What does ‘developing’ mean?

My friend and fellow volunteer Max recently introduced me to the idea that journalists and people in general tend to use the same story frameworks to tell individual stories. He called them ‘grand narratives.’ In the case of international reporting the stories are told through the lens of a particular historical event or characteristic of that country. Argentina is understood in terms of its ‘dirty war’ in the 1970s, Cuba in terms of the communist revolution, Russia in terms of the fall of communism, China in terms of economic growth, and Nicaragua in terms of poverty. Nicaragua is often referred to as a ‘third world’ country, though that term is a bit outdated. ‘Third world’ really refers to the non-aligned countries during the cold war. The first world countries were the US and its capitalist allies, the second world was the Soviet Union and its communist allies, and the third world was all the rest. With the fall of communism the politically correct term has become ‘low-income country’ or ‘developing country.’

These seem like less of a value judgment, compared to ordering countries in a hierarchy, but I think there are subtle and important judgments being made even with these terms. Low-income is a pretty descriptive term, though its use tends to frame our understanding of the country in a particular way instead of trying to get at the complexities, the common humanity, and the diversity of experiences here. A great example is an article that was written about a friend of mine when she was back visiting home for Christmas. Her local paper wanted to write an article about her in the Peace Corps and so she gave an interview. When the article arrived a couple of weeks later, she was dismayed to discover that the focus was entirely on the poverty of the people, the lack of material comforts, the dirt and bugs, and the little day-to-day details that seem so insignificant to us living here. It’s understandable that this is the most accessible way to frame the article for a public and a reporter who likely do not have much experience living in other countries, but if we want to promote real cross-cultural understanding we’re going to have to move beyond the easy stories and tell the meaningful ones.

Some high-schoolers helping to repaint the school in Mérida

Calling Nicaragua a developing country seems very nice because it focuses on the progress that’s being made in economic development, healthcare, education, etc. Still, it hit me the other day that development itself is a loaded term. It implies that there’s some path from one point towards an end goal of being ‘developed.’ As many Peace Corps volunteers will tell you, there are lots of benefits of not being ‘developed,’ too. People tend to rely on each other more and form stronger communities. They also have a closer relationship with nature and the environment. This closer relationship with nature gets to the heart of an important difference of perspectives on development. What if we think of development as a movement from the subjection of humans to nature to the subjection of nature to humans? At some point in our history we must have realized that our brains give us the ability to manipulate nature and make it more amenable to us. Isn’t that what healthcare is? Doctors changing the natural course of our bodies and artificially lengthening our lives? Isn’t that what infrastructure is? Cutting down trees and bulldozing hills so that we can more easily move around? Isn’t that what modern conveniences do? Keep bugs out, control the indoor climate, cook and freeze food to our liking. And modern agriculture? We essentially uproot what was and replant what suits us in row after row of monoculture commercial farms.

What if development is thought of as a move to artificiality? If the dichotomy is between what is natural and what is artificial, then the value judgment is kind of turned on its head. Nicaragua becomes a less artificial country and the US perhaps the most artificial country that has ever existed. By ‘artificial’ I mean man-made, though obviously it has its own baggage as a term. I’m not suggesting we stop using the word ‘developed,’ but as a thought experiment it helps underscore the influence of language on how we conceptualize our world. If we uncritically use the term ‘developing’ to describe countries that share characteristics like low material wealth and less infrastructure, then we risk stifling the diversity, beauty, and connections that are everywhere in the world. I don’t think we should stop using the word, but I do think we should think beyond it.

Since writing this post, I have come across a startling TED talk about the dangers of a ‘single story.’ If you have 20 min free, this author explains better than I could ever hope to what I was trying to say: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story.html


4 responses to this post.

