Underdeveloped (Third) World Essay

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The “Underdeveloped World” is a term used to describe the “third world.” The third world was a common term used to differentiate between countries that aligned with neither the West nor the East during the cold war. In academic literature, several terms such as the South, underdeveloped, less developed, and developing have since been used interchangeably to describe these countries.

While it should be recognized that there is a great deal of diversity among underdeveloped countries in relation to geographical location, climatic conditions, religion, population size, resource endowments and the extent of dual economy, in broad terms they share several common characteristics. These are: Low standards of living, low levels of productivity, high rates of population growth, high levels of unemployment, strong economic dependency on agricultural production and export of primary products, and high foreign debt. Most underdeveloped nations are unable to provide for the developmental and economic needs of their citizens. This has left underdeveloped countries dependent and vulnerable in the turbulent arena of international relations.

Measuring Socioeconomic Status

Policy makers and academic experts measure the socioeconomic characteristics of a nation using the Human Development Index (HDI) and the Human Poverty Index (HPI). The HDI index was developed by the United Nations (UN) to differentiate and compare the relative economic and social well-being of nations. Annual HDI reports are published to establish the comparative economic status of a nation by comparing and contrasting the value of significant social and economic indicators including, mortality rates, education levels, health statistics, and income levels.

Countries with an HDI measurement of over 0.8 are categorized as developed world nations, while those with a measurement below 0.8 are described as being underdeveloped. Low HDI scores indicate low per capita income, a relatively undeveloped infrastructure (including transport and telecommunications), high mortality rates, and low levels of education and employment. The 2005 HDI Report shows that the large majority of countries with a low HDI are currently in Africa.

The Human Poverty Index (HPI), also developed by the UN, measures the extent of poverty in a country. The magnitude of poverty is used not only to reflect the level of social welfare attained by the country over time but also to rank the country on a development scale. The HPI measurement indicates the levels of material need, social need, and financial resources of a country.

The World Bank also studies global poverty rates and they have shown that poverty levels are highest in the developing world. The World Bank reported in 1996 that Asia accounted for over two-thirds of the world’s 1.3 billion poorest people, and the World Development Report 2000-2001 states that 29.1 percent of people in selected developing countries live in poverty.

Foreign Aid

It is the question of how to reduce poverty that dominates discussion between the countries of the developed and underdeveloped worlds. The allocation of foreign aid to the underdeveloped world has been the most common strategy employed by developed world nations to try to reduce poverty levels in underdeveloped countries.

Foreign aid refers to any money or resources that are transferred from developed to developing countries without expecting full repayment. The 1971 UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) promoted the notion that one percent of the national income of developed countries should be allocated to easing third world poverty. A subsequent UNCTAD meeting in Chile, in 1972, also set growth targets for developing countries at 6 percent during the 1970s. Another initiative, the Lome I and II pacts of 1975 and 1979 between the European Economic Community (EEC) and 46 African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) countries, exempted ACP exports from certain tariffs, and guaranteed income from agricultural exports.

While foreign aid can play an important complementary and catalytic role in promoting economic growth, generally the distribution of foreign aid has further strengthened the reliance of the underdeveloped world upon developed nations. Many experts suggest that conditional (foreign) aid has resulted in the delivery of overpriced technical assistance, the counting of debt relief as development aid, and the inclusion of immigration-related costs in aid figures, which has tended to serve the interests of international donor countries rather than eradicating poverty.

Conditional foreign aid has also had a profound impact upon the environments of the developing world. Costa Rica, for example, received nine International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank structural adjustment loans during the 1980s. These loans were designed to encourage the competitive entry of Costa Rica into the international markets for bananas and cattle. The developmental expansion, however, came at the cost of increased use of pesticides, intense deforestation, and species extinction, resulting ultimately in a decrease of 31 percent of Costa Rica’s forest cover by 1987.

There is a growing consensus in the aid community that a considerable portion of the international aid budget should be restructured to focus on human development concerns in developing countries. Experts recommend that aid be practical, targeted, science-based, and measurable. Foreign aid policies must reflect local priorities, incorporate stronger commitment and partnerships, incorporate routine monitoring and evaluation and be consistent with other developmental policies of the donor countries.


As demonstrated by the Costa Rican example above, underdeveloped countries do not exist in isolation, but are part of a globalized economy. Globalization refers to the expansion of local concerns-such as markets, information technology, social, cultural and political systems-into the global arena. Significant financial power is required by a country to expand local concerns and take an active and competitive role in the global economy because the international economy is dominated by rich developed countries.

