This pair of phrases sums up the new, conflicting and contradictory assumptions that underlie the highly unsatisfactory climate of opinion in today's world. The use of the word "underdeveloped" in connection with a country implies that the most significant dimension of measurement in the world today is standard of living and that standard of living should be measured in terms of those indices that are inextricably linked with industrialization. Countries that are unindustrialized and depend primarily on agriculture and other primary industries are poor. Countries that are industrialized are rich. Richness and poverty are unequivocal terms. They relate to a single scale and provide one set of measurements in accordance with which all countries can be placed.

Economists grant that the problem of weighting is a difficult one. It is perfectly clear that, in a country in which 90 percent of the population can raise little more food than they need for their own consumption, very little will be left over to satisfy other and more complicated needs. If, for example, there is just enough extra food to take to a nearby market to sell for the few things that must be bought there—salt, candles, tea or coffee, tobacco, woven cloth—and the sellers always walk to market, then when bicycles are introduced, there will be no funds to buy them unless a change takes place. But in a relatively rich underdeveloped country like old Bali, where food was plentiful and there was a large surplus which could be spent on cremations, it was possible to cut down on cremations and to buy bicycles instead. When this happens, the standard of living is said to be higher. The culture has been impoverished and the country is not yet developed, but a first step in development has been taken—at cultural expense only. But where, as in most underdeveloped countries, the population lives at the subsistence level without a surplus of any kind, where the only source of animal protein is the ox or the pig consumed at a feast, the desire to own a bicycle can be realized only at the expense of something that is absolutely essential to subsistence as well as to a full and rewarding life. So, once the people of any country have learned to want manufactured objects that they cannot buy out of an existing surplus, because there is no such surplus, they are immediately defined by themselves and others as underdeveloped and therefore poor.

The term "underdeveloped" is used technically to place a country in terms of industrialization, real and potential, on a scale which implies that industrial development can, should and will take place. The term "poor," however, is not used to place a country on a continuum of technical change. It is used rather to describe its relative consumption position—or the relative consumption position of the majority of its citizens—in comparison with other countries. Poor can mean not knowing where the next meal is coming from, as it does for many of the urban poor, or it can mean not being able to buy a bicycle, a jeep or a truck. It has no absolute connotation, in this context.

A group of primitive Eskimo, caught between winter and summer, their snow house melting above their heads but the time not yet come when summer hunting and fishing have brought in new supplies of food, or, at the opposite season, caught by the terrible autumnal storms that for days on end make hunting impossible, sitting together starving and the lamps gone out for lack of oil, until in desperation some hunter braves the storm and the punishing supernaturals—these people can be described as in danger of death but not as poor. They had the same equipment as the other Eskimo for meeting the harsh realities of their environment. They knew how to build snow houses, they had dogs, sleds, harpoons, soapstone lamps, bone needles, clothes of skin and fur. In those desperate situations when, in order to stay alive, they had to eat their dogs and then had to go on living without the means to make a living, they might be considered unfortunate. Or a man who, for some reason, had no wife to cook for him and dress his skins might be considered temporarily unfortunate. But these losses were potentially retrievable. His misfortune was a temporary lack of equipment or the lack of a working partner as compared with his fellow Eskimo. For an isolated individual or family group the lack might well be fatal; in other circumstances recoupment was possible. In the early days of contact, Europeans in the Arctic had to adopt Eskimo equipment in order to survive; the Eskimo were not then, by comparison, poor. But later, when modern equipment suitable for the Arctic was developed, the Eskimo did become poor in comparison with Europeans.

Poverty appears only when some people are organized into groups from which they themselves have no means of escape or of self-betterment, because of ignorance, or government regulation, or lack of a culturally derived belief that escape is possible. So they are immobilized and do without necessities that others have, or they do without some of the luxuries that others have. Moreover, the more egalitarian the society, the more important is the concept of poverty. Where only the chief or the feudal lord lives in a large house and all other men in houses which are small and mean, the distinction is not between richness and poverty but between privilege and absence of privilege in a system based on rank or caste or class. But when it is possible for a majority of the population to have some given thing—a tin roof, a well, a pump, inside plumbing, a donkey, a team of horses, two teams of horses, a bicycle, a tractor, a truck, a station wagon—then the smaller number who cannot acquire it do not regard themselves, and are not regarded by others, as members of a different or a lesser breed. Instead they come to feel, and others come to feel, that they are simply poor.

