Defining ‘Development’

International development professionals categorise countries into ‘more’ or ‘less’ developed. This post explores the meanings and origins of these terms, looking at the concepts of first, second and third world, before looking at the criticism that such systems of classification are ethnocentric, western constructions. 

This post has primarily been written for students studying the Global Development option for A-Level Sociology.

What is development?

least developed countries.gif

The term development is used in several ways, but most sociologists agree that development should mean, at the very least, improvement or progress for people who desperately need positive change in their lives.

The main debates about development are underpinned by modernity, meaning that development agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations aim to replicate within developing societies the material and cultural experience of modern Western societies such as the United Kingdom and the United States.

Consequently, most sociologists believe that development is about achieving economic growth, and the positive consequences which have generally stemmed from that, such as improvements in life expectancy, mass education and social welfare.

This generally means that most countries in Europe are defined as being ‘more developed’ while countries in Sub-Saharan Africa tend to be defined as the ‘least developed’.

Nigeria, in West Africa is an example of a ‘less developed country’

Key Statistics 

  • Population: 207 million
  • GNI per capita – $2030 (2018)
  • Life Expectancy at Birth – 54 (2017)
  •  Infant Mortality Rate – 74/ 1000 live births
  • Literacy Rates – Male 71%, Female – 53%
  • Child Labour Rate – 43%
  • Urban Population – 51%
  • Main export – Petroleum
  • Best World Cup performance – round of 16 (2014).

A Global Hierarchy of Development

Many sociologists and geographers today use the following four categories to distinguish between different ‘levels’ of economic and social development.

CategoryKey features of countriesExamples
More economically developed countries   MEDCsThese are the wealthy industrial-capitalist countries which generally experience economic growth year on year. Their populations enjoy a good standard of living, which means high life expectancy of 80+ years, free primary and secondary education and access to good quality housing and consumer goods are the norm.Western European countries     The USA
Newly industrialized countries   NICsThese are the so-called ‘Asian-Tiger’ economies of which have rapidly industrialised in the past 40 years and which today have a large share of the global market in computers, electronics, plastics and textiles.China     South Korea
Less economically developed countries   LEDCsSocieties which have experienced extensive urbanization and therefor positive economic growth. However, the economies of these societies are also heavily dependent on agriculture, and extraction of raw materials. Poverty is still a big problem in many of these countries.Brazil,   India, Mexico Ghana
Least   economically developed countries LLEDCsThe poorest countries in the world, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa where absolute poverty is the daily norm. These societies experience low life expectancy of around 60 years, and high child mortality rates, linked to preventable diseases such as malaria. They also lack basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and clean water. Many of these countries also experience high levels of conflict, which is both a cause and consequences of their underdevelopment.Sierra-Leone   Somalia DRCongo Afghanistan Bangladesh Haiti

Some development thinkers from the ‘post-development perspective’ have criticised the above system of categorisation for being an ethnocentric, Western perspective on development, because it implies that industrialised, wealthy nations are superior, and less economically developed countries in other parts of the world as inferior. The implication of this hierarchy is that all countries should aim to become more like those Western countries at the top.

Questions to consider:

  • In general, do you think that it’s fair to make the generalisation that European countries are more developed than Sub-Saharan African countries?
  • Should less developed countries strive to become more like Western, Industrialised countries?

The Origins of Western Ideas of ‘International Development’

The concept of rich countries helping poor countries to develop emerged after World War II in the context of the Cold War.

By the end of the Second World War many of the countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America had failed to develop and remained poor, and there was concern amongst the leaders of the western developed countries, especially the United States, that communism might spread into many of these countries, potentially harming American business interests abroad and diminishing U.S. Power.

The conventional way of seeing the world was to split it into first, second and third worlds

First WorldDescribed the industrialised capitalist world – the USA, Western Europe, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.
Second worldDescribed the industrialized communist world – The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Third worldDescribed the rest of the world and covered a vast range of countries in different circumstances and at different stages of development, but what most of them shared in common was the fact that they lacked an industrial base, they had not gone through industrialization.