  1. hey andrew, great post!

    i recently wrote a blog post about community development as a goal for the type of work we do as volunteers, and i realize after reading this that i hadn’t really thought of the word “development” in the terms you describe here.

    it’s true what you say about describing a country in terms of its “development” often times imposes a value judgment. but i wonder if the natural/artificial dichotomy is actually what’s going on there. is an “underdeveloped” country really more natural than a developed one?

    obviously the natural/artificial thing is a big part of what’s going on but there’s more to it i think. a more generalized dichotomy that could describe this problem better might be the old standby, chaos/order and its parallel, un-control/control. (english has no direct equivalent to the spanish word “descontrol”!)

    an “underdeveloped” country is chaotic, disorderly, and indisciplined. that’s not to say that it’s necessarily a bad thing though right? a certain degree of disorder is healthy (see calle 13 – vamos a ‘portarnos mal). but chaos also represents a lack of knowledge. that is to say, all knowledge is essentially orderly, without assigning any value judgement to it.

    so the great project of a “developing” country is to identify those chaotic situations that are linked to issues of poverty and human need and change them, “develop” them in order to gain control over them.

    a “developed” country then, would be a country who has, as you say, begun to manipulate nature (nature is a kind of chaos) in order to make it orderly and therefore controllable. in the same way “developing” countries look to gain more control, “developed” countries look to temper their orderly systems in chaos. too much order, too much control, becomes intolerant and fascist. i think that’s why we as peace corps volunteers tend so see the benefits of “underdevelopment”.

    so basically i think there always needs to be an open dialogue between those elements of a culture, society, and economy that are chaotic, and those that are orderly, regardless of whether that country is considered “developing” or “developed”


    • Oh, Greg. Would that you could comment on all my posts. You bring a great perspective and critical ability to every issue. This comment I especially like because it posits an alternative explanation, and I love debate. Especially when, upon review, I remain convinced that my original dichotomy was the most apt one and look forward to hearing your response to my arguments:
      I cannot agree with your dichotomy between chaos and order unless you mean a very specific kind of order, which actually coincides with my original dichotomy. Here is why:
      Contrary to what you say(“nature is a kind of chaos”), there is a massive amount of order in underdeveloped countries, as there is in nature. The problem is that the order is such that the outcomes are not very positive for human survival and comfort. The order at work in these countries(and nature more generally) is natural selection. To be clear, by natural selection I mean the process of struggle for resources and reproduction in an environment. People struggle more for resources in underdeveloped countries because they lack institutions and technology to control their lives and surroundings. To our ‘developed’ eyes, accustomed to human-created institutions, this seems like chaos because it’s not what we want for ourselves. Who wants to live shorter lives, less healthy lives, and have less control over the heat and bugs and food? Nobody.
      What you have mixed up are the ideas of ‘order’ and ‘human-created order.’ When you say that developed countries are more ordered, you mean ‘more ordered by human institutions.’ I see plenty of order through natural selection in underdeveloped countries, just like I see lots of order in nature. There are literally thousands of precisely ordered systems within the human body that exist because of the process of natural selection. In fact, given how much order natural selection has created, I think it’s fair to say that it is the most orderly system known to humankind. If you’ll grant me this, then we can say that underdeveloped countries are more ‘orderly’ in a general sense than developed countries(incidentally, extending this logic leads to the conclusion that there is more ‘chaos’ in developed countries, where we have tried to impose human-created order on nature. The law of unintended consequences tells us that when we try to control complex systems we fail, so in terms of ‘chaos’ as happenings that fall outside of predictable models there is actually MORE order in undeveloped countries than in developed countries, it’s just that that order doesn’t suit our interests very well).
      So, if I have successfully argued that what you really mean when you say ‘order’ is ‘human-created order,’ then you are actually agreeing 100% with my original dichotomy because artificiality is just that: human-created order. Additionally, your parallel dichotomy of ‘un-control/control’ is already very close to nature/artifice, which may give a clue to our similar logic to begin with. Nature is determined by natural selection, which we as a species have rebelled against through artifice and ‘development.’ We have done this by using our specially equipped brains to develop cultural strategies to divert resources from their evolved places in the ecosystem to our own purposes, and it seemed to be working pretty well for a while. I think it is becoming increasingly clear that our rebellion is being proved short-lived because by diverting resources that were supporting a complex ecosystem that in turn supports us and by ignoring the unintended consequences of our actions we are actively undermining our own medium and long-term viability.
      I would love to hear your responses to my defense of my original dichotomy, my claim of your true definition of ‘order,’ my assumption that natural selection rather than a supernatural being is what gives order to nature, and most definitely your thoughts on my theory of human rebellion against natural selection as the root danger in human-created order rather than your argument about intolerance and fascism. Thanks again for the comment and I look forward to reading your newest posts!


