Contested Development

This blog arrives in response to fellow gnoviser Colleen Valentine’s insightful post about the relationship between Western culture and female reproductive rights. At the end of her blog, Colleen wonders if the gulf that separates ‘developed’ nations from ‘developing’ ones is really as vast, or even as extant, as we’ve been led to believe. It’s a question worth exploring: What makes a country ‘developed’ in the first place?

Wikipedia emphasizes the economic conditions that have over the years come to define development, citing the International Monetary Fund’s claim that, as of 2010, “advanced economies comprise 65.8% of global nominal GDP and 52.1% of global GDP.” WikiAnswers posts the question in its Economics section, naming “wealth” as the primary marker of a developed country. A 1997 article by the American Enterprise Institute boldly proclaimed the U.S. a developing nation “[b]y the criterion of the level of domestic investment opportunities relative to domestic saving opportunities”–another definition based on dollars. Most synonyms for development, in fact, allude to finance or financial infrastructure, such as the terms ‘industrialized nation’ and ‘more economically developed country.’ But shouldn’t there be more to the designation than things like GDP and per capita income? While the U.S. is widely viewed as a highly developed superpower, beneath the fiduciary measurables is a questionable social health that should not be, but often is, trivialized.

The United States is the world’s richest nation: In 2010 it boasted $41 billion in assets, runners-up two through 10 barely eclipsing that mark with their capital combined. But when measured by the UN International Crime Victims’ Survey in 2004, the U.S. also proved home to 195% more intentional homicides than China, whom asset management group Allianz named the seventh-wealthiest nation in 2010. When compared to young people in Italy, the sixth-wealthiest nation, people in the U.S. ages 10 to 29 proved 38 times more likely to commit murder. Compared to youths in France, the fifth-wealthiest nation, American youngsters proved 89 times more likely to commit murder. China, Italy and France are all billed as developed nations, and they can all claim substantially fewer deadly crimes than the U.S.

Hungry and jobless, U.S. citizens in the Great Depression chased the "American Dream" as they do now.

Germany, the third-wealthiest nation according to Allianz, registered 162% more available hospital beds than the U.S. did per 1000 citizens in public, private, general and specialized hospitals and rehabilitation centers. Juxtaposed to England, the fourth-wealthiest nation, the U.S. showed a substantially higher mortality rate in almost every recorded category, from those caused by eating disorders to emphysema to schizophrenia. Neither Germany nor England is thought to be a third-world ‘work in progress,’ of course. And just last month, the Guttmacher Institute–a non-profit organization that “seek[s] to advance sexual and reproductive health”–reported that the rate of teen pregnancy in the U.S. “is more than twice as high as rates in Canada and Sweden,” two other acclaimed countries. Guttmacher further found the incidence of sexually transmitted disease to be two to 20 times higher in the U.S. than it is in Canada, Sweden, England or France, depending upon the disease.

When it comes to quality of life, these statistics show an America that lags well behind other developed nations of the world in key areas. This alone is noteworthy, but there’s more. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, in the 2004 UN study the U.S. ranked first among all countries in the world in citizen belief that law enforcement is effective, and ranked second in citizen belief that walking alone at night is safe; yet the same survey calculated that the U.S. was actually first in the world in murders by firearm, car thefts and total crime. Two more conclusions can thus be drawn. One, not only does the U.S. disappoint against a backdrop of other so-called developed nations, but its social health is at times dubious even when compared to the developing world. Two, development is as much about perception as it is reality, as evidenced by the inaccurate if not delusional reports of American citizens in the survey.

Naturally, disclaimers are in order. It’s true that, as database Nation Master acknowledges, “crime statistics are often better indicators of prevalence of law enforcement and willingness to report crime than actual prevalence.” Even the Guttmacher Institute claims England and France keep less “complete” medical records than the U.S. does, which could artificially deflate their incidence of disease. Moreover, some of these statistics were culled in the early Naughts, and are probably in need of an update. But no matter how many grains of salt we take, it’s clear that the U.S. is lower on the development totem pole than is often imagined. Its vast capital clouds this reality. Its capital, however, also helps us understand that dollars alone do not equal development.

Featured image courtesy Introduction to Business. Side image in public domain.

Brittany Coombs

Brittany is a former student in Georgetown's CCT program and is a Lead Blogger for gnovis. At Dartmouth College she majored in Modified Sociology, a hand-made major that analyzed communications theories through a "sociologically imaginative" lens. Her writings promote but question the intersection of humanities and digitality currently rising in academia. Her favorite area of study is Internet culture, as it houses the remix, meme, and citizen journalist subcultures. Brittany is a Baltimore native, a member of the coeducational Alpha Theta "frarority," and an avid lover of Motown music. She looks forward to a career in journalism, either old-school or online.