BILL GATES, in his foundation’s annual letter, declared that “the terms ‘developing countries’ and ‘developed countries’ have outlived their usefulness.” He’s right. If we want to understand the modern global economy, we need a better vocabulary.
Mr. Gates was making a point about improvements in income and gross domestic product; unfortunately, these formal measures generate categories that tend to obscure obvious distinctions. Only when employing a crude “development” binary could anyone lump Mozambique and Mexico together.
It’s tough to pick a satisfying replacement. Talk of first, second and third worlds is passé, and it’s hard to bear the Dickensian awkwardness of “industrialized nations.” Forget, too, the more recent jargon about the “global south” and “global north.” It makes little sense to counterpose poor countries with “the West” when many of the biggest economic success stories in the past few decades have come from the East.
All of these antiquated terms imply that any given country is “developing” toward something, and that there is only one way to get there.
It’s time that we start describing the world as “fat” or “lean.”
“Lean” societies approach consumption and production with scarcity in mind. In the so-called least developed nations of sub-Saharan Africa, where the gross national income averages just $2,232 per capita, populations are young and hungry — at times for food, but mostly for opportunity. Nothing can be taken for granted or wasted. But resource constraints have provoked an astonishing bounty of homegrown solutions to the problems philanthropists like Mr. Gates address with charity. If necessity is the mother of invention, lean economies have a distinct advantage.
So what makes an economy “fat”? The United States is a prime example. Plenty is normal. Gross national income is close to $50,000 per person.
There are downsides. The United States has one of the world’s highest obesity rates and has grappled with other, more figurative “fat” problems: a subprime mortgage epidemic, pay-to-play politics, a dangerous taste for fossil fuels. Other countries are also struggling to pay the wages of wealth. South Korea has declared Internet addiction a public health concern. Aging nations in Europe are scrambling to defuse the time bomb of generous pension programs. The consumption-fueled financial crisis exposed bloat from Iceland to Italy. Subsequent “austerity” measures have put fat economies in jeopardy for decades to come.
By contrast, Africa’s lean economies have more basic concerns. Malaria and childbirth still rank among the top causes of death. Predatory politicians, antique infrastructure, drug shortages and power cuts are all too common. But there are silver linings. Individual Africans waste less food and water, owe less money, and maintain a regional carbon footprint that is the lowest in the world. The energy consumed annually by the 19.5 million people in New York State is equivalent to that of nearly 800 million Africans.