From the perspective of the developed first world, it was essential to encourage the poorer countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America to adopt a capitalist-industrialist model of development in order to prevent them from forming alliances with the communist second world. In short, development was seen as essential to halt the spread of communism.

The term ‘third world’ also made sense from the perspective of many of those in poorer countries: many countries wanted to pursue their own paths to development, without the ‘assistance’ of either the United States or Communist Russia.

It was immediately after World War Two that the main international institutions of development were established – such as The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations, and for decades, aid money was deliberately channeled to those countries most likely to ‘fall into the hands of the communists’.

Dependency Theorists and Post-Development Theorists (covered in a future lesson) have been critical of Western attempts to help third world countries develop. They argue that aid money and aid programmes have really been about maintaining western political and economic superiority, and less about helping poor countries actually develop,

However, since the collapse of communism in the 1990s, and thanks to significant reforms in the way aid money is distributed through international institutions, ‘development’ today seems to be more about actually helping poor countries develop and less about the west maintaining its political and economic superiority.

But there are those who argue that even today the international development agenda really has a deeper, political purpose, and ‘development’ is not necessarily about helping poor countries. For example a quarter of the UK aid budget goes to the military, and much of this is spent fighting.  Islamic extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan, which clearly has a political purpose, although you could just as easily argue that eradicating extremism is a necessary perquisite for any positive change to take place.

Questions to consider

Q1: Why where the countries of the first world concerned to help the countries of the first world develop after World War Two?

Q2: What is the ‘main purpose’ of the three development institutions mentioned above?

Q3: Why were some theorists critical of western attempts to help poor countries develop?

Criticisms of Western Constructs of Development

Writer Eduardo Galeano offers a (self-identified) third world perspective on ‘development’, which serves as a useful criticism of Western concepts of development. You should be able to find three criticisms of western ‘notions’ of development below. 

Eduardo Galeano

It was the promise of the politicians, the justification of the technocrats, and the illusion of the outcast. The Third World will become like the First World – rich, cultivated and happy if it behaves and does what it is told, without saying anything or complaining. WE CAN BE LIKE THEM, proclaimed a gigantic illuminated board along the highway to development.

However, if the poor countries reached the levels of production and waste of the rich countries, our planet would die. Already it is in a coma, seriously contaminated by the industrial civilisation and emptied of its last drop of substance by the consumer society.

A further disadvantage with the Western notion of development is that it assumes that those countries that are more economically developed are better… i.e. more developed. In contrast, the developing world contains many worlds, the different melodies of life, their pains and strains: the thousand and one ways of living and speaking, thinking and creating, eating, working, dancing, playing, loving, suffering, and celebrating that we have discovered over so many thousands of years.

A further notion is that using terms such as ‘undeveloped’ implies that these countries are inferior and need help, it justifies intervention when this may not be wanted/ be perceived as interference.

Another, but substantially different, Third World approach to development was offered by the theory of self-reliance, put forward by Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in 1967. The basic idea was self-reliance, or autonomy. It drew on the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, who proposed a non-exploitative moral economics in which each level of society, from individual through village to state took only what was necessary and accumulation was perceived to be negative.

Case Study: The Island of Anuta

The island of Anuta, part of the Solomon Islands (population 300) seems pretty idyllic, but would these people be better off if they followed an industrial-capitalist model of development?

I first ‘discovered’ the island of Anuta thanks to the excellent BBC series Tribe, broadcast over a decade ago now. If you can track it down, the DVD is well worth a watch to see how things have changed for the islanders over the last decade.

Review Questions 

  • Outline some of the differences between the least and most developed countries on earth.
  • Explain where the terms ‘first world’, ‘second world’ and ‘third world’ came from, and some of the limitations of these concepts.
  • Outline three criticisms of ‘Western’ ideas of development


  • See the ‘about’ page for the main A-level text books I use as references, which are the ones the AQA draws on for the exam.
  • The stats above are taken from World Bank data
  • Eduardo Galeano: The Open Veins of Latin America.
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