Defining Developing

Danielle Livneh - Ecuador

February 5, 2013

This blog was first published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.  You can read the original posting here.


For the past decade or so, the validity of the term “third world” has been a topic of debate. A phrase coined during the Cold War to distinguish allegiances, many argued that it is outdated. Others said that it implied a ranking system, with the United States and the United Kingdom taking first place. The use of the word “world” also caused some trouble. Was it politically correct to dismiss a group of countries as a whole other world? In April 2009, when the World Bank announced that it would no longer use the phrase to classify countries, it seemed the matter was settled. We would eliminate “third world” from our academic vernacular.

The generally accepted alternative today is “developing nation,” even though no one seems completely satisfied with it. After all, who decides what it means to be developed? Certainly wealth plays a factor, but what about stability or human rights? Is China, for example, a developed nation? Academics have come up with a plethora of creative ways to assess a country’s level of development. The World Bank in its Voices of the Poor study uses “ill-being” and “well-being” as indicators of poverty—again, two lofty terms that can’t really be measured quantitatively.

I have spent the last four months living in the region of Chimborazo, Ecuador, through Global Citizen Year, a bridge-year program designed to give American students a chance to have an international immersive working experience before going to college. I am working with a private organization called Cemoplaf, which facilitates access to sexual and reproductive education for the women and youths of this region. I have experienced the difficulties of distinguishing what a developing nation—or, a country in the global south, a recently industrialized country, or whatever else you wish to call it—really means. I arrived here with a hefty bag of expectations. Most notably, I anticipated a broken government with few initiatives to help its people. I thought I would encounter people desperate for aid, with nowhere to go. What I found instead was a zealous government that provides free health care to all its citizens, grants unprecedented constitutional rights to the environment, and has more ministries than I could have ever imagined.

As I got to know Ecuador better, however, I realized something wasn’t adding up. For example, I couldn’t help but question, “Is a country that distributes birth control to any woman who asks for it really ‘developing’?” Despite the easy access to birth control, Ecuador remains the country with the second-highest birth rates among adolescents in Latin America and the highest birth rate in the Andean region. In Ecuador, 17 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 19 years old are already mothers, and 37 in every 100 births are unwanted (Ministerio de Salud Pública. 17:07 – 27 Sep 2011). In Guamote, the Sierran town in which I live, the number of young mothers I see is startling. The people in the indigenous communities are not going to the hospitals. Likewise, local high schools often reject free sex education classes that Cemoplaf offers. Numerous initiatives that seemed so promising, particularly in the health sector, are clearly not effective in reaching their intended audiences, and I think I’ve figured out why—at least in part.

Ecuador is both blessed and cursed by its awesome diversity. The differences between the city of Riobamba, for example, and my town Guamote are truly outstanding. The two places are only an hour away by car, but they are polar opposites. Guamote, a small town of just under 2,000 people, is 92 percent indigenous, where Riobamba, a large city of about 160,000 people, is only 24 percent indigenous. Residents of the two towns speak different primary languages, wear different clothing, and have different economic status. Unfortunately, there is a blatant disconnect between those living in la ciudad (the city) and those living in el campo (the country). No wonder the people from rural communities such as Guamote aren’t going to the hospitals; they are filled with doctors from the city or from Cuba who can’t speak Kichwa (the indigenous language of Ecuador), let alone understand the intricacies of the indigenous culture. Through this lens, it makes sense that the indigenous communities shy away from Cemoplaf coming into their schools and teaching what we as Westerners believe is appropriate information. Ultimately, I’ve realized many organizations like Cemoplaf are making little social impact because, instead of asking what the people want, they act on what they think the people need.

And so I would like to suggest that internal discord should be added to the messy list of criteria for what it means to be a developing nation. I now understand development is not just about the physical institutions; it’s about empathy and accord. Of course I’m not implying harmony and understanding are the golden tickets to progress, and I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the complexity of Ecuador’s situation. But the discontinuity between ethnic groups here is undeniably stunting the country’s growth.

I’m still figuring out how things work here, and realistically, I will be long gone before I can make a big difference. But I will leave Ecuador understanding that you cannot bring progress without first understanding and respecting the people with whom you are working.

Danielle Livneh