Stop Idolising Western Countries
Developing means just that, developing…
We are our worst critics. We are certainly not perfect. But maybe just perhaps, we are not as messed up as we may be led to believe. I’m not saying that reality isn’t dim, that poverty isn’t real or that corruption doesn’t significantly affect territories placed in the category of being a ‘developing’ nation. What I would like to question is the degree to which these maladies are universal, rather than being unique challenges that plague nations of the ‘Third World’. Moreover, I think it’s time that we probe more deeply the comparisons made between ourselves (as developing nations) and our more developed neighbours. I am not saying that such comparisons shouldn’t be made, but if we are going to compare development across the ‘First’ and ‘Third’ world, can we at least ensure that it’s done in a way that’s fair, transparent and takes modern history into account?
What must it be like to govern a country in the 2020s? If you’re from a developing country like mine, you are told that development should be environmentally sustainable, socially inclusive and economically viable. More importantly, developing economies are encouraged to adopt a human rights approach to socio-economic planning. As an international relations professional and a returning national to a developing country (having lived in a developed country), I have come to realise that while these prescriptions are harmless, and perhaps even helpful, they are often cloaked in more insidious narratives. The first such narrative is that developing countries should look up to and seek to emulate the practices and policies of developed nations. Indeed, by using terms like “international best practice” and “First World”, developing countries and even the companies within them urged to emulate practices and policies found in more developed nations. By themselves, such prescriptions seem harmless, but they are often wrapped in another global narrative that seems to assert that there is one development path that all nations should follow. This narrative anoints developed nations as the guardians and guides on this path and castigates those that dare veer from it. However, closer examinations reveal not only that developed nations did not use this path themselves, but also that punishment for rule-breaking is not based on one’s deeds or misdeeds, but on who has the power to leverage and control the global narrative.
Faulty Comparators: A Key Source of Our Poor Self-Assessment
Widely held prescriptions or approaches to development and socio economic planning, often referred to as the ‘Washington Consensus’, that often mandate the adoption of specific free market policies, do not represent a perfect mode of operation. Like democracy itself, these approaches are widely held (at least in the “First World”) to be the best that we can come up with for now. Notwithstanding this, perceptions related to the progress being made within developing nations are often measured against the principles of the Washington Consensus and enforced by international development agencies. In so doing, these very principles (see page 13 of this document and page 16 of this book) have become the comparators against which progress and development is often measured.
As it relates to economic development, data surrounding a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is often used as a measure of progress, but is by no means a perfect measure. In fact, in many instances, it is misleading and does not reflect the very real challenges and vulnerabilities being experienced by developing nations. As a brief example, the relatively high GDP figures of a number of Caribbean Small Island Developing States (SIDS) like Antigua and Barbuda and Barbados, often mask the devastating impacts of hurricanes and other climate impacts that occur almost annually — but their GDP figures are used to disqualify them from much needed overseas development assistance (ODA). However, unlike democracy, it is not the best that we can come up with: we can do better. Several alternatives have already been proposed and there is a growing call to find alternatives to GDP as a measure of economic progress.
Yet sometimes when I listen to people speak about development, they seem convinced that there is only one way, one path that can or should be taken. It is a new political religion that seeks to convert all and sundry to one way of viewing governance and economic management. Let us be clear though: most of the economies currently classed as being in the “First World” did not get to where they are by adhering to the great majority (if any) of the current prescriptions that are often thrust, sometimes forcefully, upon, developing economies.
Do as I Say, Not as I Did
The most advanced Western economies were built through the ‘employ’ of hundreds and hundreds of years of absolutely free and severely exploitative labour. Not only did they benefit from the free labour of enslaved Africans for over three centuries, but by so doing they also deprived the African labour market of the resources required to fuel its own development. Walter Rodney did an amazing job of explaining this reality in his book, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa”. Yet still, even as these nations try to bridge a gap caused by a 300-year head start, they are faced not only with the responsibility to provide remuneration for workers, but they must now provide fair wages for decent work in a manner that is globally competitive. This is understandable and admirable, but the barriers faced by developing nations are formidable. Technological strides, though immensely helpful, have not been the great equaliser as some had hoped — not domestically within countries, or globally. The digital and technological divide is not only exacerbated by difficulties associated with a lack of access to devices (and to education), but is also made worse by the fact that much of the intellectual property driving technological applications is owned by powerful nations. This raises an interesting consideration: that the cost of technology acquisition for developing countries trying to compete with larger developed nations may be higher than the equivalent cost that would have been experienced by those former colonial powers at the height of the industrial revolution — when the enforcement of intellectual property rights was not as robust as it is today.