For the underdeveloped world, globalization has thus necessitated the realignment of national policies to be consistent with their global counterparts in order to allow economic integration. Unfortunately, most underdeveloped countries do not possess the financial power needed to fully exploit global opportunities. Consequently, sub-economies have been established within underdeveloped countries that essentially serve industrialized markets because market control over international goods and services is primarily dominated by large multinational companies based in the developed world. This means that underdeveloped countries are controlled by the price-setting measure of those companies; this has had the effect of limiting economic activity in developing nations to a few niche sectors and is preventing them from fully exploiting resources that could help reduce poverty levels.

Resource Inequity

The economic dominance of the developed world over underdeveloped nations in globalized markets is best demonstrated by the major inequalities in the consumption and ownership of the world’s resources. Resource consumption is defined as the exploitation or use of all resources that we extract from the environment (often termed environmental resources or inputs); including minerals, fossil fuels, fish, wood, water, land, and other forms of energy. These resources (inputs) are extracted to produce the goods and services that are manufactured and consumed in the market place.

The 1998 Human Development Report highlights the starkness of the inequity of resource use between the developed and developing worlds, noting that globally, the richest fifth of the world’s population has 85 percent of its income, while the poorest fifth has just 1.4 percent. The same report also shows that 20 percent of the world’s people in the highest-income countries account for 86 percent of total private expenditure in consumption of goods and services, while the poorest 20 percent account for just 1.3 percent. Further, the richest fifth of global nations consume 45 percent of all meat and fish, consume 58 percent of total energy, and own 87 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet.

Global Population Growth

The inequitable distribution and ownership of the world’s resources can be demonstrated by an examination of projected global population statistics. The world population is estimated to reach 9.1 billion by 2050. Ninety-five percent of the world’s population growth will be within the world’s leastdeveloped countries. Fertility rates in the underdeveloped countries will remain high, while developed countries are estimated to reach “below replacement” level by 2050. Mortality rates in developing countries remain high, however, especially in those countries within Africa and some parts of Asia that have high HIV/AIDS and other contagious disease infection rates.

Theses projected trends in population growth will have significant implications for both human populations and the environment in underdeveloped countries. First, the growth of population in these countries will place added pressure upon the agricultural industries. As the population increases the demand for food will grow. It is estimated that the total demand for agricultural products in 2030 will be approximately 60 percent higher than today. More than 85 percent of the additional demand will be from the underdeveloped world.

A second implication of population growth is a predicted corresponding demographic shift in populations from rural to urban centers. Presently, there are 20 global cities of more than 10 million people. Fifteen of the 20 are in underdeveloped countries, containing four percent of the global population. By 2015 it is predicted that there will be 22 such mega-cities, 16 of which will be in developing countries, accounting for five percent of the global population.

The growth in mega cities will be due to the displacement of people from rural communities who will be forced from their land by the application of new technologies that displace local producers in favor of large commercial farms that can cater to the increased demand for food.

As is already being witnessed in China, the displacement of people from rural centers into urban areas is having a tremendous impact upon those forced to move. Unemployment rates are high, local cultural identities are being eroded and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) is lowering rural livelihoods as small producers compete with imports from other WTO countries.

Population and the Environment

Another significant impact of population growth in the underdeveloped world is upon the environment. The drive for developing countries to achieve economic equity and status with the developed world, and meet the challenge of providing for rising populations, puts intense pressure on the environment, causing environmental problems such as degradation, erosion, salinity, and conversion of natural ecosystems.

In a report by the World Commission on Environment and Development, poverty is identified as a major cause and effect of global environmental problems. For example, China’s population is estimated to increase by 25 percent by 2012. Excessive erosion rates resulting from this will have significant impact on over one-third of China’s fields, while the burning of crop residues to cook and provide heating will denude the soil of important organic matter.

The use of pesticides in agriculture is of major concern. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that over one million cases of pesticide poisoning occur annually, with most of these instances occurring within developing countries.

Dependence on and pressure to access the world’s water resources will increase, as will the environmental impacts upon them. In the past century alone, growing populations have increased demand for freshwater six-fold. Moreover, there is an increasing demand for freshwater with industrialization, irrigated agriculture, massive urbanization, and growing populations. More than one-half of available freshwater supplies are now used for domestic purposes and the world’s water demand is doubling every 20 years.

Deforestation is another major environmental issue facing many developing countries. Clearing for subsistence and commercial agriculture, fuelwood, logging, and mineral extraction pay economic dividends but the impact on ecosystems is dramatic. For example, since 1960, over a quarter of the rain forest in Chile has been cleared to provide land for cattle grazing, which has been encouraged to meet the demand for beef in developed countries.

