B S Raghavan

Semantics behind grouping of countries

B. S. Raghavan | Updated on February 07, 2011

Human mind loves to classify and categorise whatever things, features, events, happenings or phenomena it comes across, whether natural or manmade. In the case of countries, the time-honoured method was, and still is, to view them as belonging to specified geographical or climatic regions.

At the end of the Second World War, the UN and the Bretton Woods duo — the World Bank and the IMF — came into existence as forums for dealing with problems, issues and concerns of members from diverse political backgrounds and at different stages of economic development. It was clear that there could not be one omnibus plan of action covering all of them, since the priorities and requirements were not the same for all the members. Hence, multilateral organisations began differentiating between them to tailor their approach to the distinctive characteristics of particular countries or groups of countries.

In those far-off days, when there was no squeamishness on the part of Westerners to call a spade a spade, countries were simply labelled as ‘advanced' and ‘backward' or ‘rich' and ‘poor'. As time went on, the mode and description became more sophisticated with euphemisms taking over so as not to hurt the susceptibilities of nations.

Ranking of nations

The evolution of these alarums and excursions to make every one feel comfortable is in itself a fascinating case-study. For instance, the stark original division of ‘rich' and ‘poor' went through successive incarnations progressively taking out any sting of aspersion, condescension or patronisation. First, ‘poor' became ‘low-income' and ‘rich' became ‘high-income'; next came ‘developed and undeveloped', but when this was found to be harsh, the latter term was changed first to ‘under-developed' and then to ‘developing'. Somewhere along the way, the coinage ‘least developed' also was smuggled into the vocabulary.

Soon, classification based on stages of development gave way to one of ranking of nations into First, Second and Third Worlds. This was because, as a recent paper ‘Classifications of Countries Based on Their Level of Development: How it is Done and How it Could be Done' published under the aegis of the IMF rightly points out, “An explicit system that categorises countries based on their development level must build on a clearly articulated view of what constitutes development…there is no criterion (either grounded in theory or based on an objective benchmark) that is generally accepted… Where exactly to draw the line between developing and developed countries is not obvious.”

Strong exception

At this stage, the UNDP hit upon an another tack. The IMF paper draws attention to how it has sought to distinguish between economic and human development, and establish a pecking order among countries based on the Human Development Index (HDI) which is supposed to be at the very core of the factors governing the inherent potential and growth prospects of any given country. Basically, it is made up of three indices measuring countries' achievements in longevity, education, and income.

In its Human Development Report of 2010, the income measure used in the HDI is Gross National Income per capita with local currency estimates converted into equivalent US dollars using purchasing power parity, while longevity is measured by life expectancy at birth and education by combining measures of actual and expected years of schooling.

In any case, when Indira Gandhi, in her address to one of the UN Conferences, took strong exception to the self-glorification implied in certain countries calling themselves First and to the denigration of some others as Second and Third, out the window it went and was replaced by the ingenious depiction of countries as belonging to either North or South.

For some time past, the nomenclature ‘industrialised' and ‘industrialising', and even ‘emerging economies', is being tried out. Whatever it is, the sixty-year long struggle with the semantics of a sanitised system of classification of countries cannot be said to have come to an end yet.

Published on February 07, 2011

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