Underdeveloped and Overdeveloped

Margaret Mead, a cultural anthropologist, contended in a 1962 essay that poverty was "remediable," that the resources and technological know-how existed to enhance living standards for all. The issue was the way the world was set up.

This pair of sentences encapsulates the new, conflicting, and contradictory beliefs that underpin today's profoundly unpleasant political climate. When a country is described as "underdeveloped," it suggests that the most important dimension of measurement in the world today is standard of living, and that quality of living should be defined in terms of indices that are closely tied to industrialization. Unindustrialized countries that rely mostly on agriculture and other primary industries are poor. Industrialized countries are wealthy. Poverty and wealth are unmistakable phrases. They are based on a single scale and provide a single set of measurements by which all countries can be classified.

Economists acknowledge that weighing is a challenging topic. It is self-evident that in a country where 90 percent of the population can only grow enough food to feed themselves, there would be little little left over to meet other, more sophisticated demands. If, for example, there is only enough spare food to take to a neighboring market to sell for the few things that must be purchased there—salt, candles, tea or coffee, tobacco, woven cloth—and the sellers always walk to market, there will be no finances to buy bicycles unless something changes. However, in a reasonably wealthy underdeveloped country like old Bali, where food was plentiful and a significant excess could be spent on cremations, it was possible to reduce cremations and instead purchase bicycles. The standard of living is said to be higher when this occurs. Although the culture has suffered and the country has not yet developed, a first step toward growth has been taken—at the expense of the culture. However, where the population lives on a subsistence level with no surplus of any kind, where the only source of animal protein is the ox or pig consumed at a feast, the desire to own a bicycle can only be realized at the expense of something that is absolutely necessary for subsistence as well as a full and rewarding life. As a result, once a country's citizens learn to desire manufactured goods that they cannot have from an existent surplus because one does not exist, they are immediately labeled as underdeveloped and so poor by themselves and others.

The phrase "underdeveloped" is a technical term that refers to a country's level of real and potential industrialization on a scale that indicates that industrial development can, should, and will occur. However, the term "poor" is not used to describe a country's technological progress. It is instead used to define its relative consumption position in contrast to other countries—or the relative consumption position of the majority of its population. Poor might mean not knowing where your next meal will come from, as many urban poor people do, or not being able to afford a bicycle, jeep, or truck. In this context, it has no absolute meaning.

A group of primitive Eskimo, trapped between winter and summer, their snow house melting above their heads but the time not yet come when summer hunting and fishing have brought in new supplies of food, or, at the opposite season, caught by terrible autumnal storms that make hunting impossible for days on end, sitting together starving and the lamps gone out for lack of oil, until in desperation some hunter braves the storm and the punishing supernaturals—these people They were equipped with the same tools as the other Eskimo to deal with the harsh realities of their surroundings. They had dogs, sleds, harpoons, soapstone lanterns, bone needles, and skin and fur clothing, and they knew how to make snow huts. They might be called unfortunate in those terrible instances where they had to eat their pets to keep alive and then had to continue living without the means to make a living. A guy without a woman to cook for him and dress his skins, for example, might be regarded temporarily unhappy. However, these losses could be recovered. In comparison to his fellow Eskimo, his hardship was a momentary lack of equipment or a working partner. The absence could be fatal for an isolated individual or family group; in other cases, recovery was feasible. Europeans in the Arctic had to adapt Eskimo equipment to survive in the early days of encounter; the Eskimo were not poor at the time. However, as sophisticated Arctic equipment became available, the Eskimo's position deteriorated in compared to Europeans.

