What do we mean when economies are called ‘developing’?

Just like other grand topics like ‘freedom’ or ‘justice’, ‘development’ means different things to different people, depending on their value systems and assumptions.

At the same time, people often use the terms ‘developed’, ‘developing’, or ‘undeveloped’ to describe different countries and divide up the world. So what do they mean?

Economic development – which is what’s most commonly referred to when the term is brought up – is all about income, growth and GDP. Developed countries have a high GDP (both gross and per capita), efficient and productive economies, and generate enough wealth to satisfy basic needs.¹ North America, Europe, Australia and parts of Asia (Taiwan, Hong Kong Singapore, South Korea), are all part of what we call the economically developed world.

Human development is a slightly newer way of viewing the term ‘development’, which branches out from just economic wealth and looks at improving all the things in life that gives us greater capabilities and freedom, such as better health, education and political and civil liberties.² Economically developed countries are often higher on the human development scale too, but one doesn’t necessarily cause the other.

Sustainable development takes a very different angle to ‘economic’ and ‘human’ development. Economies achieve sustainable development when they meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.³ Many of the countries that are high on the ‘economic development’ scale are also extremely unsustainable, because their economies rely on using vast amounts of resources and cause excessive pollution. Countries low on the economic development scale are more sustainable and have polluted the least – though that often comes at the cost of high poverty levels.