Time to eat humble pie

How much do we actually know about the world?

When we talk about the state of the world, the term ‘development’ comes up a lot; sustainability development, development economics, developing countries and developed countries. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, development means ‘growth’; the process in which someone or something grows or changes and becomes more advanced.

The term ‘developed countries’ implies we have nothing more to advance on and forgets the fact that the economic and human well being of many countries categorised as ‘developed’ has regressed considerably in the last five years. Portugal and Ireland have a significantly lower life expectancy than traditionally considered ‘developing countries’ such as Vietnam and Uruguay for example (gapminder).

Hans Rosling, professor of International Health at Karolinska Institute and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation illustrated in his 2003 TED TalkThe Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen, that using terms such as ‘developing’ and ‘developed’ to define countries has been obsolete since the late 90s.

‘Most countries and most people now live in the middle of the new socioeconomic continuum, in middle-income countries like Brazil, Mexico, China, Turkey and Indonesia. Half of the world’s economy — and most of the economic growth — now lies in these middle income countries, outside the old West, Western Europe and North America.’ (Hans Rosling, 2013)

Rosling’s research shows that we know statistically less about the world than Chimpanzees – our perceptions are less accurate than chance – which implies that “the problem is not ignorance but preconceived ideas”. The world keeps changing, yet our education and media systems have perpetuated the idea of ‘we’ and ‘them’.

Last week Florencia Quesada Avendano delivered a lecture on the inequality, urban segregation, violence and insecurity that threatens daily life in Latin America’s  ‘mega cities’. It was hard to hear about the adversities people face in a continent I know relatively little about without thinking what can ‘we’ do to help ‘them’. But are we really the right people for the job? The graph below illustrates how countries that have received less development aid tend to have higher economic growth than those who received more.

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While the concept of helping fellow economies may be well intended, it is essential that we critically evaluate our motives and perceived outcomes. The idea that the ‘west’ can sweep in and save countries without close cooperation with local actors, is outmoded, condescending and as the evidence suggests, most likely impossible.

Be humble, always.