  2. I wish I could comment on all your posts too! I’m on vacay in leon right now and I find myself with unprecedented internet access that seems to translate directly into unprecedented blog comments.

    Okay. This is fun. First of all, I too will stick to my guns and defend my claim that nature is chaos. We’ll start by looking a little closer at natural selection.

    So natural selection basically means that in a GIVEN population, certain traits among individuals “win out” over others and become more common over time. Your definition calls it the process of struggle for resources and reproduction in an environment. Basically the same thing. Cool.

    So in this thought experiment I’m a little hazy on what we’re defining as our population. Are we equating countries with individuals, thereby calling all countries of the world the population, or are we talking about individual people within a country in its own population? I suppose it’s also possible that we’re talking about both of those things at the same time, but that isn’t clear.

    Okay so the key word in your definition of natural selection is “struggle” right? Well, struggle is chaotic. I know what your going to say…”no, it just SEEMS chaotic to us…actually natural selection is a beautiful kind of natural order and we just have to understand these natural mechanisms to see it.”

    Alright now we’re getting to the meat of this. Sure, I agree that there is a real nonrandom orderly-looking structure to the idea that CERTAIN traits give an advantage to individuals within a CERTAIN population or environment. BUT, what is this apparent order predicated upon?

    Well, in order to UNDERSTAND natural selection in a real context we have to DEFINE a population (as I pointed out above). How do we do that? We draw a line. We say, “I am ONLY going to consider the population of Santa Lucía Boaco.” Okay fine. But do we mean the town itself or the whole municipality? Let’s say the municipality. Alright good. Wait but where exactly is the line between Santa Lucia and Teustepe? It’s the river through here, that’s cool, but over here the border crosses land and goes right through a few houses. Uh oh, do those people really belong to the population of Santa Lucia? We have to make a DECISION, yes or no. In every level of defining the population, we IMPOSE our thinking onto a world that keeps breaking down into infinite complexity. And what is infinity? It is a kind of chaos.

    All order that we see and understand is a function of our own human thinking and innate need to SIMPLIFY COMPLEXITY in order to make sense of things. Order DOES NOT EXIST NATURALLY IN THE WORLD.

    Sure we see patterns in nature, but when we really really look at what’s there, at some point we are forced to DRAW THE LINE. It depends on what our purpose is. We as humans are incredibly adept at using tools, and we define them in just such a way that they become effective in a CERTAIN environment. The progression of science is basically just a series of ever-increasingly-more-defined tools and models that we use to describe an essentially indescribable world.

    One such tool is the idea of natural selection. It’s a great tool under the right circumstances. But as I’ve pointed out, in order for it to make sense, it must refer to a WELL DEFINED population. And even beyond that, natural selection, as a facet of the theory of evolution, is also predicated upon RANDOM genetic mutations. Random meaning unpredictable and chaotic. Random meaning nature.

    So I haven’t actually mixed up “order” and “human-created order”. What I’m saying is that an “order” that isn’t created by humans doesn’t exist. All order is human-created order.

    The order that you claim exists in underdeveloped countries due to the forces of natural selection does not actually exist there naturally. Sure it can exist AFTER WE DEFINE IT, after we impose our human-created ordering tool upon it, but natural selection is not a thing-in-itself that exists freely in the world divorced from our understanding of it.

    What this means in the context of my response then, is that yes indeed, I do in fact agree 100% with your original dichotomy! Artifice is in fact human-created order. It’s just that ALL order is human-created order.

    My original point was that the natural/artificial dichotomy exists and is an important aspect of the idea, but that it’s somewhat lacking and does not address the fundamental dichotomy at work. We talk about nature and artifice, un-control and control. But we’re really talking about chaos and order.

    Now we’ll look at the idea of human rebellion against natural selection. I will argue that the “order” in natural selection is not a separate kind of order that is specially of the world. Natural selection is a kind of human-created order as well.

    The “human rebellion” we’re talking about here is our use of the human-created tools and knowledge for extracting usable materials from the environment (that is to say extracting natural resources). We realized that from the black liquid that comes from the ground, we can make things move and make plants grow. We invented combustion engines and developed fertilizers. We were masters of the world!

