• The Gender Security Project

What's in a Name? (Part 3)

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu and Kirthi Jayakumar





Redesigning the approach to country classification

The classification of countries is inevitable in contexts that need it: especially where data, trends, and statistics for economic indicators such as national and per capita income levels, economic growth (GDP, GDP per capita) and poverty rates must be understood, processed, and perhaps even compared. Classification can also help actors in the development sector and research domains identify where and how to prioritise research and direct resources in terms of aid. While broad, umbrella terms are convenient for analysis and enable succinct communication, each set of terms come with their own biases, limitations, and cultural prejudices.


To redesign this approach, the first step would be to get rid of the need to both reduce states to a singular identity and classify “development” in binary terms. States have multiple attributes, and development is not a static, but evolving concept. A second step is to identify the reason and basis for the proposed classification. Asking whether such a classification is necessary and vital at all, and whether the experience being described is shared or unique can set up the approach to follow: if the answers to these questions are in the affirmative, identifying appropriate lines to classify and categorize states follows next. Another important point to bear in mind is the gaze. Specifically, introspecting to understand who the classification is intended to serve, and whether the piece is written by an “outsider” or someone from within the region, will help determine the appropriate terminology. If an “outsider” is writing about a region or nation that isn’t their own, speaking to experts in the region or nation or educating oneself on the appropriate terminology is recommended. For a piece by an individual from the region, self-determination is fundamental.


A clever strategy to deploy is one borrowed from the concept of the rule of reasonable classification, which is often used to interpret the equality framework under Article 14 of the Constitution of India. By this rule, it is vital to understand whether the classification is reasonable and discernible, and bears a reasonable nexus to the purpose of classification.


A state is many states. A region is many states.

Classification of countries should not be limited to a single basis: no state should be reduced to one aspect of its identity, be that political, social, economic, or any other yardstick. The standards that define development, the indicators, and the criteria that continue today have largely been informed by methods, means, and historical contexts that the west deemed most successful in their own countries.

In the past, industrialisation and modernisation were synonymous with development but that is no longer the case. Countries in the so-called Global South have developed at different paces and using different strategies (consider the case of the ‘East Asian tigers’ like South Korea and Taiwan) from those of Western countries. Nebulous terms such as ‘developing’, ‘global south’ and ‘third world’ have long outlived their purpose and the world is too complicated to be boxed into ambiguous and limiting terms like these.


Based on the content being assessed or written about, classification should strive to really serve the purpose of the text on hand. If a country’s classification as a former British colony and its placement under the broad ambit of all former British colonies is reasonable to the outcome of the article, then classifying it thus is recommended. For example, in an article examining former colonial laws in force in the present.


However, care should be taken not to reduce a country to a single identity: multiple dynamics can shape a country’s narrative, and care should be taken to center these positionalities. A country is and will always be many countries within. In economic, political, social, cultural, and even spatial terms, country narratives are fundamental to determining identity attributes. To this end, identity is neither linear nor crystalline, but ever evolving and amorphous. Centering particular attributes of a country is acceptable, but acknowledging contradictory identities without othering them or without reducing the country to assumed connotations is recommended.


Gaze matters

The largely white, Eurocentric, and western gaze tends to construct the rest-of-the-world identity. Countries that do not fit the ideals set by the west are seen as inferior and must reach the standards of the west to join the ‘developed’ club. This club comprises powerful, influential and wealthy countries, who are allies that share common goals and interests, especially in terms of neoliberal policies. The framing by the West for the West also decides which countries are in the margins, which countries are in the centre influencing decisions that affect the whole word and the norms/standards which are set.


The identification of the state is in itself wedded to the Westphalian ideal. The thresholds we attribute to the value of state recognition and the privilege accorded to entrenched imperial powers implies that there is already a strong, deeply embedded conceptual framework of us-versus-them. However, identifying a state for what it is within this framework is not inherently out of order: when self-determination in a system only goes far, and with state recognition as a catalyst for that self-determination to achieve currency, it is a power move for a state to situate itself within the frame of statehood and statecraft as we know it. This means that a new state that achieves independence finding state recognition and compatriot identity within the multiple classifications is both vital for that state’s functioning as it is for the international community’s evolution as an inclusive establishment. If we cannot subvert the extant realm of Westphalian statehood, we strive for what’s closest - by acknowledging diversities, individual state narratives, and context.

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