Moving from a “developed” country, to a “developing” country, suggests going back in some sort of proverbial time warp. But despite the suggestion of regressing to a land that has yet to achieve civilisation, the experience of moving from England to Sri Lanka has been more of a loop than a linear journey. Terminology used to describe the relative “progress” of countries demonstrates how narrow minded comparative labelling can be, especially when much of the Western world is far from “complete”.
What I have found interesting is that as our values become more globalised, terms such as developing and developed are not being dropped from colloquial discussion. Instead, for me at least, the words themselves are taking on new meanings. Semantic shifts are not uncommon in the English vocabulary, some interesting examples can be found here, such as the word “Nice” originally meant “silly, foolish, simple!”
Footnote: For lack of a better option (suggestions?), throughout this article I use old-hat colonial reductionist terms: “The West” or “Western world”, previously known as “The Occident” for culture originating from the Greco-Roman empire, even though it now incorporates Australasia. “The East” refers to countries to the east of Europe; a term now preferred to “The Orient” since Edward Said described “Orientalism” as a way of patronising countries situated in the East as irrational and effeminate. It goes on! Context can dramatically change the meaning of words.
Back to the case in point, in the context of economic and social advancement, developed once meant “advanced”, “finished”, “complete”, “winner,” “ideal,” “achieved”, but has now come to mean “totally fucked”. (“Fucked” being another word with a mellifluous meaning, but I assume you all know what I mean here: “ruined,” “destroyed beyond repair” etc). Developing on the other hand, suggests “flourishing”, “growing”, “still in with a chance”. It’s still happening, and that’s not a bad thing. I will try and explain my etymological epiphany and why I feel it is worth paying attention to. See if you agree.
Terms they are a-changing
Either I am getting old, or time is speeding up (obviously the former) as I noticed that within my lifetime, terms have already changed. “Developed” and “Developing Worlds” replaced the post second World War labels of “First, Second, Third world” as though they were more appropriate within politically correct academic circles. The previously used terms are clearly derogatory as they place countries in some sort of ranking system, with those creating this ranking system putting themselves first. Huh. Funny how in these games of world domination, the dealer always cheats!
Yet the replacement terms are still at least, passive aggressive. They appear to be based around the attempts of supplying aid to these poor, unfortunate, and supposedly backward nations. Developing evokes the onslaught of development projects run by International Governments wanting to win votes, and NGOs staffed by anyone at Sussex University who smoked a few joints, and still gave a shit enough to take an elective in Development Studies. This altruistic sentiment of using a privileged background to help those less fortunate redefined the relationship between rich and poor countries. However, this good-natured “Robin Hood effect“, is really a “Syndrome” masking the dark reality of economic dependency.
To be “Developed”
So what does it mean to be “first” and/or “developed” in today’s global race towards maturity? I found this a useful image of the UN’s Global Goals:
It’s indubitably spot on the humanitarian button, yet the countries I know to be considered “developed” have plenty of pitfalls when compared to this pretty picture.
America – No poverty? Responsible consumption and production?
UK – Decent work and economic growth? No poverty?
Even Denmark, “happiest country in the world” with an enviable welfare system – Reduced inequalities? They did well reducing their immigration numbers.
I am by no means criticising humanitarian achievements or good intentions, not at all, but why such arrogant claims for super star status when there is so much work to be done? The modern West thought it had cracked the code of mankind, arrived at the finish line and lay back on its laurels telling everyone else how it’s done, it has been forced, reluctantly, to acknowledge that it may not be all its cracked up to be. So why don’t we leave these defunct diva labels behind and find more useful ways to communicate? Have we developed into a state of complacency?
As sordid secrets of socialism get out, the UN has dropped “developing/developed” rhetoric as formal terms and they are considered “passe” by the likes of philanthropic power couple, Bill and Melinda Gates. Likewise, throughout the most post-modern, politically correct circles, these terms may be at least hesitated over in civilian conversations concerning the “state of a nation”. There is many a current conversation about these terms and what to do with them, this NPR article describes the conundrum quite well. However, they are still very much “ingrained as a piece of shorthand in the development zeitgeist”.
