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Why "developing world" is a term we can do without

Olivia Darby, Director of Policy and Campaigns at the Wonder Foundation.

Sometimes people get confused when we say that we work with vulnerable women and their families both in the UK and overseas. In the UK we are used to charities that focus on other countries, or our own country, but rarely both. When charities work abroad, it means they work in low-income countries. We don’t hear about appeals to donate to families in Spain who have been brought to their knees by the economic crisis, or people destroyed by crystal meth addiction in America’s Appalachians. Instead, many charities fundraise for so-called developing countries – mainly across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with a smattering of sympathy towards children in Eastern Europe (we apparently don’t like the adults who all want to "steal Brtish jobs" so they can provide for their families).

But does this approach reflect the complexity of real-life needs? We don't think so, and this week it seemed like the World Bank agreed with us. The Bank announced that it will no longer be using the term "developing world", saying that it no longer means what it once did. The three-way classification system that saw the old colonial powers or white-colonies as the "first world", the states behind the Iron Curtain as the second, and everyone else as "third world" or developing countries is no more. 

Importantly, this decision recognises that countries and what they need are diverse, and that internal inequality needs to be addressed. Through our work in the UK we know that people not far from global centres of wealth and wealth creation live in poverty. Struggling to feed themselves and their children, living in unfit homes or temporary accommodation and suffering from ill physical and mental health as a consequence. On the other hand, in Kenya there is a growing middle class whilst China and Nigeria have thousands of millionaires between them. Within some of London’s boroughs, wealthy Westminster or diverse Haringey, for example, there is around a decade’s difference in life expectancy between the rich and poor areas. 

This is why it is part of WONDER’s vision to support vulnerable women and girls anywhere in the world where we have the resources to make a difference, not using separate vocabularies for the UK or other European countries and the former ‘developing world’. It is also why we engage diasporas. Internal inequality in countries such as Nigeria and the Philippines can only be resolved by the citizens of those countries, which are, after all, democracies. Countries like the UK can nudge, but the amounts given in aid are dwarfed by the amounts sent home in remittances.

And this is why we keep repeating that the Global Goals – the Sustainable Development Goals – are not just about low-income countries working for improvement, but about all countries helping those who are most vulnerable to thrive.