Moreover, if modern environmental standards and regulations were imposed on developed nations at the height of economic and industrial development, the industrial revolution would never have occurred and the vast sums of wealth it afforded would never have been accrued. Factories were constructed and production lines were established across the Western world. Vast plumes of thick smog, effluent in the form of countless pollutants that were released into lakes, streams and rivers along with the tons of carbon emissions released into the atmosphere were simply viewed as the output of a productive process or as market failure.
I am in no way advocating for a return to unethical labour or environmental practices in developing countries. However, it needs to be highlighted that reforms did not merely inevitably follow increased awareness or scientific findings. It took more than one hundred years of sustained revolt and advocacy to end slavery. The issue sparked a Civil War in the USA that cost more than a half a million lives. Similarly, it has taken decades upon decades to bring about meaningful environmental regulatory reform — and that work is on-going. In the field of Climate Change, commitments still fall short of what is required to stem damaging and catastrophic impacts, particularly on vulnerable communities and countries. There is still considerable resistance to enhanced oversight and reform from a few powerful nations including Australia and the USA (though this does depend on the administration of the day).
My point is simple: developing means developing. Meaningful reforms usually take time. Yet even as nations of the Third World strive for better within the political and economic frameworks dictated to them, they are forced to contend with unequal double standards and expectations of the global community. The goalposts aren’t merely shifting, there seem to be different goalposts altogether (for poorer nations). What’s equally as frustrating is the on-going (and not always subtle) condescending attitudes towards developing nations. These range from receiving policy dictates from powerful nations in the form of conditional financing (i.e. grant or loan finance that is only made available if specific local policy changes are made: sometimes referred to as “policy-based loans”), to derogatory statements behind closed doors about “shit-hole” countries. I recall an incident that occurred while pursuing my Master’s Degree in Scotland. I was in the library and electrical power had been lost — however, it was daytime and bright enough to continue studying — which is what I did. I still remember one librarian fuming at another that the “pathetic” state of affairs made them feel like they were living in a “Third World country”. I know what it’s like to have my country (or a country like mine) serve as the basis of an insult, the butt of a joke or the reference point for the lowest common denominator. The comparisons between practices in the Third World and those that occur in developed countries are rarely based on any objective criteria and they’re usually done devoid of context. Even more so, the double-standards that are often so crassly imposed on developing nations are becoming easier to identify.
(Increasingly Blatant) Double Standards
Make no mistake, if the leader of a Third World country were to go against the advice of scientific experts and suggest that persons use UV light or inject themselves with disinfectant or use bleach to fight COVID-19 or any other global pandemic that had killed hundreds of thousands of their own people, there would have been more than an outcry — it would have been met with mockery. When a former South African Minister of Health, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang advised persons to eat vegetables to treat HIV, she was publicly and internationally ridiculed. Inadequate attention was placed on the reason former freedom-fighter’s distrust of western medicine. Instead, she was labelled Dr. Beetroot and blamed (perhaps justifiably) for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of South Africans — even though she was later credited for the improvement of care in rural villages.
Indeed, when leaders of developing countries deny or question scientific evidence, the conversation often veers toward the existence of a crisis of leadership, about corruption and mismanagement and about the need to improve Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education in such territories. Official communiques from Western nations and their allies are sometimes dispatched to such a government to express concern about such developments and international organisations place pressure on the administration to implement reforms. Certainly, aid and donor-funded programmes are brought into question or halted. More subtly, the language used to describe such an administration would be changed from would say government, state and administration to “regime” to signal the existence of a creeping dictatorship, that something was amiss. None of this seems to occur if you represent a powerful nation.
Powerful nations, as the world’s leading caste, have the ability, nay the privilege to control the narrative and by doing so to exercise undue influence over public perceptions of specific peoples, cultures and nations. Is it any wonder therefore that persons from Western countries have such a dim view of Russia and China? Or that entire populations have been conditioned to so do?
The Legacy of the Cold War: West = Good, East = Evil?
If we are to believe the subliminal and sometimes direct messaging that is delivered to our screens and print news we should simply accept and believe that Russia and China are evil and that the United States and its Western allies are our saviours.
What if the world isn’t that simple?
Is Russia home to 25% of the world’s prison population? No, that would be the USA. The contradictions are becoming too stark to ignore.
