How to talk about countries

Brendan Rigby, writing at, has these useful tips for how to talk about countries and poverty and whatnot while avoiding terms like “Western” and “developing”:

  • Qualify what you mean
  • Avoid generalisations althogther (highly recommended)
  • Use more discrete and established categories, such as Least Developed Countries (LDCs), or Low Income & Middle Income Countries, which have set criteria
  • Reference legitimate and recognised benchmarks such as the UNDP’s Human Development Index or the World Bank’s poverty benchmark (These have there own methodology problems)
  • Examine development issues and challenges of individual communities, countries in the context of regional geography, history and relations rather than losing countries within references to regions and continents. There is a big different between ‘poverty in Africa’ and ‘poverty in Angola’ or ‘poverty in South Africa’.

Good rules to follow. I’m generally OK with using “low and middle income countries,” except that I’m not sure “income” should be the standard by which everything is defined. I wish there were a benchmark that took into account human development, but was uncontroversial (ha!) and thus accepted by all, and then we could easily classify nations (and these naming conventions are, after all, useful shorthands) by that index without worrying about accuracy or offense. Until we get to that point, I think using clearly defined measures of income and qualifying what we mean is the best way forward when generalizing — when that’s necessary or helpful at all. Which is at least sometimes, and maybe often.


03 2011

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