The Political Terminology of Foreign Aid

Back in high school, I had no clue what I was going to do at university. I knew which subjects I liked and which I didn’t, but I didn’t have a grasp on which degree would set me up the best for a fulfilling career. Sure, money was important, but trying to do something worthwhile in an imperfect world was and still is the main goal for any job I do.

Reflecting on this, it seems that the geography department at my school played a PR blinder in dragging naive idealists like me into their camp. One of the main pros they advertised was that through geography you can pursue careers that will benefit the whole world, including renewable energy, responsible planning, and international development.

The latter path was key. I’ve always loved travelling, and the opportunity to venture across the world helping make it a better place ticked all the right boxes for me. Sadly, it was when I got to university that I realised that foreign aid is perhaps one of the most politically charged professions in all of government.

Like many government institutions, foreign aid is often criticised for being colonial. Photo by Jansen Yang on Unsplash

Criticism comes from every angle possible. From the left, there are accusations that foreign aid amounts to another form of imperialism. From the right, there are always concerns that the money we spend on aid should be spent at home improving public services. Unsurprisingly, all of these issues are overshadowed by colonialism and the identity politics associated with it. Perhaps even more predictably, the current government has now recognised this discourse by merging the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office earlier this year.

Indeed, my particular pet peeve with the industry is its incessant use of politically-charged generalisations to describe incredibly diverse blocs of nations. You’ve no doubt heard of them. Terms like ‘Third World’, ‘Developing Nation’, and ‘Global South’ have all come in and out of fashion as categories for the countries rich nations supply with aid. Yet, these groupings betray the variability of the states caught in them, and by analysing these phrases it becomes clear that not only are they problematic, but also obscure the amazing diversity of cultures on our planet.

‘Third World’

Cast your mind back to the Cold War era, when the West was butting heads with the East, and you’ll find that there were a majority of countries that wanted no part in any of it. Such was the divide between these groups that Western scholars described them as different ‘Worlds’. The ‘First World’ was the capitalist West, the ‘Second World’ was the Communist East, and the ‘Third World’ remained neutral, either because they didn’t care or because they didn’t want to provoke either side.

Nevertheless, when you picture what a ‘Third World’ country looks like, your imagination probably pictures a scene from a typical guilt-inducing charity advert, because despite the term including countries like Sweden, it’s often associated with former colonies in Africa and Asia with low-GDP economies. Moreover, because much of this ‘World’ was not in the direct purview of the West or East, it was the perfect theatre for both to meddle in without consequence.

Sweden may not be what many would consider a ‘Third World’ nation. Photo by Raphael Andres on Unsplash

However, this was not without the colonial powers attempts to keep former satellites in their camp. Many nations had to fight hard for their independence, such as Kenya and Mozambique, and the nations who managed to peacefully push for self-governance had this process marred with mismanagement on the part of the colonisers. For example, Congo, which had endured years of brutal oppression by Belgium, was granted a rushed independence process with limited aid from the Europeans in training civil servants, which has created huge challenges over its recent history.

Even after independence, the Cold War powers weren’t done meddling and frequently used these nations as battlegrounds to exercise their might. Examples of these famously include the Vietnam war, as well as several other conflicts and political crises. The rise of the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and the tyranny of the Derg in Ethiopia were all heavily influenced by the rivalry of the East and West.

It is this incessant interference that reminds us why no one should use the term ‘Third World’ anymore. It implies that there is a world where we can air international grievances without consequence and without forethought for the lives of those who are uprooted by it. This world is a fantasy, and we should all remember that.

‘Developing World’

This phrase is a lot more recent and much more prolific, so much so that many lecturers I have been taught by have used it frequently. Yet, just as the term before it, it can be regarded as rather problematic.

This is because it relies on two assumptions:

  1. That there is an infallible ‘Developed World’ that has reached the end of a long line of economic progress
  2. That the ‘Developing World’ is uniformly bad and should strive for the same standards as the ‘Developed’

Both of these assumptions are false.

The first point implies that there are countries that have reached a perfect end where the issues of the ‘Developing World’ are no more. This is not the case.

