Any discussion of developing nations involves a host of contentious issues, beginning with a debate over terminology. For example, developing nations are also sometimes referred to as “Third World” nations. This term was introduced by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952 to distinguish countries that had achieved colonial independence after World War II and were no longer aligned with either the United States and its allies (the First World) or the Soviet Union and its allies (the Second World). With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the concepts of a First, Second, and Third World became less relevant.
Another common way to refer to developed versus developing nations is by dividing the globe along geographical lines. The countries of the Northern hemisphere, or “the North,” tend to be richer, while those in the Southern hemisphere, or “the South,” tend to be poorer. However, some sociologists and economists object to this distinction because it implies that the differences between the developed and the developing worlds are primarily due to geography, rather than to powerful historical, economic, political, and cultural forces.
There are still other ways to classify nations. Some authors distinguish between Western nations and all others. In this case, Western refers not to geography, but to a common culture shared by Judeo-Christian capitalist democracies. This distinction suggests that developing nations are those that do not have democratic governments and free-market economies. Still other observers distinguish between industrialized nations and nonindustrialized nations based on the type of economic activities they engage in. In this view, the Industrial Revolution explains the wealth of the developed world, and the persistence of primarily agricultural economies in developing nations explains their poverty. The terms nations in transition or newly industrialized nations are sometimes used to describe countries that have begun to industrialize.
The broadest approach to classifying countries is to distinguish between developed versus developing nations. These terms are meant to reflect a concern about the well-being of less-prosperous countries and the hope that the severe poverty in many of them can be overcome through the process of economic and social development.
More than 150 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America are classified as developing nations. They are a very diverse group in terms of culture, religion, geography, economic progress and activities, and types of government. However, they do share some important characteristics that help define them as developing nations. Michael P. Todaro, author of Development Economics, argues that developing nations are “mainly characterized by low levels of living, high rates of population growth, low income per capita, and general economic and technological dependence on First World economies.”
The United Nations (UN) essentially defines developing nations based on what they are not. The United Nations defines the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and the countries of Europe as developed nations. All other nations are “less-developed countries.” The United Nations also designates a subset of 49 countries (the majority in Africa) as “least-developed countries.” The least-developed countries all have extremely low levels of income, low levels of life expectancy at birth, low levels of calorie intake, low literacy and school enrollment, and low levels of economic diversification.
Attempts to define the term developing nation are further complicated by the fact that some countries resist easy classification. China is a major example. By some measures—such as per capita income—China is a developing nation. However, China also has global size, power, and influence far beyond what most observers would attribute to a developing nation. Other examples of countries that seem to defy classification include the formerly Communist nations of Eastern Europe: They are classified as developed because they are in Europe, but some have standards of living similar to those in developing nations.
Whatever the differences in definitions and the inevitable exceptions, the key characteristic of developing nations is that many people living in them cannot afford the levels of food, shelter, clothing, and medical care that are enjoyed by people in developed nations. In short, the standards of living in developing nations are fundamentally different than those in the United States and other wealthy countries.
Angola, a sub-Saharan African country with a population of about 12.7 million, provides a good illustration of the problems faced by developing nations. Since achieving independence from Portugal in 1975, Angola has been torn by civil war. The CIA estimates that this war has resulted in more than 1.5 million deaths. In addition, more than 1 million Angolans were displaced from their homes by the war, resulting in a vast need for UN food assistance.
Another problem that Angola faces is that its economy is not well diversified: 85 percent of Angolans are engaged in subsistence agriculture, and 90 percent of its exports are oil. Angola’s per capita Gross National Income in Purchasing Power Parity or GNI-PPP (the amount of total national income available per person, which has been adjusted to reflect an internationally standardized amount of goods or services that could be purchased in the United States) is roughly $1,180, compared to $34,100 in the United States.
In addition, the lives of Angolans are very different from those of citizens living in the developed world. Life expectancy is only 45 years in Angola, com- pared to 77 in the United States. On average, Angolan women bear almost seven children each, compared with two in the United States. According to a United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report, “the condition of children in Angola remains catastrophic. The under-five mortality rate is the second highest in the world, with one child dying every three minutes, or 420 children dying every day.”
Angola has little in the way of the transportation or technology infrastructure Americans take for granted. Three-fourths of its roads are unpaved, and much of the railroad system is unusable due to land mines used during the civil war. Most citizens have little access to basic technology. While many American homes have multiple phones, televisions, and radios, there are a total of about 62,000 regular telephones, 7,000 cell phones, 630,000 radios, and 150,000 televisions for 10 million Angolan citizens. The first automatic-teller machine for a bank is expected by the end of 2002.
Angola’s level of economic, social, and industrial achievement may now undergo significant change. On April 3, 2002, Angola reached a peace agreement that ended its civil war. The country now faces the dual challenge of recovering from decades of war while at the same time trying to achieve economic and social development.
Development for Angola, as for other nations, clearly entails raising the standard of living of its citizens. According to Michael Todaro, development involves expanding choices, but also more concrete actions by governments to improve the quality of human lives by “provision of basic needs, reducing inequality, raising living standards through appropriate economic growth . . . and expanding freedom of choice in the market and beyond.” Indeed, many of the world’s leaders believe that development involves not just economic growth, but also something more. In the words of Pope Paul VI, “to speak of development, is in effect to show as much concern for social progress as for economic growth.” To that end, the United Nations defines development as “the process of enlarging people’s choices . . . to lead a long and healthy life, to acquire knowledge and to have access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living.”
What problems developing nations have, what exactly development entails, and the best way to achieve development is highly contested. The authors in Current Controversies: Developing Nations provide insight on the different problems facing developing nations, as well as possible solutions, in the following chapters: What Are the Problems Facing Developing Nations? Does Globalization Harm Developing Nations? Should Industrialized Nations Play an Active Role in the Developing World? Can Democracy Succeed in Developing Nations? Roughly 60 percent of the world’s people (excluding China) live in developing nations; the essays in this volume are intended to give readers a better understanding of the challenges these people face.
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