Deforestation is having a global impact causing species extinction, ecosystem service loss, and the reduction of carbon sinks resulting in increased emissions of climate changing gases. Deforestation in the Amazon is affecting weather patterns and rainfall from Mexico to Texas, while deforestation in southeast Asia impacts rainfall in China and the Balkan Peninsula. Twenty to 25 percent of global carbon emissions come from changes to land use, primarily the degradation of forests.

Population growth in underdeveloped countries is also having a negative impact upon the marine commons. The resources of the marine environment are a vital source of food and often the sole source of nutrition for over one billion people. A vast majority of those dependent on marine resources for nutritional needs are in underdeveloped countries. This resource is threatened both by unsustainable exploitation and contamination. Algal blooms-or eutrophicationare caused by the excessive input of nutrients from agricultural runoff into marine environments. These can cause health problems, poisoning, and sometimes death. In 1987 there were 200 cases of algal poisoning in Guatemala, 26 of which were fatal.

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that over 20 billion tons of waste-including sewage, agricultural waste, and industrial runoffare discharged into the world’s oceans annually. Ninety percent of this pollution remains near the coast, where 95 percent of fish are harvested. This is why implications of expanded agricultural areas and industrialization in developing countries will have a continuing detrimental impact upon the marine environment and health of local peoples.

Development’s Environmental Cost

In order to cope with expanding populations and to participate in the global marketplace, major development projects are taking place across the underdeveloped world, including the construction of roads, dams, and railways. These often have immense environmental implications. The Projecto Grand Carajas in Brazil, an iron and other ores project, will occupy up to 10 percent of Brazil’s land mass and will cut through 900 kilometers of Amazon rain forest. Impacts upon the rivers and hydrology of the Amazon will be significant because a series of hydroelectric dams will be constructed to provide energy to power the project; additional energy will be generated by burning charcoal products extracted from Amazonian timber.

The clearing of forest for Projecto Grand Carajas will release vast stores of carbon from the soil, plus the added effect of burning the timber to generate power will greatly increase Brazil’s overall emissions of climate changing gases. Significant siltation of Amazonian rivers will occur as soil from cleared land is washed by monsoonal rains into waterways.

Conflicts and Refugees

Conflicts due to demographic change, environmental pressures, population growth, resource use and the vagaries of natural climate are common across the underdeveloped world. Conflicts over resource use and exploitation have occurred, including disputes over the most precious of resources-water. Water scarcity the world over is causing significant tension. Forty percent of the world’s population depends on 214 river basins for drinking water, irrigation, and power. In India, conflicts over water have occurred, such as the 1991 civil unrest between the states of Karantataka and Tamil Nadi over access rights to the Cauvery River.

Conflict can lead to refugees, and combined with natural environmental fluctuations, environmental degradation, and over-exploitation of natural resources, the underdeveloped world regularly faces significant challenges. At the end of 2000, the number of refugees in the world stood at 16 million people. The largest numbers of refugees were in underdeveloped parts of the world including nine million in Asia and four million in Africa. Three million refugees are displaced in developed countries.

Many refugees in the underdeveloped world are considered to be environmental refugees. This is mainly as a consequence of natural disasters such as drought. For example, in 1988, over one million Ethiopians were displaced due to a serious drought that also had major impacts in other developing countries, including drought-prone northeast Brazil.

People are also made refugees as a result of development projects such as dam or road constructions. For example, the construction of a dam at the Kaptai Lake in Bangladesh displaced 100,000 people without compensation and the Three Gorges Dam project in China has displaced 1.2 million people.

Human displacement due to environmental issues and social and economic development in the underdeveloped world has been a catalyst for conflict. The arrival of Mauritanians into Senegal led to armed clashes between the two groups.

The issue of refugees is only set to get worse as the underdeveloped world faces major environmental challenges as a result of long-term environmental degradation and human-induced climate change. Estimates indicate that sea level rise and a decline of food stock, due to climate change, has the potential to create up to 173 million environmental refugees, most of whom will be residents of the underdeveloped world.

Equity and the Environment

As discussed above, the developed world is the major consumer of the earth’s resources, but population growth is centered in the underdeveloped world. Globalization is forcing the two global spheres to interact as never before. This presents the world with a question: Is it possible to support the rights of developing countries to enjoy the same levels of affluence and quality of life as the developed world, while minimizing environmental impacts?

