• The Gender Security Project

What's in a Name? (Part 2)

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu and Kirthi Jayakumar





Some of the existing approaches to classifying states are as follows:


A Numbers Game: The terms Majority World and Minority World were popularised by Shahidul Alam, a Bangladeshi photographer, in the early 1990s. He began using the majority world as a replacement for ‘third world’ because it was an accurate term to describe the fact that the majority of the world’s population comes from what are considered to be ‘developing regions’. Conversely, minority world refers to those countries traditionally termed as ‘developed’, where a minority of the world’s population resides. These terms are both considered to be more objective and realistic, in that they define the region on what it is rather than what it lacks. Majority and minority world also call to attention the bizarre reality that a majority of the world’s wealth, resources, power and capital lie with the minority world and that the decisions and actions of this minority impact the rest of the world. While both this nomenclature is a refreshing change of pace, in that it gives the power back to the historically oppressed section of the world through vernacular means, it is still a little bit of an oversimplification. [1]


Classification based on data: Another objective alternative is to avoid terminology and classify countries based on indexes and statistics such as the human development indicators (HDI) or gross domestic product (GDP). This way, there is specificity according to different contexts and acknowledges that the world is too diverse to be split into two binaries. A good example of this type of classification is the usage of the terms low-income, middle-income, high-income and lower-middle income countries which divides countries based on national GDP levels. This indicator was first established by the World Bank in order to give preference to low-income countries for loans and conditions. While number-based indexes are objective, these terms are not used outside of the development sector and there is always the risk/problem of unreliable or fudged data. Moreover, while the World Bank recognised that income by itself doesn’t measure development levels, it still holds economic progress to idealised western standards. [2]


West vs Rest: Another terminology which is gaining popularity in the development sector is the term “WEIRD” societies, which was coined by Joseph Henrich, an anthropologist, cultural evolutionist and professor at Harvard. WEIRD stands for western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic and Henrich argues that such ‘values’ are “culturally determined and specific rather than universal or natural”. [3] While it is a useful and highly specific acronym, critics have argued that it does not take into consideration the centuries of imperialism, racism, environmental catastrophe, genocide and expropriation that “supercharged Europe’s development”. While highlighting prosperity and innovation as the hallmarks of Catholic-based cultures and societies, Henrich’s formulation of the WEIRD theory descends into many outdated and essentialist stereotypes of non-WEIRD societies. Thus, while it is a historically accurate terminology, the underlying formulations are actually riddled with many racist conclusions. [4]


Of Resource Efficiencies: Coined by Dayo Olopade, a Nigerian-American writer and lawyer, fat and lean economies are terminology that look at the value in operations of each country. Lean countries are resource-scarce and are, therefore, more creative and efficient to use the resources at hand, that approach consumption and production with concerns of scarcity. On the other hand, fat countries are those with more-than-enough resources, where “plenty is normal”. This terminology is also objective in that it is not a comparison of standards but a measure of its own merits – a definition that focuses on haves and not what it lacks. Moreover, it does not assume that lean countries need to aspire to become fat economies or that being a fat economy is a marker of developmental superiority. Notwithstanding these positive connotations, by centring consumption, production and capitalistic construction, these terms do not account for a country’s existential challenges or privileges. For example, “Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed” implies that it is fully resourced and has all the means it really needs. Whereas in reality, post-colonial politics and systems have forced it into a difficult place where corruption and conflict prevent access for the betterment of the larger communities. [5]


Name the country: Individual states fundamentally differ from one another. Their unique collective lived experiences, knowledge, and praxis inform their engagement with other nations and global challenges. To homogenize states would be to reduce them to a few or multiple elements of commonality - rather than to focus on their unique standpoints. Aside from erasure, homogenization also risks ignoring intersectional and historical narratives. The challenge, however, lies in the technicality involved in bulky lists, a major challenge for semantics. Having to list several countries individually by name, while speaking to particular attributes unifying them all is a major linguistic obstacle. However, where homogeneity in classification risks erasure, a good practice may be to come up with an acronym or a common term of reference relevant to the article. For instance, using “States” in the collective and adding an asterisk with a note providing a full list of countries mentioned can be a useful way to address this challenge.


Regional Blocs: Practical to the extent that they enable clarity in identifying regional commonalities, the use of regional blocs also tend to assume homogeneity and/or unity amidst diversity and/or conflict. For instance, the “Middle East” is more often synonymous with the political alignment of the states located in West Asia - which geographically includes Israel, but not politically. The reliance on regional nomenclature is situated on the assumption that peace and amity prevail in ways that bring these nations together into a single bloc. Another possible challenge to using regional categorization is that the nuance in understanding the impact of particular events, policies, laws, or engagements may be lost.


By political / politico-economic structure: A possible alternative is to classify states according to their political and/or politico-economic structure, where the focus is on the nature of their political structure (democracy, dictatorship, monarchy, etc.) or economic structure, such as capitalist, socialist, communist economies. While a good way of identifying a state if the focus is on the economic dimension, the classification doesn’t go very far if one were to examine attributes of the state or address contexts that transcend the economic realm.


By peace-index performance: A relatively new measure, peace indices could be useful in setting up a means of identifying states based on their performance in terms of peace. While in principle, this could help establish cogent classifications, the risk begins where the assumption rests on conflict and peace as binary realities. Peace in itself is not the absence of conflict: where overt conflict may be absent, structural violence and cultural violence may continue to thrive with devastating consequences for non-dominant groups.


References

  1. https://masalai.wordpress.com/2009/02/11/majority-world-a-new-word-for-a-new-age/

  2. https://www.lensshift.org/library/if-you-shouldn-t-call-it-the-third-world-what-should-you-call-it

  3. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/20/the-weirdest-people-in-the-world-review-a-theory-of-everything-study

  4. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/nov/20/the-weirdest-people-in-the-world-review-a-theory-of-everything-study

  5. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/03/the-case-for-dividing-the-world-into-fat-and-lean-countries/284342/

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