There Are No Developed Countries
Progress doesn't have a finish line
When discussing the progress of nations, the terms “developed” and “developing” are frequently used in academia, media, and even in international political forums. But what do these terms really mean? Do they carry any real meaning at all? I argue that the categorization of nation-states into two broad camps is both misleading and self-defeating.
Humans often use heuristic techniques of categorization to simplify thought and communication. In the decades after WW2, there was an attempt to classify countries based on their political alignment. The term “First World,” for example, referred to American-aligned countries. “Second World” to Soviet-aligned nations, and “Third World” to those not aligned with either superpower.
Since the fall of the USSR, the usage of this terminology has evolved. “Third World” became synonymous with “developing” countries and “First World” with “developed” ones. Meanwhile, the term “Second World” has fallen into relative disuse.
While as a general rule, we should strive to make concepts as simple as possible, that comes with the caveat that they should not be simpler than reasonable. The original usage of these terms was meaningful. It was relatively easy to determine the political alignment of a state and thus appropriately categorize it. But the terminology’s modern usage is anything but.
The Curious Case of Singapore
Take Singapore for example. By virtually every metric, education, life expectancy, and per capita wealth, Singapore occupies the upper echelons of what a “developed” country is. Yet, Singapore self-identifies as a “developing” nation in the World Trade Organization. This, of course, is a political decision as the “developing” status confers certain additional rights and protections in the international trade realm.
But Singapore's self-deprecating status aside. The dichotomous distinction between “developed” and “developing” is generally misleading anyway due to the geographic disparities within nations. China is considered a “developing” country as a whole, for example, but many of its largest cities and provinces are wealthier and more developed than those of “developed” nations. This is further complicated by the fact many Chinese provinces are just as large and populated as those nations.
Walk through the streets of Shanghai at night, and many cities in America would feel “developing” in comparison. Conversely, some towns in the US border on “Third-World” status. In short, geographic disparities and self-identification make this dichotomous classification difficult, if not downright useless entirely. Especially with large nations, the data simply lacks the granularity needed to be useful.
Progress Doesn’t End
In some sense though, Singapore's politically motivated self-identification as a “developing” nation is correct. The dichotomous choice between “developed” and “developing” is a false one. Not only are the terms nearly useless, but the very concept of “developed” status is purely relative anyway.
A “developed” moniker might engender boasting rights, but it is tremendously uninspiring and demotivating. “Developed” implies a kind of finality, the idea that there is no further room for progress, the finish line has already been crossed. Only the “developing world” as it were, has the luxury of hoping that tomorrow might be brighter.
This, of course, couldn't be further from the truth. If we play our cards right, we are only beginning to scratch the surface of what “developed” really means. Assuming continued progress, what is “developed” today would certainly feel backward tomorrow.
An Optimistic Future
I reject the notion that developed countries exist at all. All states, all nations, and all of humanity, rather, are in a constant state of (hopefully progressive) development, albeit with some regions merely further along than others. To assume finality, that some places are “finished” is deeply uninspiring and flatly wrong. Tomorrow can be brighter if we work at it. Developed countries have much more development ahead of them.
With all this said, we mustn’t assume progress. There is always a chance, should the course of human development go awry, that progress can be undone. Progress isn't a race with a finish line, it’s more akin to climbing an endless mountain. The higher one climbs, the risk of falling and the reward of success are simultaneously greater. Viewed through this lens, humanity has much more progress ahead.