Poverty emerges only when some individuals are structured into groups from which they have no way of escaping or improving themselves, whether due to ignorance, government restriction, or a culturally derived assumption that escape is possible. As a result, they are immobile and must make do without some of the essentials that others take for granted. Furthermore, the concept of poverty becomes increasingly essential as a society becomes more equitable. The distinction is not between richness and poverty, but between privilege and absence of privilege under a system based on rank, caste, or class, where only the chief or feudal lord lives in a great home and all other men dwell in little and miserable houses. When a majority of the population can have something—a tin roof, a well, a pump, inside plumbing, a donkey, a team of horses, two teams of horses, a bicycle, a tractor, a truck, a station wagon—those who cannot do so do not regard themselves as members of a different or lesser breed, and are not regarded by others as such. Instead, individuals and others begin to believe that they are merely impoverished.

While the term underdeveloped denotes a position on a scale determined by technology per capita capacity to create, the phrase impoverished denotes a position at the bottom of the consumption scale, having less than others—usually less than most others. All of this changes when the two principles are merged and the focus is placed on the relative presence or absence of technological producing capacity.

In previous debates about the plight of the poor, whether at home or abroad, it was underlined that dividing the wealth of the wealthy few would do little to ease the suffering of the many destitute. The rich might then sit at fattening tables while the impoverished pressed their noses against the windows, enviously watching. If the wealthy were kind during a famine or flood, if they constructed hospitals or endowed schools to help a few more people escape poverty, they could go about their business without feeling guilty. Regardless of how riches was rationalized—as a reward for individual or parental labor, or as a necessary support for high birth—it was always only for the lucky; the fortunate should be individually generous and better their standing in paradise. They had no cause to feel bad if they did so; they could simply enjoy their prosperity.

However, accepting the idea that all people can progress technologically and, as a result, all people can improve their consumption meant that it was no longer morally acceptable to keep the majority of the world's population in poverty. We have transitioned from an economy of scarcity—in which if one person received more, another got less, and no redistribution of the rich's rubies and emeralds could aid more than a few of beggars in the long run—to an economy of plenty. Poverty is no longer the result of someone else having a large part of the existing supply; wealth is no longer the result of someone else having a huge share of the existing supply. Simply said, poverty is the result of being underdeveloped among the peoples of the world. According to this philosophy, wealth is created rather than given, and any country is capable of increasing its rate of production; hence, poverty, defined as the current state of low consumption among the majority of the world's peoples, may be alleviated. People do not have to be poor; development will alleviate their poverty.

The transition from an older to a newer role is arduous, but there is an additional obstacle. Because, in the current situation, poverty is characterized in two ways: relative and absolute. Poverty is defined as having less than others in a relative perspective. In the absolute sense, there is a minimum standard below which no human being should fall; when all peoples of the globe have achieved this minimal standard, when the now rich countries have assisted the impoverished countries in developing, then everyone will be well off. This complication, which arises from the differing definitions of poverty as relative and absolute, is rarely addressed in discussions about countries as it is in relief situations in the United States, where the relief agency tries to meet absolute standards of nutrition, medical care, shelter, and so on, while the recipients of relief suffer from profound and humiliating poverty on a relative scale.

The impact of the confusion between these two conceptions of poverty on the planning and aspirations of countries that are, by definition, wealthy is another consequence. By implication, "closing the gap" between underdeveloped and developed countries implies that the developed countries are already developed (or, as Myrdal puts it, "already developed"[i]) and, as a result, the level of living should not improve any more. Instead, such countries should use the surplus that could be put toward further growth to "bridge the gap" by supplying developing countries with capital that has already been acquired in affluent countries via the sweat and toil of previous generations' poor.

If, on the other hand, the rich countries continue to develop their already enormous productive capacities for their own use, and existing birth rate disparities are maintained, the underdeveloped countries will become poorer relative to the rich countries, but poverty in the absolute sense, i.e. deprivation of basic subsistence goods, will also result.

Thus, "closing the gap" advocacy implies that rich countries should either halt consumption or halt the driving factor behind their productive development—the desire for higher living standards.

A second widely held belief is that our ability to feed, clothe, shelter, educate, and medicate the peoples of the world, based on our tremendous command of technology, should be shared among the peoples of the world, seen not as individual human beings with human needs, but as citizens of nation states. The idea that no one should go hungry or cold, illiterate or ignorant, or suffer from a disease for which there is a remedy, corresponded with the current implementation of self-determination ideals, particularly for colonial peoples. Both are characteristics of anti-colonialism as an ethic and a political tactic that were exploited during the Cold War and by power-hungry local leaders.