The Danger of Words
The old saying goes, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” yet we all know that in many many contexts, this is simply not true. Physical pain, not to mention suicide, is actually preferred to some of the extreme psychological trauma caused by verbal abuse. Labels can be violent, and they are used as weapons within a cultural-political context. Take contentious labels like, “needy”, or “disabled”, how do these make people feel?
So does it really matter that reducing countries to these terms is simply a bad habit that’s hard to break? Our discussions are well-meant, we’ve just got used to saying these particular words within this particular context. Well, some bad habits go beyond picking your nose. We all have our vices, but some are more visceral than others. The use of language can be a subtle form of prejudice and inequality; less extreme than overt mass displays of fascism and poverty, yet powerful enough to cause harmful disparity between the peoples of this world.
We live in a “system of systems of signs“, Umberto Eco described, “The sign is used to transmit information; to say or to indicate a thing that someone knows and wants others to know as well”. Verbal and written communication is key to understanding our relationship with others. It builds group bonds and by lingually differentiating between peoples and nations, we are drawing literal lines. Structural anthropologist, Levi-Strauss argued that the “savage” mind had the same structures as the “civilized” mind; human characteristics are the same everywhere in the world, yet societal structures, such as language, are what divides them.
The bold terms, “Structural” and “Cultural Violence” originally attributed to sociologist, Johan Galtung, refer to social structures “built into a culture [that] does not kill or maim like direct violence” but cause harm to the poorest of a country’s population. The use of derogatory language can be a potentially harmful societal structure, not only to those it is used against, but also to those that use it. This is because oppression prevails within mind states, as well as nation states. We become what we call ourselves; reinforcing identities by repeating words. Identities of communities within the developing world may be effected by the “backward”, or “left behind” status of their home turf.
I find it awkward when Sri Lankan people ask where I’m from and when I reply, “England” they say “Ahhh very good country“. I know they are basing this on the idea that there is wealth in England and wages are relatively high. Yes, the British may have brought over ideas of bureaucratic structures, education and public healthcare, but they also came, shat, and left Sri Lanka bereft of power and resources and with an inferiority complex.
Sri Lanka is supposedly racing ahead in the development game next to its South Asian competitors. This is because of supposedly nation-wide free education, healthcare and economic growth. Yet us Brits know there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, lecture or op anymore. As Britain obsesses over generating wealth, the health and education of the nation is plummeting, just look at the NHS and the cloud-scaling university costs. Is this the sign of a developed country? Is this what the developing world is inevitably heading towards if it follows in our “very good” footsteps?
Superiority complexes ail some individuals born within the developed world; those with easily elevated egos, and wallets. However, it is not always “lucky” and “privileged” world to be in. Depression, anxiety, suicide, stress, auto-immune disease, are all examples of First World plights generated from being fed the consumer greed feed in the race to get ahead. Even the most well-oiled sprinters get shin splints and stitches. But one mustn’t complain with that gold medal swinging around one’s neck!
Flaunted displays of “first place” won by convenience, consumerism, and capitalism has been rubbing off on the ambitious imaginations of the developing world via the likes of the internet, global marketing campaigns, and political ploys for economic growth. Whoever has the fastest car is going to win, right? Of course, the fast heart rate and high blood pressure that comes with running the rat race hasn’t had as much promotion, but sure enough, these subsurface side-effects are developing over in the east now too, so many a doctor will confirm.
Of course, the reason why the West is “ahead”, is because it has stepped on the toes, hands and heads of the countries that had the resources it needed to create its rocket fuel. Kehinde Andrews, professor of sociology, deems the Western nations to be the perpetrators of the rest of the world’s “underdevelopment”. The West’s heyday of power and plenty was in fact built on acts of oppression, slavery and genocide of African, Asian, Native and South American people, yet it is mindlessly celebrated as a period of great success resulting in Thanks Giving celebrations, Primark, and copious sugary tea drinking.