The mistreatment of ethnic minorities such as the Uyghurs in China has (rightfully) drawn expressions of concern, and some sanctions from across the Western world. Yet, the lack of public repudiation and meaningful action on the part of international organisations (including but not limited to the UN) surrounding the treatment of ethnic minorities in the USA, particularly by its criminal justice and immigration systems, is noteworthy. African Americans are not only considerably over-represented within US prisons, but their abuse and slaughter at the hands of law enforcement officials did not begin with the death of George Floyd. Mr Floyd’s death only highlighted a trend that has been occurring for years. An attempt by the African Union to launch a probe at the UN Human Rights Council (from which the US has withdrawn) into systemic racism and alleged violations of international human rights law and abuses against “Africans and of people of African descent in the United States of America and other parts of the world” was stymied by US diplomats and watered-down to a wider and more general report “systemic racism and discrimination against black people”.
Even if one were to look past the sanction-worthy issue of Uyghur imprisonment and labour, the fact remains that if China uses any prison labour to manufacture goods cheaply such as cotton based goods, it is met with threats of, or actual sanctions. If this occurs within the USA, as has been done to produce Idaho potatoes as well as products for Walmart, AT&T, Whole Foods and Victoria’s Secret, it is simply the productive use of otherwise idle labour and not in contravention of its 13th amendment.
Could a ‘Third World’ nation place immigrant children in cages and separate over 500 of them from their parents without expressions of grave concern from the international community?
It would be wrong of me to Americanise this dynamic. Caribbean economist Marla Dukharan has given a detailed account of how the European Union (EU) arbitrarily created its own rules related to base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) — a practice that contributes to the creation of jurisdictions commonly referred to as “tax havens” even though an internationally recognised framework already existed and was being enforced by the Global Forum on Transparency and Exchange of Information for Tax Purposes. At the time of writing, the Global Forum, established by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) listed 161 countries as members, giving the initiative, widespread global recognition. Notwithstanding this, the EU, a bloc of 27 nations, published and began enforcing its own “black-list” (metaphorically and literally) of tax havens while turning a blind eye to identical practices within its own bloc and other developed countries. The reason is simple, this issue has little to do with building capacity across the world to address BEPS, or even money laundering and the financing of criminal or terrorist activities. For the EU at least, it’s about power: and leveraging it in the narrow pursuit of its own interests. When you are a member of the world’s leading caste, you get to make the rules. You’re allowed to determine who’s white and who’s black — who’s a sinner and who’s a saint.
Backward & Primitive Nations
Perhaps most importantly, for all of its ills and and all of its imperfections, no one (particularly those positions of influence or leadership) dare refer to the US or its Western Allies as “backward”. Yet still, that term has become part of the ‘lingua franca’ used to describe so many countries and peoples of the developing world. What’s even worse than the labels ascribed to developing nations from powerful nations are the harmful labels we ascribe to ourselves. I have repeatedly had to rebuke students in my classroom for referring to our own country as backward. My question is always the same: “If we are backward, who is forward?” Who have we placed on a pedestal?
The narrative has been controlled and spun to such an extent where we no longer need persons from outside of our borders to call us derogatory names like backward or primitive. We (and I say this as a citizen of a developing country) often buy into these lies and perceptions, to the degree that we now call ourselves these terms. The irony and foolishness of such attitudes lies in the fact that in reality, it makes little sense to look down on a mud hut made by the hands of a loving and supporting local community while glorifying towering commercial buildings erected on the backs of slave labour.
At times we forget that the great metropolitan nations of the West attained their current status and level of development behind the barrel of a gun and the extension of whips. I am not trying to reverse what obtains at present. I’m not seeking to demonise such countries for the wealth they now hold. What I am pleading for is a more fair assessment of development, particularly on behalf of those countries that are referred to as being in the “Third World”. Developing means developing. It is a long and arduous process and mistakes are made. Unscrupulous leaders are found everywhere. There is a dire need to end the practice of placing specific nations or even leaders on a pedestal without fully accounting for the context that brought them to the position that they currently hold.
As such, whether this is done in the form of glorifying the use of violence at the hands of one of their militaries, idealising social policies and practices or extolling ‘best practices’ of a commercial enterprise from one of these countries: we need to end the idolisation of the West. There are great things about every country on the planet and they are things that are deeply flawed. That is the human story.
Imperfections follow the esteemed intentions of all leaders and systems. So while it may be appropriate to examine, or even emulate elements of how the US developed strong capitalist markets, and local economies, one might want to take a much more cautious approach when seeking to learn from their systems of education or public health provision. There are things that we can learn from everywhere. And maybe that’s what we should be doing. Having gone through a global pandemic, maybe we can talk about how countries, many of whom are in the ‘Third World’ (and quite a few from the African continent) performed admirably. The relevant question has little to do with a country’s ranking in the world, but rather, about what can we learn from them: regardless of their caste or level of development.