Searching for blog posts tagged with 'gcc'

First world problems: why economic development categories need a rethink



Judging countries by GDP per capita, especially those with high income levels, is a blunt measure of categorisation.

Aerial view of Qatar

An aerial view of Dohar, Qatar. World Bank development indicators for 2012 show that Qatar had the third highest GDP per capita. Photograph: Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters

The term "third world" came to be adopted around the time of the 1955 Asia-Africa conference in Bandung, Indonesia, of "non-aligned" countries – mainly former colonies of Asia and Africa, together with countries of Latin America – that were not part of the advanced west (the first world) or the communist bloc (the second world).

It was therefore an indicator more of a country's geo-political stance rather than its level of development. Notwithstanding the inherent limitations of such a broad brush typology, it nevertheless described the reality of a very large part of the globe. It was also progressive – here were newly independent countries articulating not only an independence of political thinking, but also refusing to be sucked into the dangerous spiral of the cold war driven by two superpowers. While usage of first world and second world was always minimal, third world did garner traction.

Gradually, however, there began to be an unease with the term in that it had connotations of "third class" . In the post-colonial era, it was not considered politically correct to use such terms, especially by those in the former colonial powers. Accordingly, alternatives – not least in academia – such as "developing countries", or "the global south" or even just "the south" began to take preference. Certainly, with the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet bloc – and with it the loss of the original rationale for using second world – it seemed that third world would also be made redundant.

This has not been the case. Indeed, the term is still used quite frequently in its economic sense, that is, the level of a country's economic development and standard living as evidenced by GDP per capita. Moreover, many third world countries, especially in east Asia, have forged ahead with development and were accorded a new epithet, newly industrialising countries (Nics). In the development sense, these would now better be described as being part of the second world. They are no longer in the third world, but most are not yet in the first world either. And the old Soviet bloc countries can also fit within this grouping.

In my experience as a longstanding academic, I have found little discomfort in the use of third world by students and academics from the developing world. In the same vein, last year, in an interview with Channel 4 News, Barack Obama's Kenyan half-brother was asked what he thought was the key difference between himself and Obama. He replied quickly that Obama was from the first world and he from the third world. Similarly, in his 2011 book on the modern history of Singapore, former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew makes use of the terminology by using the title From Third World to First to highlight the astonishing transformation of a small impoverished country into a modern state with one of the world's highest living standards.

So there is some evidence to suggest that, despite the unease from some quarters, the term third world still has some mileage left when used to refer to countries that are relatively poor with low levels of development. But it is interesting to consider whether the term first world ought to be applied to some countries that have attained very high levels of income per capita. I am thinking of the Gulf states in particular.

The World Bank's world development indicators for 2012 shows that Qatar had the third highest GDP per capita at $83,000; UAE had the 16th highest at $42,000; Saudi Arabia 29th at $32,000. In 2011 Kuwait had the 10th highest at $45,000, with Oman and Bahrain a little further back at $26,000 and $25,000 respectively.

All these have a GDP per capita which would suggest that they are part of the first world. However, in the IMF's country categories, none of the Gulf Cooperation Council GCC states comes within other advanced economies (which exclude the G7 and euro area countries). Rather, they all fall within the highly disparate grouping of Middle East, north Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Yet South Korea, which has a GDP per capita slightly lower than Saudi Arabia's, is considered an advanced economy. Has the IMF got it wrong? Surely the GCC states should also be included in this exalted grouping? There are good reasons to think not: putting it somewhat euphemistically, these countries have quite some way to go.

Judging countries solely by GDP per capita is a blunt measure of categorisation. While it might be a necessary criterion, it is certainly not a sufficient one. GCC Human Rights, a campaign group highlighting the plight of migrant workers in the Gulf provides clear reasons for this. It reported: "In GCC countries non-white ethnic groups experience blatant discrimination ... [they] consistently deny immigrant workers the same rights enjoyed by their own citizens."

GCC Human Rights website provides evidence of the most appalling abuse of human rights of non-white migrants, including systematic brutalisation and torture, which was also recently highlighted by the Guardian and Amnesty International. Their mission statement concludes with these words: "Persuade the GCC countries to treat immigrant workers with the respect that is due them, remove all discrimination against them, and acknowledge them as first-class citizens – by doing so, these nations will become great."

What constitutes countries becoming "great" is highly contentious but if and when the GCC countries grant international norms of human rights to the large numbers of migrants within their ranks, then their eligibility to join the ranks of the first world can be considered. Currently though, despite their stellar GDP per capita, they are better considered as part of the third world – and there should be no unease at the derogatory meaning attached in this context.

On Guardian's Econ Blog