Globalization means that human society now shares a global commons. Developing countries play a vital role in the global economy and provide the world with cheap resources and labor. However, current global consumption is increasingly happening at the expense of the environment and the earth’s climate and is doing little to alleviate global poverty.

The establishment of effective legislative environmental controls in underdeveloped countries would help to minimize environmental impacts while creating an equitable world. At present, environmental laws in many developing countries are difficult to interpret, vague, or simply nonexistent. Where environmental legislation does exist in underdeveloped countries it is not accompanied by regulation or enforcement of those laws. In Central America and Mexico, surveys of air and water pollution laws show that while laws exist to regulate these issues, financial resources have not been allocated to legal enforcement. In the African countries of Zambia, Ethiopia, Ghana, the Sudan and Kenya, penalties for infringements of environmental law are so low it is cheaper to pollute than act within the law.

Ecologically sustainable development (ESD) has been suggested as a mechanism outside of legislative frameworks that can address these problems. The concept of sustainable development is seen as an essential measure of the impact of economic activity upon global survival. The World Commission on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 defined ESD as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The UNCED definition was based on the report Our Common Future, published in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, which called for strategies to strengthen global efforts to promote the concept of sustainability. The Commission highlighted that the political goals of socio-economic development must be treated as a crucial part of attaining sustainable development.

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are another forum through which underdeveloped and developed countries can work together to minimize environmental impacts while countries develop their socio-economic structures. The MDG framework identifies eight major goals and 18 associated targets to evaluate the effectiveness of sustainable development. These goals include quantified aims in relation to achieving poverty alleviation by 2015. Furthermore, the forum acknowledges the importance of agriculture to rural development and how it may contribute toward meeting the MDGs.

Developing countries are also emerging with a collaborative voice to address some of these challenges. At the UN summit on climate change in Montreal in 2005, a coalition of 10 tropical developing countries called the Coalition for Rainforest Nations and led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica tabled a proposal for compensation for rain forest services that their nations provide for the rest of the world. UN figures show that the countries within this coalition collectively represent approximately 13 percent of the world’s rain forest, reflecting $1.1 trillion in carbon storage. The coalition stressed the inequity of expecting developing nations, burdened by poverty, to give up income through deforestation while other countries benefit from the services derived from rain forest protection. These services include carbon storage, water filtration, biodiversity protection, climate regulation, and fisheries protection. They argued that if the developed world wished to save the rain forest, they should pay for rain forest services. Examples like these highlight the dilemmas developing countries face when resource use and exploitation are the only way a nation is able to survive economically.

Underdeveloped countries, despite aid programs and their own efforts, largely remain in poverty. Poverty combined with the pressure of competing on the international stage, population increases, environmental degradation, and unsustainable resource use indicates the underdeveloped world still faces significant challenges. Cumulatively, these factors undermine the peace and stability of the entire world. While it is crucial that poverty is effectively addressed, development per se is not the panacea it was once thought to be. Pathways must be found to reconcile development needs, eradicate poverty, and decrease inequity between the underdeveloped and first worlds in ways that are environmentally sound, socially just, and economically viable.


  1. Butler, Developing Countries: Pay Us to Save the Rainforests (Monganbay Press, 2005);
  2. Global Forest Resources Assessment, http://www.fao.org/forest-resources-assessment/en/;
  3. F. Lechner and Boli, eds., The Globalisation Reader (Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2004);
  4. T. Oatley, ed., The Global Economy: Contemporary Debates (Pearson Education, 2005);
  5. Ogolla, “Water Pollution Control in Africa: A Comparative Legal Survey,” Journal of Africa (v.33, 1989);
  6. Ramlogan, The Developing World and the Environment, Making the Case for Effective Protection of the Global Environment (University Press of America, 2004);
  7. S. Simpson, The Developing World: An Introduction (Longman Scientific and Technical, 1987);
  8. Steinfeld, “Economic Constraints on Production and Consumption of Animal Source Foods for Nutrition in Developing Countries,” The Journal of Nutrition (v.133, 2003);
  9. T. Tietenberg, “The Poverty Connection of Environmental Policy,” Challenge (v.33, 1990);
  10. United Nations (UN), “The State of Human Development,” United Nations Development Report, 1998 (UN 1998);
  11. United Nations, World Population Prospects, The 2004 Revision (Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2005);
  12. Wheeler, “The Interwoven Strands of Development,” The IECD Observer (v.167, 1990);
  13. Worldwatch Institute, State of the World 2001: A Worldwatch Institute Report on Progress Toward a Sustainable Society (Worldwatch, 2002).

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