While the term underdeveloped implies occupation of a place on a continuum that is defined in terms of technological per capita capacity to produce, the term poor implies placement at the bottom of the scale of consumption, having less than others—less, usually, than most others. When the two ideas are combined, and emphasis is laid on the relative presence or absence of technical productive capacity, all this is changed.

In older discussions of the condition of the poor, the poor at home or abroad, it was emphasized that it would do little good to divide up the riches of the wealthy few in an attempt to alleviate the poverty of the myriads of poor. Then it was possible for the rich to sit at overweighted tables while the poor pressed their noses against the windows in envious contemplation. If the rich were generous in a time of famine or flood, if they built hospitals or endowed schools so that a few more individuals could escape from misery, they could go their way without too bad a conscience. However wealth was rationalized—as the reward of individual effort or parental effort, as the necessary support of high birth—it was necessarily only for the few; the fortunate should be individually generous and should improve their position in heaven. If they did so, they had no special reason to feel guilty; they could enjoy their wealth.

But acceptance of the assumption that technological development is possible for all and, therefore, that improvement of consumption is possible for all meant that it was no longer morally acceptable to let the majority of the peoples of the world live in poverty. From an economy of scarcity—in which, if one person got more, someone else got less and no redistribution of the rubies and emeralds of the rich could, in the long run, help more than a handful of beggars—we have moved, by definition, to an economy of plenty. Riches are no longer somebody's disproportionate, though legitimate, share of a scarce supply; poverty is no longer the consequence of someone else having a large proportion of the existing supply. Stated simply, as between the peoples of the world, poverty is the consequence of being underdeveloped. According to this doctrine, wealth is not given but is produced and every country is capable of an ever-rising rate of production; therefore poverty, defined as the present state of low consumption of most of the peoples of the world, is remediable. A people need not be poor; development will cure their poverty.

Systematic change from the older to the newer position has its difficulties, but there is a further complication. For, in the present position, poverty is defined in two different ways—relative and absolute. In the relative sense, poverty is defined as having less than others. In the absolute sense, there is a minimum standard below which no human beings should fall; when this minimum standard is attained by all the peoples of the world, when the now developed nations have helped the underdeveloped countries to develop, then everyone will be well off. This complication, arising from the discrepant definitions of poverty as relative and as absolute, is as seldom worked out in discussions about countries as it is in relief situations in the United States, where the relief agency attempts to meet standards of nutrition, medical care, shelter and so on, on an absolute scale of health and decency, while the recipients of relief experience profound and humiliating poverty on a relative standard.

A further consequence of the confusion between these two definitions of poverty is the effect it has on the planning and expectations of countries that are, by definition, rich. By implication, "closing the gap" between underdeveloped and developed countries means that the developed countries are, in fact, developed (or, as Myrdal puts it, are "now developed"[i]) and, essentially, should develop no further; that is, the standard of living should rise no further. Instead, such countries should use the surplus that could go into further development to "close the gap" by supplying the undeveloped countries with capital already accumulated in the rich countries through the sweat and toil of the poor of other generations.

If, on the contrary, the rich countries continue to develop their already enormous productive capacities for their own use, and existing discrepancies in birth rates are maintained, then the underdeveloped countries will become poorer, relative to the rich countries, but poverty in the other sense—the absolute sense—will also result, i.e. deprivation of basic subsistence goods.

Thus advocacy of "closing the gap" includes, implicitly, a demand that developed countries should either arrest consumption or arrest the motivating force in their productive development—the desire for a rising consumption standard.

A second very widely accepted assumption is that our capacity—based on our tremendous command of technology—to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and medicate the peoples of the world should be shared among the peoples of the world seen not as individual human beings with human needs, but as citizens of nation states. The vision that no one need be hungry or cold, illiterate and ignorant, or suffer from an illness for which there is a cure coincided with the contemporary implementation of ideals of self-determination, especially for colonial peoples. Both are aspects of anti-colonialism, as an ethic and as a political tool which has been exploited in the cold war and by ambitious local leaders, hungry for power.