Take the USA for instance, and examine it using the same metrics that are often used to justify why a nation is still ‘Developing’. American life expectancy, whilst high, has been falling for years because of the high levels of obesity, drug misuse, and heart disease, a trend that has caused many other developed nation’s life expectancies to stall as well.

Life expectancy is stalling in many nations due to a variety of lifestyle choices. Photo by Andrew Herashchenko on Unsplash

Moreover, the American healthcare system also has a problem with keeping expectant mothers alive, which is an oft-discussed issue concerning aid and ‘Developing’ nations. Their maternal mortality rate doubled from 1991 to 2014, with around 23 women per 100,000 births dying, significantly worse than many other comparable countries. What’s also concerning is that the article cited notes that around 2/3rds of these deaths are entirely preventable and that black women are 3–4 times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. What a surprise.

Coming back to the UK, we too face similar issues that are often used to characterise the ‘Developing World’. For one of the richest nations on the planet, you’d expect minimal levels of poverty. Sadly, around 1 in every 5 people in the UK lived below the poverty line in 2019, including 1/3rd of all children, and there is evidence to suggest that this is rising.

Moving on to the second assumption, there are many countries considered to be ‘Developing’ that perform much better than nations like the UK and USA in several areas. Notably, Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, and Namibia are all ranked in the top 10 for the proportion of women in their parliaments. Other examples include nations like Thailand being only slightly behind the UK in terms of bioenergy output, and Botswana and The Bahamas being ranked higher than South Korea and Italy on levels of perceived corruption.

You could reasonably argue that I’ve cherry-picked my evidence here, but regardless these exceptions still demonstrate that the previous assumptions are entirely false. As such, I would argue it’s just as foolish to use these terms as it is to use the phrase ‘Third World’.

‘Global South’

The latest attempt at an overly simple generalisation has come in phrase ‘Global South’, in what seems to be an understanding that one of the only ways you can group these nations is by saying they’re somewhere south of us.

Yet, whilst many have hailed it as a more inclusive term, I still believe that there are issues associated with it. Initially, it must be pointed out that nations like Australia and New Zealand are considered part of the ‘Global North’, so the geographical argument is invalid. Moreover, such a vague generalisation still discredits the amazing diversity of all nations.

Take Ethiopia as an example. It’s historically notable as being one of the only countries to not suffer decades-long colonisation from a European power and is one of the most ethnically diverse nations on the planet. This has led to many conflicts and government shifts over the years, culminating in an attempt at ethnic federalism by Prime Minitser and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, whereby certain ethnic groups are given more self-governance rights, which aims to stop power being accumulated by a single group. I’d understand if you haven’t heard about this already. Stories from the ‘Global South’ don’t usually get top billing on networks like BBC news.

Countries like Ethiopia are examples of how amazingly diverse the world can be. Photo by Trevor Cole on Unsplash

On the face of it, this sounds incredibly promising. Yet, concerns have been raised that this project is reducing complex cultural histories to lines in the sand and ignoring other significant issues such as national languages, as this article describes. Unsurprisingly, this has been a common phenomenon across history, particularly practised by the ‘Global North’. During many nation’s pushes for independence borders were often decided quickly and without consideration for cultural diverstiy, which has caused a multitude of issues that are still present today. A rule of thumb is that if there’s a national border is straight, then some important issues probably weren’t considered when they were drawn.

This is the fundamental problem with these generalisations. They obfuscate the world’s complexity and are often part of a discourse of substandard, one-size-fits-all development policy towards the nations we give aid. As a result, it’s not hard to understand why certain insensitive and inaccurate stereotypes regarding Africa, Asia, Latin America, persist in relation to the previously discussed terms.

So I would instead advocate for an end to these catch-all phrases because they will never actually capture the diversity they should. In the UK’s dealings with other nations, particularly through aid, we should do so with a knowledge of the divides both between and within all nations. Each country has a complex history and culture which needs to be fully understood before a suitable development policy can be designed, and I would heartily encourage anyone reading this to take a few minutes to research and appreciate the diversity of the world beyond our borders. Only then will the influence of these outdated generalisations begin to fade.

Geography graduate based in the UK. Writing on geography and current events to get me through this uncertain time. Email —

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