On the one hand, our new understanding of technical advancement is based on a twentieth-century understanding of the relationship between technology, productivity, and the identification and fulfillment of basic human needs. However, our understanding of how these needs will be met is based on an outdated understanding of what nation states, regardless of their size, shape, resources, population, or other characteristics, can accomplish as full, complete, and sufficient units for the implementation of new forms of human need satisfaction. The focus is on undeveloped countries, which should be able to feed, clothe, and educate their population regardless of where they are. The confluence of these two ethics—human beings' right to basic wants satisfaction and any group of people's right to national sovereignty as a result of colonialism or political treaty accidents—has resulted in an astonishing amount of ambiguity.

For ages, migration has compensated for a lack of equal resources, whether natural or man-made. The poor peasant moved to the city or to another country, or went to work as a coolie in another country. Younger landed gentry or affluent sons traveled overseas to seek their fortune. Inlanders set sail. People were thought to be moveable within a region, within a country, and between nations or sections of the world, with opportunity being localized. However, maybe in response to the stress of millions of refugees—people who were forced to flee their homes—we have created a new right, the right to remain at home beneath one's own apple tree and have light industry brought to one's own backyard. The significance of bringing development to developing countries has largely gone ignored. Since the beginning of World War II, Americans have been subjected to so much forced relocation and have developed such a fear of moving their children from one school to another that it appears to them to be a reasonable demand that everyone be allowed to stay in his own country and have the comforts of civilization brought within reach. Furthermore, various fortuitous circumstances associated with the twentieth-century wars and revolutions have effectively obscured some of the serious consequences of holding the position that every nation, new or old, rich or poor, large or small, no matter where located or how technically competent, has the right to be developed and to become, if not rich, at least as well off as every other nation, with as high a standard of living for its people and as large and diverse a population as any other nation.

Because a large part of the planning for poor countries has been done by those who come from tiny developed nation states, where state intervention and welfare state planning are already well advanced, the idea of the nation state as the unit of development is more easily supported today. If extensive government intervention has allowed countries like Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, West Germany, and the United Kingdom to maintain an optimal standard of living, then government appears to be the appropriate instrument for benevolent economic change; people's welfare is thought to be inextricably linked to government activities, and the focus is on the nation state—which has a government—as the appropriate instrument for benevolent economic change.

Thus, at a time in history when most of the nation state's paraphernalia, which was postulated on the political protection of citizens whose economic lot it was powerless to improve, is becoming obsolete (because it can no longer protect its citizens, and their economic lot can be more efficiently ameliorated in larger or smaller units), the nation state has been transformed into a highly valued and highly inefficient instrument for equalization of opportunity and opportunity inequality. Most of the world's efforts have gone into the construction of mechanisms that are not transnational but intergovernmental, at a time when transnational organizations are desperately needed, whether for the sharing of scarce or unevenly distributed natural resources, the eradication of disease, or the use of scarce intellectual resources.

The poverty of a new nation's people and the prestige of its day-old, month-old, or year-old national identity become entwined. People's poverty is a moral claim on the world's conscience that can be enforced in political terms and exploited for political goals, sometimes supporting but more often undermining the fulfilment of the precise necessities for which the manipulation is carried out. While Germaine Tillion pleaded for the continuation of France-Algérie relations for the sake of Algeria's hungry people, political reasons made this impossible. Millions of Chinese people are on the verge of hunger, and goods and equipment required for basic survival are in short supply. However, supplying them under the current conditions would entail crossing a national border as well as an ideological line drawn by the Cold War and jeopardizing Mainland China's new inviolability. In addition to our vastly improved technical ability to feed the world's inhabitants, our ability to do so organizationally has been severely hampered. While valid in and of themselves, arguments in favor of national pride, self-determination, autonomy, and dignity essentially ignore the ways in which nation states, all nation states, have become economically and technically irrelevant, even as they have been used to criticize bilateral aid and promote internationally organized aid. As lines written on the ground, there are two constant reminders of the former borders' insignificance. One is our technological ability to feed people all across the world, regardless of borders; the other is the presence of US and Soviet Union satellites flying overhead.