So, on the one hand, our new conception of technical development is geared to a twentieth-century understanding of the relationship between technology, productivity and the determination and satisfaction of minimal human needs. But on the other hand, our conception of how these needs are to be met is geared to an obsolescent conception of what nation states, of whatever size, shape, resources, population and so on, can accomplish as full, complete and sufficient units for the implementation of new forms of satisfaction of human needs. The focus is not on hungry people, wherever they may be, but on underdeveloped countries, which should be able to feed, clothe and educate their citizens. The combination of these two ethics—the right of human beings to the satisfaction of their basic needs and the right to national autonomy of any group of people who have come to regard themselves as a group because of the institution of colonialism or the accidents of political treaties—has resulted in an extraordinary degree of obfuscation.

For centuries the lack of equal resources, natural or man-made, has been compensated for by migration of some kind. The poor peasant went to the city or another country, or worked as a coolie overseas. Younger sons of the landed gentry or the wealthy went abroad to make their fortune. Inlanders went to sea. Opportunity was conceived of as localized and people as movable within a region, within a country, between nations or areas of the world. But today, possibly in reaction to the stress of millions of refugees—people who left their homes unwillingly—we have created a new right, the right to stay at home under one's own apple tree and have light industry brought to one's own backyard. This implication of bringing development to underdeveloped countries has gone almost unnoticed. Americans have been subjected to so much compulsory moving since the beginning of World War II, and have developed such a phobia about shifting their children from one school to another, that it seems to them a quite reasonable demand that everyone should be allowed to stay in his own country and have the comforts of civilization brought within his reach. Moreover, various fortuitous circumstances attendant on the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century have effectively obscured some of the serious consequences of taking the position that it is the right of every nation, new or old, rich or poor, large or small, no matter where located or how technically competent, to be developed and to become, if not rich, at least as well off as every other nation, with as high a standard of living for its people and as large and as conspicuous marks of national prestige in the way of embassies, airlines, armies and so on.

Today the idea of the nation state as the unit of development is the more easily supported because a very important part of the planning for underdeveloped nations has been done by those who come from small developed nation states, in which state intervention and planning for a welfare state are already far advanced. If extensive intervention by government has made it possible for such countries as Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, West Germany and the United Kingdom to maintain an optimum standard of living, then government appears to be the appropriate instrument for benevolent economic change; the welfare of peoples is thought of as inextricably related to activities of government, and the focus is on the nation state—which has a government—as the appropriate unit in developing the means of improving the well-being of a people.

Thus, just at the moment in history when most of the paraphernalia of the nation state, postulated on the political protection of citizens whose economic lot it was powerless to ameliorate, is becoming obsolete (for it can no longer protect its citizens, and their economic lot can be more efficiently ameliorated in larger or smaller units), the nation state has been transformed into a highly valued and highly inefficient instrument for the equalization of opportunity and the optimization of the good life. At a time when there is a crying need for transnational organizations, whether it be for the sharing of scarce or unevenly distributed natural resources, the eradication of disease, or the use of scarce intellectual resources, most of the efforts of the world have gone into the construction of mechanisms that are not transnational but intergovernmental.

In a new nation the poverty of its people and the prestige of its day- or month- or year-old national identity become intertwined. The poverty of the people represents a moral claim on the conscience of the world, which can be enforced in political terms, manipulated for political purposes, sometimes promoting but more often defeating the satisfaction of the very needs in the name of which the manipulation is done. While Germaine Tillion pled for the maintenance of the tie between France and Algeria for the sake of the hungry people of Algeria,[ii] political considerations made this impossible. In China, millions are on the verge of starvation and there is urgent need for materials and tools essential for mere subsistence. Yet to supply them, under present circumstances, would mean crossing a national boundary and, in addition, crossing an ideological line defined by the cold war and breaching Mainland China's new inviolability. Coupled with our enormously enhanced ability to feed the peoples of the world, technically, is a definite crippling of our ability to do so organizationally. While valid in themselves, the arguments in favor of national pride, self-determination, autonomy and dignity essentially fail to recognize—even as they have been used to decry bilateral aid and to promote internationally organized aid—the ways in which nation states, all nation states, have become economically and technically irrelevant. There are two continuous reminders of the irrelevancy of the old borders, as lines drawn on the ground. One is our technical ability to feed the peoples of the world, disregarding boundaries; the other is the presence of the satellites of the United States and the Soviet Union, circling overhead.

