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Death to the Developing World

Death to the Developing World

Words matter.

More specifically, language matters. Words are the basic units of language, both spoken and written. Words, however, are not real. They are not natural. They are created through convention. The name “horse” is not a natural property of the animal like its colour or shape. It is artificial, made by people.

The World Bank, in anticipation of its World Development Report 2016, teased us with three features of the publication. The most significant is that the organisation will no longer distinguish between “developing” and “developed” countries in data sets and publications. “Developing” countries, according to the World Bank, were previously defined as “low- and middle-income” countries. This included countries such as China, India, Nigeria, Ghana, Sudan and Bolivia.

Do all developing countries have aircraft carriers? China's Liaoning is a second-hand carrier. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Do all developing countries have aircraft carriers? China’s Liaoning is a second-hand carrier. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The 2016 Report will also use the new US$1.90/day extreme poverty line. Data is highlighted as an area of concern for development reporting and planning. It is readily admitted that “only a few of the 169 targets in the Sustainable Development Goals can currently be tracked and measured completely.”

The death of the “developing world” is welcome news. Hopefully it will set a trend for other actors and organisations to follow. We’ve previously highlighted the absurdity of labelling “developing” and “developed” countries. Although absurd, it matters. The reduction of entire nations, peoples and cultures to the paternalistic and loaded term of “developing” bends time and space. It suggests that the birth of many countries only began at the United Nations’ founding conference in 1945. That was Zero 0 for development, and a particularly large group of countries have been “developing” in perpetuity. Meanwhile, “developed” countries have remained stable and unchanging.

The World Bank’s solution is geographical coverage. There are bound to be generalisations and reductionist tendencies with this approach too, but it is a qualitatively better alternative. It also highlights the vexing issue of data, and how it is used and abused to categorise and label.

In 1953, UNESCO published one of the world’s first reports on illiteracy. Census data from 26 countries was examined, and a data set on global literacy rates was created. Census enumerators asked questions of respondents to determine literacy. These included, “Can you read?” and “Can you write?”.  A simple “yes” or “no” would be the indicator of literacy. In others, the ability to sign one’s name was insufficient to be marked literate. Africa had little data to offer at the time.

Photo from Abel & Bond (1929).

The term development represents a dominant discourse based on largely economic functions, principles and data. Literacy is no different. Literacy continues to be predominantly associated with schooling and the ability to produce texts valued by formal education discourses and structures. UNESCO states that “non-existent basic education is the root cause of illiteracy.” Throughout the 1960 and 70s, despite an emerging call for emancipatory approaches to literacy and education, functional literacy tied to economic development and production took hold globally. The fortunes of literacy and development as stunted terms became entwined.

It is time, then, to let go of distinguishing between “literate” and “illiterate.” The data produced by these categories is unhelpful for programs, planning and policy. Such a binary view cannot produce results. The assumption of deficiency has been found to be inaccurate. People’s lives, whether or not they have accessed schooling, are filled with literacy events, actions and practices. Literacy is not just text comprehension and production but it is multimodal; it involves the understanding and viewing of images, drawings, signs, non-verbal gestures and visual activities.

When we look, children have complex, personal and layered ideas of what literacy means and how they understand it. The photograph below was produced by a participant during the fieldwork for my doctoral research. He is considered out-of-school and illiterate, but when invited to document his understanding and use of literacy, a deep and rich picture emerged.

An out-of-school student learning Dagbanli in a semi-formal education intervention in northern Ghana. Photo courtesy of Yakubu.

Yakubu is 10 years old and was not attending formal school, despite the presence of a primary school in the community. He was forced to drop out of primary school at grade two. Five days a week, Yakubu attends a community-run Qur’anic Arabic class and is a participant in a semi-formal literacy and numeracy intervention. The intervention uses Dagbanli, the community’s mother tongue, as the language of instruction and targets children who are not attending formal schooling.

Non-formal approaches to education have been responsible for the schooling of tens of millions of children (and adults) around the world. Yet, children in attendance are usually not counted as being in school. The learning that Yakubu shows in his photographs looks like regular, school-based learning. The teaching practices, materials and actions are familiar. Indeed, the intervention uses a primary school classroom in the afternoon. It is schooling in all but name, and is usually missing from the data and the language.

A classmate of Yakubu's checking his marks. Credit: Yakubu.
Yakubu’s classmate checks his marks. Photo courtesy of Yakubu.

When asked if he thinks he is literate, Yakubu responds in the negative: “I haven’t reached the stage where I can say I really know how to read and write.” However, the multiple literacies he demonstrated as a photographer and as a student contradict his self-assessment. Yakubu is emerging as a literate person. He is on the path between non-literate and literate, between developing and developed.

Death to the Developing world. Death to Illiteracy.


Some other terms and phrases I’d like to see die:

Featured image shows a board with ‘words have power’ written on it. Photo from Pixabay.

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Brendan Rigby

Managing Director & Co-founder at WhyDev
Brendan is an education specialist and co-founder of WhyDev. He is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education exploring complementary basic education and the literacy practices of out-of-school children in northern Ghana. Formerly, he was an Education Officer with UNICEF Ghana, and Director of Venture Support with StartSomeGood. Brendan has also been an education consultant and trainer for Plan, UNICEF, ScopeGlobal and the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority. He is obsessed with tea, American football and karaoke.

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2 thoughts on “Death to the Developing World

  1. […] words we use are some of the most powerful tools we have to persuade others and change toxic attitudes – important activities in the […]

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