Peace Corps volunteer and village women in Tanganyika, October 1962
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

The phrase "overdeveloped" is unusual in the context of the preceding discussion. How can there be an overdeveloped country if technical growth is positive because it raises living standards? It should be noted that the phrase has primarily been employed to rectify the harm caused by putting all countries on the same scale. Members of poor and industrialized countries collaborated to coin the term, acting out of patriotism, ambition, or humanitarianism. Only by exaggerating the underdeveloped state of underdeveloped countries, by labeling them poor, did it appear that the desired climate of opinion could be created. However, when this resulted in a single scale on which all countries could be ranked, it became evident that a low ranking—on a scale of development—was inherently inhumane and repulsive. The developing countries desired to reap every benefit from their newly defined position, particularly top priority in all forms of economic assistance. At the same time, the incorrect link between economic need and national prestige made the term "underdeveloped" offensive. Internationalists, guilty of colonialism and avoidable human suffering on the one hand, and their own conspicuous, wasteful consumption on the other, responded to the sensitivity of members of less industrialized countries by labeling the old, rich, industrialized countries "overdeveloped." Simply put, it's a display of excellent manners in poor taste.

However, the term "overdeveloped" allows numerous problems to be addressed concerning the place of industrialized countries in a globe that has been rebuilt according to pre-industrial nationalism beliefs. Are they overdeveloped in terms of overconsumption, for example? This judgment is represented in the charge that every day in the United States, enough paper is squandered to furnish the newsprint required to save freedom in some new country. Or that by removing the duplication of radios and television sets in American homes, a large number of villages may be provided with contemporary communications. Can a country like the United States be said to have reached optimum development in these terms? This question, in turn, can lead to calls for the arrest or reduction of consumption norms in rich countries—or, at the very least, a growing fear that other nation states will no longer tolerate their have-not status in relation to the haves.

Those who use the phrase overdeveloped, on the other hand, may go even further. They may cite crime, delinquency, suicide, divorce, drunkenness, and homicide as indicators of social disorganization in those industrial countries where political democracy and welfare-state organization have progressed further than elsewhere. These are the current costs of overdevelopment—of becoming wealthy without eliminating poverty, regardless of how severe the poverty is in compared to that of the average Indian or Mestizo resident of a Latin American metropolis or a typical Calcutta dweller.

Furthermore, the word raises the question of whether the supposed positive thing of continuous technological growth is something that should not be followed indefinitely, or at least not so single-mindedly. It emphasizes the price paid by humans in industrialized countries—both the price paid by those who suffer in their own person through neglect that leads to crime, alcoholism, family disorganization, and so on, and the price paid by the ostensible beneficiaries of industrialization through a lack of space, leisure, and privacy, as well as the price paid by those who trade peace of mind for a greater number of material possessions. It emphasizes the values of a pre-industrial (or possibly post-industrial) society, in which a high level of living is considered desirable but not optimal. It refocuses attention on the values of other countries around the world, which are only recently defined as a nation state's right, and emphasizes intangible ideals. There may be a nuanced grasp of how difficult it is to shift the motives of people who have worked all their lives for what they consider as enough into a restless drive for more, as in Theobald's work[ii], because this is part of their newly acquired sense of national identity.