Peace Corps volunteer and village women in Tanganyika, October 1962
Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo


In the context of the foregoing discussion, the term "overdeveloped" is anomalous. If technical development is good because it produces a higher standard of living, how can there be an overdeveloped country? It should be recognized that the phrase has been used most frequently to undo the damage done by placing all countries on a single scale. The term was brought into use collaboratively by members of underdeveloped and more developed countries, acting out of patriotism, ambition or humanitarianism. Only by playing up the underdeveloped state of the underdeveloped countries, by calling them poor, did it seem possible to create the climate of opinion that was being sought. But when this resulted in a single scale, on which all countries could be set up in a hierarchy, it became clear that a low position—on a scale of development—was necessarily invidious and odious. The underdeveloped countries wanted to gain every benefit from having their position so defined; especially they wanted high priority in every form of economic aid. At the same time the inappropriate association between economic need and national prestige meant that it was insulting to be called underdeveloped. With a display of the kind of good manners by which a hostess, to put at ease the guest who has dropped a plate, proceeds to break a platter, internationalists, guilty over colonialism and preventable human suffering on the one hand, and their own conspicuous, wasteful consumption on the other, responded to the touchiness of members of less industrialized countries by calling the old, rich, industrialized countries "overdeveloped." Seen simply in these terms, it is a piece of good manners in rather poor taste.

But the term overdeveloped also permits several questions to be raised about what is the position of industrialized countries in a world which has been reorganized in accordance with pre-industrial ideas of nationalism. Are they, for example, overdeveloped in terms of over-consumption? This judgment is expressed in the accusation that enough paper is wasted every day in the United States to provide the newsprint necessary to save freedom in some new country. Or it is said that the power wasted in the average electrified home would be enough to bring food and water to a village of several hundred people, or that by eliminating the duplication of radios and television sets in American homes a great many villages could be supplied with modern communications. In these terms, can a country like the United States be said to have passed the point of optimum development? This question, in turn, can lead to the advocacy either of arrest or of curtailment of standards of consumption in the developed nations—or at least to a growing fear that other nation states will not long tolerate their have-not position vis-à-vis the have nations.

But those who use the term overdeveloped may go even further. They may point to indices of social disorganization in those industrial countries in which political democracy and welfare-state organization have gone further than elsewhere—the indices of crime, delinquency, suicide, divorce, alcoholism and homicide. These are the current costs of overdevelopment—of becoming rich without abolishing poverty, however high the level of that poverty is in comparison with the poverty of the average Indian or Mestizo resident of a Latin American city or an average resident of Calcutta.

Furthermore, use of the term raises the question of whether the continuum of technical development, which is assumed to be a good thing, may not in fact be something which should not be pursued indefinitely or something which should not be pursued at all, or at least so singlemindedly. It emphasizes the price paid by human beings in industrial countries—both the price paid by those who suffer in their own person through neglect that leads to crime, alcoholism, family disorganization and so on, and the price paid by the apparent beneficiaries of industrialization through lack of space, leisure and privacy and through the exchange of peace of mind for a greater number of material possessions. It stresses the values of a pre-industrial (or just possibly a post-industrial) form of society, in which standard of living may be seen as having optimum but not maximum value. It refocuses attention on the values of other countries of the world, poor only by a recent definition of what is the right of a nation state, and stresses values which are intangible. Coupled with an emphasis on the intangibles of faith and a delight in life, there may be, as in Theobald's work,[iii] a sophisticated recognition of how difficult it is to transform the motivations of people who have worked all their lives for what they regard as enough into a restless quest for more, because this is part of their newly acquired sense of national identity.

