periphery are still useful, but only if we simultaneously look within and beyond the country level. This is, of course, something I hinted at with my London example above, and it could be as easily applied to the many areas in the ‘developed’ world which have struggled with industrial decline.

However, simply saying that rich people and poor people live side-by-side everywhere does not of itself initiate a very satisfying analysis of development. It also implicitly denies that the nation-state should be either an important locus for analysis, or a source of developmental transformation in practice. Yet, as I argued in my previous post, a developmentally-minded state is today more crucial than ever.

The final issue is one with practical import, and it is perhaps the most troubling of all: how on earth are societies – meaning countries, cities, regions and other communities alike – supposed to respond to the dramatic changes taking place in the global political economy?

The rise of the BRICS, especially, is causing consternation the world over as societies struggle to adjust. Some have certainly enjoyed greater investment and growth, but many more have become increasingly locked into new dependencies on primary products.  Others have seen promising developmental strategies become rapidly uncompetitive vis-à-vis the labour power, economies of scale and sheer productive capacity that these behemoths can mobilise.

For most at the margins – including, of course, within the BRICS themselves – this brave new world is extremely daunting. Rapid change can eviscerate living standards almost overnight, and these deep structural transformations are far from finished.