The Majority World – what’s in a phrase?

Dr Salmah Eva-Lina Lawrence Fri, 4 Nov 2022

At the recent Philanthropy Australia conference, I caused a bit of a stir with my use of ‘Majority World’. I am delighted to hear that individuals and organisations are adopting the usage. I want to share here in more detail what I mean by Majority World.

I first used the phrase ‘majority world’ at a conference at the ANU in 2013 and in the paper that was subsequently published in 2015. I now use Majority World in place of what is often referred to as the developing world, in order to avoid the infantilisation—and ensuing harm— implicit in ‘developing’ and the even more blatant hierarchies in ‘first’ and ‘third’ world. My reasons are to do with discourse and ethics.

The following is excerpted from my forthcoming book Decolonising International Development: The view from the Majority World.

The ‘Othering’ Discourse in international development

Harry Truman is often cast as sowing the seeds of international development in 1949 when he proclaimed “We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas”.  But Truman’s remarks also continued the tone long used by missionaries and colonisers as he described the peoples of these ‘underdeveloped’ areas as “primitive” and “stagnant” and therefore in need of a white saviour. It is language that is offensive, to say the least.

Fast forward seven decades and still the current global order, through the UN and its agencies, tells a significant proportion of the population of the planet, through the language it employs, that somehow they are lacking and, therefore, in need of development. The UN, or a spokesperson, would most likely disagree that this is the message that they intend but unintended consequences are at least as important as intended consequences. This language and the visuals accompanying it is amplified by actors in the humanitarian and international development sector who frequently portray the people they work with as victims, lacking in agency, passively waiting to be ‘saved’ by the West.

Discourse is consequential. The language we use helps determine whether we treat each other as subjects with agential capacity or as objects to be acted upon. In short, the language we use will foster inclusion or erect barriers. And if we choose to foster inclusion and mutual respect then it pays to alter a harmful discourse that objectifies a large demographic of this planet as infantile.

We cannot escape entirely the language of developed and developing. All humans are learning beings, consequently all humans are constantly in a state of development and human societies – as products of collectives of human beings – are also in a state of ongoing development.

‘Developed’ implies that there is no more developing to be undertaken. It’s a very narrow measure of progress that excludes things like racial violence. The UN measures countries against standards of violence against women but is silent on race-based violence and the violence that high levels of consumption inflict on others and on the planet. Such measures would undoubtedly show the US to be one of the most violent countries on the planet. What of countries in which a woman is allegedly raped in a parliament that appears to condone systemic gender inequality through, inter alia, misogyny and sexual misconduct – if the parliament is representative of the country would you not say the country was in need of some form of human development? Surely any form of systemic violence or harm against another human is a sign of a society in need of development.

The point is that all societies are developing and no extant society on this planet has attained that apogee of moral irreproachability that would enable it to be an ethical exemplar. International development in its current form encompasses economic and human development – it is, therefore, all the more misleading to suggest that there are humans so well developed that they have established ‘developed’ societies that are free of all forms of violence.

Therefore, in our current planetary stage of progress, there are no ‘developed’ countries, only developing ones. In this light, the ‘othering’ discourse of developed/developing, is misleading.

Ethics in international development

I’ve suggested that the language of developed/developing country is problematic on two counts. On the other hand, it valorises other countries which may be advanced industrially still have a lot of social developing to do. Deliberately causing harm is unethical as is deliberately creating a deception. The language of international development via the binary of developing/developed does both.

The assumption of international development is that westernisation is the ideal. This implicit norm is singularly problematic for societies whose cultural, religious and ethical bases are not European, not white. Not only does this assumption serve to invalidate all other ways that a diversity of humans can conceive of being, it entrenches that hierarchy of developed, developing, least developed and entrenches westernisation, or Euromodernity, as an arbitrary measure of human and social perfection. And this despite the pitfalls that have accompanied Euromodernity such as enslavement, colonialism, expropriation, patriarchy and many other forms of violence. Even the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has recently confirmed in their sixth report that historical and contemporary colonialism exacerbates climate change.

Why, then, the assumption that there is a global aspiration to Euromodernity? It has much to do with the current global order and with historical relations of power and domination. And it continues to be upheld through discourse. Many people tell me they are uncomfortable with the current discourse and the implicit hierarchies, exclusions and othering that it creates. We all have a choice to participate in that discourse or to change it. Instead of developing world/country, we can use a signifier that is based on fact, not on the normative assumptions of a minority seeking to perpetuate a hierarchy. ‘Majority World’ signifies all countries designated as developing and all demographics designated as Global South.

The first fact is that these populations form a significant demographic majority on this planet. And that befits a proper name rather than an adjective – majority world has thus become Majority World. The second fact is that these populations are also a sociological majority on this planet sharing an ethics of relationality or relational autonomy in contrast to the competitive individualism of the West. For example, my matrilineal society in Papua New Guinea has an underlying ethics of relational autonomy. It is a society where women have always been able to inherit land and wealth, have always had bodily autonomy and have always participated in the political economy of community life. There is no charity. Instead, there is what in the Suau language we call ‘sagu’, (pronounced sah-gu) translated loosely into English as help or assistance. Sagu is offered to others, whether kin or not, in all times of crisis or need. It is not charity because there are no beneficiaries to be ‘saved’ by those who have more. Sagu is about reciprocity and the recognition that all human beings are related to each other no matter our cultural and phenotypical characteristics. Reciprocity is, in fact, the opposite of the ‘othering’ that occurs through the discourse of international development.

Returning to the facts of a global majority – thinking about these should prompt people to ask further questions about what is ethical about demanding a majority conform to the pronouncements of a minority.

At the very least, if individuals and organisations purport to diversity, equality, inclusion, and to not causing harm then attending to power dynamics in the language they use is a basic starting point towards ethical discourse.