In fact, the world has been maneuvred into a situation which is not technically, economically or politically feasible. The association of national identity with industrial development is no less ridiculous on a world scale than it would be on a national scale if some group of developers (in the United States, for example) were to say: Every town in the United States, of whatever size, location or composition, needs a modern factory that can give steady employment to five hundred people and will adjust constructively to changes in world demand. We will lend you the money to build it, supply you with the name of a distributor who will provide you with the equipment, lend you more money if you get in trouble, and control the world market so that your product will always be salable. It is up to you to decide whether the unit of control is to be an unincorporated borough or a section of a metropolitan area, etc. It is also up to you to decide whether the board of managers is to be composed of the D.A.R., the Chamber of Commerce, ten elementary schoolteachers, the Fire Department, a local of an international union, the top 10 percent of the senior class in high school, a representative sample of families who have lived in the area for a hundred years, Catholics, Baptists, Jehovah's Witnesses, a random selection of engineers educated at M.I.T., former employees of the F.B.I., at least 10 percent American Indians, and so on. We want you to have a high standard of living. We are sure that a manufacturing plant will make it possible for you to improve your health and your educational facilities and to share in the general benefits of an affluent society. But, the developers would have to add, be certain that all this, however you organize it, will result in support of our political position and will not help our rivals. All other considerations—technical, economic and social—are to be subordinated to this end. It is true we and our political rivals agree that you must have a series of benefits in the way of food, housing, medical care, education and security; there is no argument about this. And of course you are free to choose the size and shape of the unit within which you want to work. What really is at stake is that in doing this you stay on our side. But our aim is for you as a community—regardless of whether you are a village, a city or a suburban housing development—to catch up with the highest standard of living that can be shown to exist anywhere.

In effect, the idea of world-wide economic development on a single scale is a case where our ethic for human welfare and human dignity has outrun our ethic for group relevance, where political rivalry, in terms of the 1960s, still permits an efflorescence of economically irrelevant units within which economic development is expected to occur.

What we need urgently today is a set of new propositions which are congruent, one with the other:

1. The technical skills and resources exist; no one in the world need be hungry or cold, unclothed, uneducated or unmedicated. Standards can be set below which no people anywhere should be allowed to fall. What help is needed to bring their living standard up to the minimum can be introduced in ways that are appropriate, whether by the export of natural resources, by migration, immigration or resettlement, regional planning or world-wide organization.

2. The nation state, which historically was concerned primarily with warding off attack and with attacking others, is an imperfect unit for the administration of human welfare and is an even more imperfect one for the administration of economic development. There is a need for a new kind of nationhood within which every people may find dignity and take responsibility in certain ways for their fellow citizens and in other ways for all other peoples.

3. Any single scale of development is invidious and leads inevitably to conflict, humiliation and hurt pride. Our present roster of nations has in common only nationhood; in other respects the widest discrepancies exist—in size, age, wealth, tradition, degree of internal homogeneity, natural resources, rate of growth, racial composition, legal practice, level of skill. So it is important to phrase nationhood in terms of what a nation can accomplish in the way of assigning dignity, responsibility and recognized world wide status to all peoples of this planet. Citizenship, so phrased, is independent of age, sex, size, intelligence, experience, wealth, beauty, past glory or future expectations. Any attempt to alter this position, in regard to individual citizenship, would—and should—be opposed with vigor. Yet we are allowing the world to drift toward a position in which all nations will fail to find the dignity they seek if, as is now the case, nationhood is joined to planning for economic development in inappropriate ways. Single-scale development, under these circumstances, will inevitably result in a hierarchy of citizenship as well as of nations.

We need to develop a new framework within which to meet people's basic needs and all world-relevant needs, i.e. for transportation, communications, currency, the allocation of medical supplies, and so on. All these should be dealt with in other than national or simple intergovernmental frameworks. Simultaneously, those countries which are now called underdeveloped could be encouraged to develop their own distinctive identities within the modern world—to cherish their local languages while all children also learned a world language, to develop their own architecture, their own poetry, their own style of life.

With the development of new contexts, it would immediately become apparent that there is nowhere an "overdeveloped" country. The price paid, in delinquency, crime, suicide and disorganization, by those who live in politically democratic, industrialized countries is high because they themselves have failed to realize their own economic potential. This in turn hinders the development of a world-wide viable economy.

Nations are, and should be, different from one another. Units of economic development should meet technical, not national, criteria. What we need to work out is a series of overlapping structures which are so acephalous that it will be as difficult for any member to destroy them as it will be unprofitable for any member to withdraw.

[i] Gunnar Myrdal, "Beyond the Welfare State: Economic Planning and Its International Implications." New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.

[ii] Germaine Tillion, "Algeria: The Realities," translated by Ronald Matthews. New York: Knopf, 1958.

[iii] Robert Theobald, "The Rich and the Poor: A Study of the Economics of Rising Expectations." New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1960.

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  • MARGARET MEAD, Associate Curator of Ethnology, American Museum of Natural History; frequently engaged in anthropological studies in the South Pacific since 1928; author of many works in the general field
  • More By Margaret Mead