    Then, fairly recently we started to look around us. Global temperatures were rising, weather patterns changing, and we realized this stuff we were taking out of the planet was was not going to last forever. Oops. The tools we had created for ourselves were very effective at what they were meant for–we had cars and high-fructose corn syrup after all–but those tools, those ordering systems were not measured against a sufficient understanding of other factors.

    The other factors I’m talking about then, are the environmental consequences of implementing our oil-extracting knowledge and tools. Our understanding of environmental consequences, I argue, are ANOTHER form of human-created order. We still can’t assume that our understanding of those consequences, although much more advanced today than ten years ago, is necessarily COMPLETE and PERFECT.

    Science is not that clear cut. It’s history is rife with examples of models that were thought to be absolutely correct, but were later described by more accurate models. Just look at Ptolemy’s epicycles. That model was a mathematically perfect way of describing the movements of the five known planets at the time. It had great predictive ability. But then we replaced it with a better model. It happens. We’re trying to describe an essentially chaotic natural world after all.

    I think where we differ in our thinking is whether or not we believe the order described by natural selection exists in itself outside of our human ability to understand it. You believe that there is some special kind of order that exists out there in the world, separate from human-created order. It seems to me that to be able to believe that, you need to have a great deal of faith. I don’t think there’s any way you can prove it. You’d have to employ human-created concepts and models to describe it to me.

    I argue that by virtue of the limitations of our methods of understanding, (that is, the way we have to simplify the natural world in order to make it understandable and manageable), the idea of natural selection itself is and must be a human-created imperfect model.

    I think the model we have defined as natural selection is a very good model, but I want to make sure we realize that sometime in the future, we might discover an even better model that describes the same phenomenon. “Natural” order is not ontologically of the world, but only exists in any meaningful way in our understanding of it.

    So, I’m not rescinding my previous claims. I do want to make it clear though, that I was never actually disagreeing with your nature/artifice dichotomy. I just thought the chaos/order thing was a bit more accurate.

    Well that was a blast! I can’t wait to see what you make of my argument!



    • Ah, this is fun. I miss good debates here. 🙂
      Yeah, I do agree that we’re not really disagreeing, but I think you’re essentially deconstructing away the entire foundation of our discussion instead of confronting my argument that there IS order in nature.
      On ontology, or what we can say exists: I will grant you your point for a moment, though from a practical standpoint I think you’re going to have to grant me something if we’re going to have a substantive debate. I acknowledge that there can be no proving an existence of external reality outside of the human construction of its meaning. It is my understanding that the postmodern mode of thinking is that we completely construct reality. I personally consider this a valuable tool in the philosophical toolkit, but one that will get us nowhere. It’s something to keep in mind, but not something to use to guide your life decisions nor to structure a meaningful debate. In order to have a real discussion about reality we need to agree that the best we can do is develop theories based on evidence that is observable, consistent, and independently confirmed. These theories will never be perfect or complete, but if we cannot treat them as describing actual reality then we cannot say anything with any kind of certainty. I need you to grant that we can treat theories about nature and reality based on evidence as sufficiently well grounded to accept in our debate. Examples in this case will include natural selection, gravity, electromagnetic forces, crystals, and evolution.
      You brought up ‘faith’ in your response, which is interesting. I suppose that to say anything about what exists you have to have faith in something. I think living with the minimum necessary faith is the safest and most productive path, so I have faith in scientific evidence (and sometimes, as a philosophical exercise, I doubt even that). I’m going to need you to share that minimum level of faith for us to be able to debate on the same plane, because if you’re saying that I can’t make claims about what exists in reality I can just as legitimately say that you cannot make any claims about what does NOT exist in reality. Given that this will lead us nowhere, I say, let’s base our arguments in evidence.

