Column: US voters must embrace developing world

The developing world is a topic many Americans think they have all figured out. Their minds flip to Africa, or perhaps South East Asia. They think of conflict, poverty and starving kids. What they don’t see are the opportunities for the United States that exist within the developing world, opportunities that are critical to our national interests and security. If the United States is to take advantage of these opportunities, voters need a clearer idea of what the developing world is and what we can stand to gain by working with it.

First things first, let’s discuss some terminology, specifically the term "Third World." Based on the correct definition of the term, Switzerland is a Third World nation. This is because the developing world is not the Third World and the Third World does not describe a nation’s poverty or development level.

Third World was a term created specifically to describe Cold War alliances, spheres of influence and ideologies. Quite literally, the Third World describes nations in-between the first (the United States and its allies) and the second (the Soviet Union and its allies) — a group of unaligned nations that chose to not get involved on a major scale.

It is important to understand that the common use of Third World as a descriptor of poverty or instability makes it difficult to convey the nuance needed to understand, or at least attempt to understand, the developing world. Simply throwing most developing nations into the same Third World pot makes it difficult to understand that not all developing nations are the same, not all poverty is the same and that not all conflict are the same. In truth, without understanding this nuance, voters cannot make informed choices on how our nation can benefit from working with the developing world.

However, now that we’ve done away with the term Third World, we’re stuck with the hard-to-comprehend concept of the developing world. There is no one definition of what is the developing world, and it can really depend on what metric is used. Gross Domestic Product, the GINI coefficient, Gross National Income, Multidimensional Poverty Index, Gender Development Index, among many others, can give us an idea about what is and what isn’t a developing nation. A simple estimate, though, can be derived by what isn’t a developed nation.

Developed nations (or regions), under most metrics, include pretty much the nations you’d assume — most of Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Singapore and South Korea. Some metric will include the Russian Federation, Ukraine and other nations on the very edge of being considered developed. With this in mind, all other nations are technically in the developing world.

Now, that being said, there is still a ton of variance in countries in the developing world. For example, Mexico, while still technically a developing nation, isn’t nearly as underdeveloped as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Both are still developing nations, but one has many more issues than the other. Therefore, we must go one step further into what is a developing nation.

Measurements of development come in many forms, as was mentioned earlier. What’s important to understand is that neither economic measurements (GDP, GNP, GNI, etc.) nor social measurements (fertility rates, maternal mortality, GDI, etc.) can completely give an idea of the progress of a nation’s development. The Human Development Index tries to bridge the gap between the two, but is itself an imperfect measurement.

Unfortunately, this means that there is no way to definitively determine the progress of a nation towards development or how it stacks up against its peers. What we can do, however, is use these metrics, not for ranking, but for determining what needs to be fixed within a nation. This allows us to target our aid effectively, which brings us to the benefits of understanding and investing in developing nations.

There are a variety of benefits to supporting developing nations and helping them achieve developmental success. The biggest benefit lies in stability and options opened up via stability. Developing nations are often unstable, with various groups vying for power, resources, autonomy and, in some cases, revenge. Economic (such as unemployment and economic inequality) and social (literacy and food security) factors of development play a key role in this instability. This perspective is contained in the greed vs. grievance debate over the causes of conflict.

The greed model supposes that conflicts are waged for personal or group benefit. In countries with an abundance of natural resources, but a weak government, rebel groups may arise an attempt to gain control, and therefore profit off of, these resources. Groups don’t necessarily need to control resources either, simply controlling territory would allow groups to levy taxes and have safe space from which to sell arms, drugs, etc. In this view, economically disadvantaged groups would seek to seize territory, resources or property to enrich themselves.

The grievance model is a bit more complex in that it can be very particular to the country it occurs in. The general themes, however, often relate to inequality or discrimination between groups. These groups can be of an ethnic, religious or race-based nature (think of Apartheid in South Africa). Groups, in these cases, can be seeking autonomy, revenge or even just equality. 

Take, for example, issues of instability in the Middle East. While some may chalk this up to religion being the issue, this neglects a multitude of studies that have found that “economic variables, which could proxy some grievances but are perhaps more obviously related to the viability of rebellion, provide considerably more explanatory power.” This, of course doesn’t neglect that grievances can play a major role, “[g]rievances and horizontal inequalities may be better at explaining why conflicts begin, but not necessarily why they persist.”

In Iraq, a combination of systemic discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, poor economic prospects in a country recovering from war, a long term international embargo and the removal of all Baathist party members from all civil employment all contributed to the start and continuation of the conflict. In Syria, ethnic and religious discrimination, a poor economic situation and a devastating drought helped fuel its civil war. In both of these cases, the economic situation and weak institutions helped push people to act on their grievances, grievances that can quickly spiral out of control. With both of these conflicts fresh on all of our minds, the benefits we stand to gain from simply not having this instability are evident. Fewer people are radicalized and fewer people travel overseas to engage in terrorism. But these are just the surface level benefits.

If we had invested significantly in the development of these nations, or any nation for that matter, we could’ve not only prevented instability, but have come to view them as trading partners in resources and finished goods, as military partners in regional security and as international partners which, despite their flaws, could be brought up to par on human rights through economic incentivization. While this sounds much easier than it actually is, spurring development is a long-term process that relies heavily on targeted investments and with a good bit of luck, the benefits are well worth it.

Currently, our ability to engage in these sorts of activities is at risk. The budget proposed by Donald Trump cuts a significant amount of money away from State and Treasury Department programs that engage in development. Without this money, we lose out on many of the benefits that investment can bring us. Furthermore, even trying justify this as putting “America first” neglects the benefits of stability, particularly in terrorism reduction.

Trump seems to believe that reducing development funding will make America safer when it, in fact, does the opposite. He believes that simply enlarging the military budget (by using funds plundered from development and other programs) will protect us, even though military interventions simply destabilize nations even more. Other nations not particularly friendly to the United States will take comfort in this as well. China has been steadily increasing its investment in African development, and reaping the benefits. A decrease in developmental investment by the United States could leave a vacuum China will likely be more than happy to fill.

With this in mind, it is more important than ever for voters and, by proxy, their representatives, to become informed and interested in the developing world. The opportunities available to us are humongous, while the penalties for ignoring this are immense. American hegemony and presence on the world stage is in large part dependent on our ability to form bonds and enforce stability. Keeping America great means prioritizing development, not abandoning it.

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