Andrews argues that we need to abandon these historical progressive myths, if we are to recover from a long bout of “white psychosis“. Yet, even with a healthy dose of white-man-guilt from the post-modern egalitarians, patriotism prevails. Brexit is another symptom of this national diagnosis of delirium; a senile nostalgia for a period of empiricism responsible for the deaths of more people than the Nazis. This lunatic longing for “Great Britain” is seeing a revival whilst Trump necromances Reagan’s “Let’s make America great again” campaign. Calling the white West the “developed world”, reinforces these regressive political movements, and is another sign of ongoing delusions of grandeur, and general egomania.
Development and Evolutionism
Speaking of senile delusions of grandeur, an old, and I mean REALLY old tutor at UCL proudly confessed to us students that he was an “Evolutionist“. This meant that he believed that there was a linear trajectory in the development of all cultures – eventually Amazonian tribesmen will wear clothes, go to schools, work in industries, and watch Netflix. It’s just a matter of time.
He seemed to forget that many nations east of Europe were cruising down the silk road, dressed in finery when Europe was in the Dark Ages. The so-called “developed” nations of today, were not, and are still not, always the acme of technological and social advancement. Egypt’s pyramids are still widely considered more wondrous and hold more secrets to our purpose on the planet than the Shard in London. The Bhagavard Gita, 5,000 years old, has more guidelines for understanding the human condition than patient.com. The fertile crescent still produces food more fit for the Gods than the USA’s MacDonalds.
Globalisation has been meandering for many a millennia, and if our planet survives much longer, power and “progress” will no doubt continue to change hands. Look at China back on the rise! Sorry Prof. RL, Evolutionist theory is just behind the times!
Many may agree that the West has come to a point where economic and social development is not progressing positively. It’s stuck in the mud of it’s own making. It’s slipping on the banana skin it dropped itself. We could say that the developed nations were the first ones to start destroying the planet. They’ve over-farmed and fished, disrupted ecosystems, burnt up fuels, raped and pillaged resources and human beings from other lands, and shed themselves of spirituality.
Pedagogical development in the developed world exposes the youth to corrupted levels of greed and vanity, overstimulates infants with Ipads, and has introduced a new level of bullying online. Younger and younger children are becoming exposed to various pornographies – sex, food, shoes, and whatever else can be intensively fetishised. This overindulgence results in addictions, stress levels, anxiety, eating disorders, depression and general feelings of “not-being-good enough-for-who-knows-what-at?!”
The developments in scientific medicine have developed bodies to attack themselves, and developed medicines to attack them even more. Diseases have developed into stronger unstoppable bacteria that has developed to withstand even the most developed scientific remedies! Here come the 6 foot Staphylococcus aureus stomping over New York’s skyline!
The right-wing renaissance in the USA and UK has lead social development to take a hairpin turn back towards supporting inequality as fights are found amongst previously harmonious ethnically diverse communities in the desperation to have more stuff for their “own kind”. Conspiratorial corruption, risky referendums and blowing-your-own-Trumpism surely questions the developed achievements we thought we had made.
Developed too soon?
Does developed mean the summit of development? Is there no where else to go? We’re looking over the edge of the cliff, wondering when our private chopper will arrive to rescue us. But oh wait, it’s GPS has got hacked. Do we climb down? Do we turn back? Do we panic and jump? Do we think we can fly? Is this psychosis or is the developed world just like a hormonal teenager? It may think it looks grown up, but it is really lacking in worldly wisdom and moral maturity.
Being from the “developed world” does feel reminiscent of being 13 and that first girl to get big boobs in her group of friends. It’s not so much a feeling of pride and privilege as feeling embarrassed and awkward, vulnerable to the perversion of the world’s worst men, and having to buy all the booze and fags. Too much wealth, or “booty” too soon. Naive pressure on growing up lead into long-lasting regrets. PachaMama is certainly scolding us now.
Looking backwards to move forwards
But perhaps we are finally learning Mother Earth’s lesson as globalised loopholes continue to wiggle and weave their way through time and space. Ancient beliefs, indigenous knowledge, and agricultural systems, previously dismissed as slow and uneconomic technologies of the “Fourth World“, are being revived for the First World developed nations to learn how to look after the planet properly.
