Lose the lexicon: Questioning rhetoric surrounding development

The creation of a dichotomy between the “East” and the “West” has been known to generalize and downplay the development of large and diverse areas of the world. Towards the end of overt colonialism, however, as more politically correct rhetoric was sought after, this binary was disproved and thus left behind. But as our terminology has changed—moving into referring to countries as part of the first, second, or third world or as developed or developing—we have reflected in it some of the neo-colonialist sentiments of supremacy that still remain an irrevocable part of our culture.

With their origins in the European colonial mentality, the titles of “East” and “West” are fraught with European supremacy and bigoted religious divisions.

The perceived exoticism of the colonized world was one which saw little acknowledgement of cultural variation, much less the advanced systems of many foreign countries. While we have gone on to recognize many of the flaws of the colonial time period, this racism and essentialism still pervade our society, and in ways that are not so disentangled from those of the colonial era. Even newer divisions of the globe congregate developmentally diverse areas of the world and place them under a single identity, one often associated with inferior
governmental structure and reduced capabilities with which to pursue social progress.

After the flaws in this colonial differentiation of countries were brought to light, many other systems of nomenclature have been contrived with which to categorize the world. Jumping to the Cold War period, the concepts of a first, second and third world (as well as a lesser known fourth consisting of indigenous populations), sought to set apart large portions of the globe based on ideological associations.

The first world came to mean the capitalist nations of the United States and Western Europe; the second world, the Communist Soviet Union, China and many Eastern European countries; and all remaining countries, in their great diversity, were lumped together under the label of the third world. This system, reflecting the American perspective of a politically polarized world, explored this third world at very little depth, offering virtually no differentiation between the countries of Latin America, Africa and Asia. As the Cold War ended, however, and the political meaning behind these terms began dissolving, they became largely economic terms, thus establishing all that was not formerly allied with the United States or the Soviet Union as underdeveloped, therefore making our political systems synonymous with economic prosperity.

Today we see our rhetoric changing once again as we try to be as politically correct and moral as possible when discussing other parts of the world. With the new terms “developed” and “developing”, however, this Western-supremacy seems not only more prevalent, but more hypocritical. Now, there is something to be said for the usefulness of these distinctions—they allow us to simply and concretely describe differences across the world in spheres such as standard of living and equality of rights—many times this is based in a pure and honest desire to aid those parts of the world that could use improvement in these spheres, a purpose and a practice that can be vastly benevolent and beneficial.

However, when denominating countries so that we can distinguish those in need and help them, it’s necessary to note that mentalities of supremacy on the part of the one helping are largely injurious. As generations of international development work have shown, aiding an area in need is best done with a thorough knowledge and respect for the people, their equality to you and the value of their lives and lifestyles. While techniques developed by industrialized countries can, in many ways, come to the aid of nations without such resources and technology, the infiltration of a purportedly “superior” culture into another can result in the tragic loss of strong cultural identities. And when such a power dynamic is established, cultural imperialism is only one result; economic and political inequalities can follow close behind. In light of these negative repercussions, this naming system, while ostensibly good-hearted, is tinged with hypocrisy.

The creation of these two terms draws a distinct line down the middle of the spectrum that is a country’s developmental stage, and does a disservice to the progress that many nations have made in improving their practices of equality and standards of living. This terminology establishes the idea of social progress as a process with a distinct cultural definition, one that we, the United States as well as Western Europe, embody. Development becomes not a goal for all nations to improve the quality of life, but a destination which we have already reached while others still lag behind. Not only does this show clear tendencies for U.S. supremacy, we establish a scale for which our society acts as the end-point that thus ignores all of the issues still plaguing us nationally.

This system does an excellent job of obscuring from view both the flaws in American development as well as the strides taken by so-called “developing countries.” It sets a very high and narrow-minded standard for other countries, and, through expressing a sort of contentment with current U.S. standards, it encourages a stagnation of domestic reform. We are blindly deciding what other countries should seek by nominating ourselves as the prototype and narrowly defining progress in terms of our specific perspective.

Merely using the rhetoric of development as we now do reinforces our prideful standards of what constitutes progress. If equality and high standards of living are what development seeks, as I believe they should be, then there’s quite some way still to go in many “Western,” “First world” or “developed” countries. If these ideals are what we desire all of humanity to seek after, than even the United States should also be designated a developing country.

October 11, 2013

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