      Where I disagree: You say, ‘All order is human-created order,’ ‘Natural selection is a kind of human-created order as well,’ and also ‘Order DOES NOT EXIST NATURALLY IN THE WORLD.’ In another part you say ‘Our understanding of environmental consequences, I argue, are ANOTHER form of human-created order.’
      These all seem to be variations on your ontological point that nothing can be said to exist outside of our construction of it as a concept. If you have accepted my assumption that we can say some things about reality with relative certainty, then we are left agreeing only on your last point: it is our UNDERSTANDING of nature that is human-created, not the phenomenon that it attempts to describe. To claim that humans created the order that I’m referring to as natural order would seem ridiculous. If you accept that humans evolved from previous life forms, how can you say then that natural selection is a human-created process? We would not exist if nature did not have any order independent of us.
      If we can move past this ontological point by agreeing that whatever we call these processes and however imperfectly we may understand them, they work independent of humans and our constructed concepts of them, then we can talk more specifically about definitions, which we probably should have taken care of at the beginning. I think I see now where some of our confusion is coming from. We’re talking about very slippery and multi-definitional concepts that have different interpretations based on the disciplines from which we choose to approach them.
      According to Wikipedia, Chaos can refer to: “any state of confusion or disorder; Randomness, a lack of intelligible pattern or combination.”
      This leaves us basically with either randomness or disorder. I’m going to argue that disorder is a more meaningful concept in our case, and specifically entropic disorder. Still, let’s examine randomness briefly:“The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘random’ as “Having no definite aim or purpose; not sent or guided in a particular direction; made, done, occurring, etc., without method or conscious choice; haphazard.”(from Wiki)
      I think we can agree that in some senses, nature is very chaotic, but in the most important sense I consider nature on earth(at least since self-replication came about) to be ‘guided in a particular direction’ by natural selection. If it weren’t, then we wouldn’t have increasingly complex organisms evolving over time. If we take chaos as randomness then we cannot say that nature is completely random. However, I prefer the definitions of order/disorder and chaos that come from thermodynamics.
      Here are some selections from the Wiki page on Entropy(order and disorder): “In thermodynamics, entropy is commonly associated with the amount of order, disorder, and/or chaos in a thermodynamic system. In the 2002 encyclopedia Encarta, for example, entropy is defined as a thermodynamic property which serves as a measure of how close a system is to equilibrium; as well as a measure of the disorder in the system. Locally, the entropy can be lowered by external action. This applies to machines, such as a refrigerator, where the entropy in the cold chamber is being reduced, and to living organisms.”
      The last sentence refers to entropy(disorder) being lowered locally by machines(human-created order) or in living organisms(natural order). In the sense of the terms given by thermodynamics, I propose these definitions:
      Human-created order: systems designed by humans that locally decrease entropy(disorder), often in an attempt to optimize the environment for human survival and comfort.
      Natural order: systems that locally decrease entropy(disorder), but are not created by humans(like natural selection).
      Order: any system that has non-maximal entropy(disorder).
      Disorder/Chaos: any state which has maximum entropy.

      I think we can probably agree that there is a spectrum along which we can say certain states are more chaotic or more ordered than others. I think one difference we have been struggling with is the idea that ‘nature is chaotic’ and tends toward disorder. In a broad sense I completely agree with that statement. Indeed, the second law of thermodynamics says that increasing entropy is inevitable. It is literally a law of nature (insofar as we have been able to discover) that disorder(entropy) can only increase in a closed system. However, what we are talking about in the current example is LOCALIZED order and disorder. My main point is that local entropy can decrease (order can increase) in either human-directed ways or in ways that are independent of human intervention. Would you disagree with this?
      If not, then we can return at last to the original example of more and less developed countries. In order to argue that less developed countries are more chaotic in the entropic sense of the word, you would have to argue that there is a lower available level of energy in less developed countries than in more developed countries. This is where our distinction between energy systems directed for human benefit versus use in non-human systems comes into play. My argument is that while in more developed countries humans divert more of the available energy toward their own consumption, they are not creating more local energy, they are simply highjacking what’s already there. In less developed countries they have essentially the same energy systems, but they are not utilizing them for human benefit through human-created systems to the same extent. This means that there is not more chaos in less developed countries, but simply more natural order as opposed to human-created order.
      So, in sum:
      Will you continue to argue that all order is human-created order, given that in the absence of human intervention we observe outcomes that have been ‘guided in a particular direction’ or at least have decreased local entropy(disorder)? Do you really argue that order does not exist naturally in the world? If nature is pure chaos and disorder and is in complete equilibrium with no energy available for work, how is it that we came to exist?
      How do you feel about my definitions? How do you define chaos?
      Thanks so much for engaging with me on this! We should do this more. 🙂



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