Spirituality was largely dismissed in the ‘modern’ west when the Christian Church was deemed over-controlling, yet secularised freedom fighters threw the baby out with the bathwater leaving a big soulful hole to be experienced on mass. In search of more-to-life than the insufferable stress of 9-5s, bureaucratic ball bags, and bad health habits, people are looking to the developing world for a piece of peace in mind and body. Yoga, meditation, alternative medicines. Its definitely not just me.
Western populations are are turning to life-styles that are unpolluted, and uncorrupted, closer to nature, more just, peaceful and healthy, to try and protect, save, and heal the harm that has been caused to humanity and the earthly home we all inhabit.
Still not sorry
So are these attempts to undevelop ourselves? Or are we going to pretend that it is all part of the evolutionary race that we are still winning? It makes me simultaneously laugh and cry when well-meaning development projects try to teach local Sri Lankan people how to recycle, assuming they are ignorant of notions of caring for the environment. They “educate” communities into sorting plastic and paper packaging, brought over with Western style supermarket chains and consumer goods, into different bins.
Yet I’ve seen innovations embedded in Sri Lankan culture already: traditional clay curd containers as flower pots, old school homework into shopping bags, and card boxes cut out into strips and given as receipts!
Similarly, development projects are bringing in organic farming agencies to stop farmers using the poisonous chemical pesticides that they were told to use by interfering industries when they all thought the mass producing GM effects were great!
It’s frustrating to imagine that the indigenous population has been encouraged to ignore the natural beauty they are so proud of, and focus on the cold grey crap of industrial and economic revolution, and then are now being told off for it by rich westerners who have given up hope on their own land. It’s like that schizo teacher at school that told you it’s ok to write in blue pen, then gave you detention for it.
Progress is political
“Progress” is another word with a fickle meaning. During the industrial revolution “progress” described industrial and technological advances. Excitement about machines and gadgets to make us move, eat and think faster has been driving development as they cut costs, work us harder and stop us from just, well, being. For a while this got money rolling in.
However, “Progressive” schools educate children “experientially”, letting them “discover and play” their way to knowledge. Some Scandinavian schools in particular, have stopped adhering to gender norms. The legalisation of same-sex marriage and gay parents are “progressive” attitudes towards modern family life, and racism, well race doesn’t even exist as a concept anymore.
Kehinde Andrews is a keen quoter of Malcom X, and I believe this metaphor for progress of his choosing hits the nail on the head:
“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, that’s not progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress comes from healing the wound that the blow made”.
So maybe we are finally making real progress as we face up to and admit to the mistakes we have made. Progress is no longer about filling our pockets with paper and coins. The journey, the process, of letting go of attachment to consumerism, points towards a spiritual liberation from the shackles of humanity’s own making.
To be “developing”
The beautiful thing about mankind as a species is its ability to change and adapt. So let’s continue to do so, socially, geographically, and even semantically. Let us not weigh ourselves down with stagnant adjectives like “developed”.
We’re learning that it is not always about winning the race but taking part in a team. It’s not about wasting your life as you aim for the finish line, trampling on your competitors on the way. It’s about learning from your mistakes and helping others to learn from them too. This is the privilege in the position of being first – making the mistakes so others don’t have to.
There is no end-game or finish line unless you are heading towards an apocalypse. There is no perfectly completed product when it comes to the survival of a species on an ever-evolving planet. Perfection can only be found by shedding all the mess of mind and matter that the material world has built upon the spiritual. So the yogis say anyway.
For me at least, the tables have turned so that “developing” sounds like there is a chance for “hope” and “potential”. Now there are people from the developed/first worlds who have developed an urge to develop their careers, selves, and spiritual lives in developing world countries. “Progress” doesn’t have to be financial but spiritual. They are not filling their pockets but feeding their souls.
To be “developing” is to be open-minded, self-reflective, adaptable, humble and most importantly, to be in with a chance, not of winning, but of success. A flourishing Sri Lankan writer, poet and artist IM said to me, “developing is a beautiful word”. “Developing” evokes the beautiful awkwardness of youth experiencing the trials of adolescence. Not an easy time, but a humbling process full of learning. Let’s hope we never stop developing.