In truth, the globe has been manipulated into a condition that is technically, economically, and politically unsustainable. On a global scale, the association of national identity with industrial development is as absurd as it would be on a national scale if a group of developers (in the United States, for example) said: Every town in the United States, regardless of size, location, or composition, requires a modern factory that can provide steady employment for 500 people and adjust constructively to changes in world demand. We'll lend you the money to develop it, give you the name of a distributor who can supply you with the equipment, lend you additional money if you run into problems, and regulate the global market so that your product is always in demand. It's up to you whether the control unit is an unincorporated borough, a portion of a metropolitan area, or something else entirely. You can also choose whether the board of directors should be made up of the D.A.R., the Chamber of Commerce, ten elementary schoolteachers, the Fire Department, a local of an international union, the top 10% of the senior class in high school, a representative sample of families who have lived in the area for a hundred years, Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, a random selection of engineers educated at M.I.T., former F.B.I We want you to be able to live comfortably. We are confident that working in a manufacturing facility will enable you to better your health and educational opportunities, as well as participate in the general benefits of a prosperous society. Whichever, the coders would have to add that, however you organize it, all of this would result in support for our political standpoint and will not benefit our competitors. All other considerations—technical, economic, and social—must be pushed aside in order to achieve this goal. True, we and our political opponents agree that you need a set of benefits in terms of food, shelter, medical care, education, and security; there is no disagreement on this. Of course, you have complete control over the size and shape of the unit in which you work. What is actually at risk here is that you stay on our side. However, whether you are a hamlet, a city, or a suburban housing complex, our goal is for you as a community to catch up to the best standard of living that can be demonstrated anyplace.

In effect, the concept of global economic development on a single scale is a case in which our ethic of human welfare and dignity has outrun our ethic of group relevance, where political rivalry still allows an efflorescence of economically irrelevant units within which economic development is expected to occur, at least in terms of the 1960s.

What we urgently want today is a collection of new concepts that are mutually consistent:

1. Technical skills and resources are available; no one in the world needs to be hungry or cold, naked, illiterate, or unmedicated. Standards can be established below which no one should be permitted to fall. What assistance is required to raise their living standards to the bare minimum can be provided in a variety of methods, including natural resource exports, migration, immigration, and resettlement, regional planning, and global organization.

2. The nation state, which has historically been preoccupied primarily with defending itself and attacking others, is an imperfect unit for governing human welfare and an even more imperfect unit for governing economic progress. There is a need for a new sort of nationhood in which every person can feel valued and accept responsibility for their fellow citizens and all other peoples in different ways.

3. Any one scale of progress is infuriating and invariably leads to confrontation, humiliation, and shattered pride. Only nationhood unites our current group of countries; there are vast differences in size, age, income, tradition, degree of internal homogeneity, natural resources, rate of expansion, racial composition, legal practice, and skill level. As a result, it is critical to define nationhood in terms of what a nation may achieve in terms of providing dignity, responsibility, and internationally recognized status to all peoples on the planet. Citizenship, in this sense, is unaffected by age, gender, size, intelligence, experience, riches, beauty, previous glories, or expectations for the future. Any attempt to change this perspective on individual citizenship would—and should—be vigorously rejected. Yet we are allowing the globe to descend into a situation in which all nations will be unable to achieve the dignity they seek if, as is the case today, nationhood is inappropriately linked to economic growth strategy. Under these conditions, single-scale development will ultimately result in a citizenship and nation hierarchy.

We need to create a new framework to address people's basic requirements as well as all world-relevant needs, such as transportation, communications, money, medical supply allocation, and so on. All of these issues should be addressed outside of national or simple intergovernmental structures. Simultaneously, those countries today classified as underdeveloped may be encouraged to build their own individual identities within the modern world—to value their native languages while ensuring that all children learn a world language, to create their own architecture, poetry, and way of life.

With the emergence of new settings, it would become clear that there is no such thing as a "overdeveloped" country. Those who live in politically democratic, industrialized countries pay a great price in terms of delinquency, crime, suicide, and disorganization because they have failed to maximize their own economic potential. As a result, the growth of a globally viable economy is hampered.

Nations differ from one another, and they should. Economic development units should meet technical requirements rather than national ones. What we need to create is a sequence of overlapping structures that are so acephalous that destroying them will be as tough as withdrawing.


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