Blog Article

Runaway train: Can developing countries catch up with the modern world?

By Justyna Maciejczak

Have you ever wondered what the magical threshold that a developing country has to cross is if it aspires to become a part of the industrialised world? Is it possible that one day the majority of today’s developing countries will eventually be recognised by industrialised nations as their equals? Dear idealists and believers in social progress, sorry to burst your bubble, but this might never happen. The reasons for this are as follows.

The problem with development is that we concentrate our attention on the underdeveloped regions, forgetting that the process of development takes place in the industrialised world as well. What is more, if you compare the rates of development of the Third World countries  and the West, you will see that the industrialised nations, being able to capitalise on previous discoveries in the area of science and technology, are moving forward at a much faster pace than the rest of the world.

To illustrate this dilemma of development, imagine two trains heading the same direction but following two separate tracks. Western civilisation is moving forward at breakneck speed, reaping the fruits of progress that had its origin in the Industrial Revolution and, relatively unhindered, continues today. Developing countries occupy the second train, which is moving forward, but, being burdened with colonial baggage, can’t accelerate its pace and stays behind.

This image is additionally complicated by the fact that there is no specific destination that both trains are trying to reach. If there was one, it would be called “the ultimate state of development”, but we all know that such thing does not exist.

It is true, that some countries are in a better situation than others. China, India and Brazil have made a huge progress towards development in recent decades. But let’s be honest, not every Asian, African or Latin American country has enough potential (be it human or natural resources, geographic location etc.) to enter the path of accelerated development. In fact, the perspective for developing world looks rather gloomy.

A paradox of development is this: as industrialised nations evolve, they also change their perception of what is “modern” and what is “obsolete”. Along with the change of perception, comes the change of standards applied in order to draw a distinction between “old” and “new”, “developed” and “backward”.

Today the common criteria used to evaluate a country’s stage of development are economic indicators and standard of living (HDI). But have you ever wondered how these criteria would look like in 20, 50 or 70 years? What if in 2050 the list of indicators of development will include criteria such as: quantity of notebooks owned by family, hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) used by nation or ability of the country to send their own satellite into space? How are today’s developing countries supposed to reach these standards? At this rate of development taking place in the industrialised countries, the South will never catch up with the North and will be always seen as a “backward” region.

This is one of the reasons why the friction between North and South continues. Many developing countries are struggling to enhance their economic and political performance, and as many indicators suggest, are quite successful in their attempts (for more information on African growth read “Africa’s hopeful economies: The sun shines bright”, available at http://www.economist.com/node/21541008). However, their success is overshadowed by a Western narrative, which, with its focus on country’s failures and unresolved problems, is predominantly negative.

In other words, no matter how much has been done to accelerate growth and stabilise situation in developing countries, it is never enough to match Western standards of development. Once country has been labeled as “developing”, it remains “developing” no matter its actual progress. This is a virtual “development trap”, an issue which should be given proper consideration if one wants to deal with the development gap.

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One thought on “Runaway train: Can developing countries catch up with the modern world?

  1. Hello,

    Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking article.

    Whilst I agree with the notion that it is unlikely that many developing nations will succeed in catching up with Western states for a variety of reasons, not least because they are prevented in some respects by the West themselves, I wonder whether we still view the BRIC group as “developing nations”? Although they would have certainly been labelled that way in the past, and perhaps have some work to do in various areas, such as human rights, although much of the West holds no “clean sheet” so to speak, do we really consider such nations as still developing? Hasn’t the discourse been, at least at one point, one of worry and anxiety that eventually they will catch up with the West?

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