27 Myths About the Developing World

As someone from the “developing world”, I cringe when I hear of generalizations people have of this concept. There is no point in arguing though as these people have not lived long enough in a developing world setting, nor have they been insightful enough to know there is no one trait that can define any group in the world.

I’ve heard from some Couchsurfers I’ve met that Filipinas love shopping and make-up, have an obsession on having a Westerner boyfriend, and love the Western look and lifestyle. Sure enough, I readily make excuses to leave early and block them from my social media network for life. And they like to call themselves “world travellers”. The nerve!

Michelle Kennedy of Global Citizen highlighted these myths perfectly in her article and I would like to thank her for letting me repost it. All italics below are my commentaries:

1) There is an agreed upon way to decide what is a developing country.

Flickr: Sudhamshu Hebbar

There is no agreed upon metric for deciding which countries are considered “developing”. The standard of living for a given country can be calculated a dozen different ways with different factors. There is even debate as to whether the term should still be used because it assumes a desire for Western-style economic development.

2) When people say “developing world” or “third world” they mean Africa.


hercampus.com: Materialistic people, not first world, problems

Yes, there are many developing nations in Africa. And yes, most of the myths on this list apply to how people think of Africa. There are developing countries in North America, South America, Asia and Europe. And Africa isn’t a monolith of poverty. This myth feeds into a lot of misconceptions about Africa like…

We should also keep in mind that the terms “First World” and “Third World” are not based on economic levels; they are based on different countries’ involvement to the world war. You can see more of this here and here

3) Africa is a country.

Flickr: US Army Africa

It’s not as though people don’t know that Africa is a continent not a country. The problem is that people make sweeping generalizations about Africa. Whereas most people in the Global North have a clear idea about the differences between Germany and Italy, African nations often get painted with the same brush. In fact there are 54 different African nations all with different cultures, ethnicities, and economic statuses.

4) Poor countries are just short of natural resources.

Wikimedia: Alexandra Pugachevsky

This is one of the most damaging myths because it makes people believe that there isn’t much that can be done to help. But it’s simply not true. For example, about 400 billion dollars worth of resources leave the continent of Africa every year. There are a lot of reasons why developing nations can have a lot of poverty, but a lack of natural resources is rarely a big factor.

The Philippines is a rich source of raw materials for so many manufactured products in the world. Did you know that the Philippines is also one of the suppliers of cocoa for Cadbury, one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world? Every Cadbury pack, however, never mentions where their cocoa comes from which further asserts the brand’s– not the farmer’s– voice to the world.

5) Developing nations don’t have their own cultures or histories (because they have always been poor).

Wikimedia: Cordanrad

This one will probably seem obvious but there is a misconception that developing nations have no culture or history because they’ve always been poor and cut off from the rest of the world. Aside from the racist assumptions about poverty in other civilizations, this myth ignores the rich and powerful cities, kingdoms and empires that have existed in areas that are now impoverished. Look into the Malian Empire or the Mughal Empire if you don’t believe me.

Also, we have to remember definitions of “culture”, “history” and “tradition” are all relative to the group we are talking about. And remember, too, that group delineations as we know of them today are entirely different as to what they were before. In the Philippines, there are no megalithic pre-Hispanic structures not because there is no “civilization”; but because among other things, slavery didn’t exist. Men and women were considered equals, and there was no concept of private property. If you’re interested to know more, there’s a host of researches done by Dr. June Prill-Brett, William Henry Scott, and Dr. Wilhelm Solheim among others. You can also visit the office of the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) for access to many books and journals. Please bring a government-issued ID and a request letter. 

6) The people in developing nations are all poor.


inquirer.net: People from developing nations are ‘all’ poor? What?!

There are clearly poor people in developing nations. But there are also poor in developed countries. Worse, the belief that a developing nation is entirely populated by poor people erases the many success stories of the rising global middle class. Only focusing on those in desperate poverty makes for ineffective policies and leads to false assumptions about how people live in other countries.

And guess what, the biggest buyers of first-hand luxury brands in the world are not Europeans or Americans– it’s Asians

7) All people living in extreme poverty live in rural areas.

Wikimedia Oxfam East Africa

Most of the world’s poor, about 75%, do live in rural areas and rely mostly on farming. However like most things on this list, facts become myths when people replace the word “most” with the word “all”. The 25% of the world’s poor that live in urban areas need different types of aid, and different kinds of policy change, than those in rural areas. They shouldn’t be ignored.

8) Developed nations spend a lot of their budgets on international aid.

Wikimedia: Russavia

How much do you think the United States spends in international aid every year? It’s probably less than you think . When asked how much of the national budget was spent on foreign aid the average American responded with 25%. The actual amount is less than 1%. Even the most generous nation in the world, Norway, gives less than 3% a year. When asked how much the United States should spend on foreign aid, the average response was 10%.

There is a fine line between international aid and tax havens. Unfortunately, this world is a filthy place, people use people, people try to cover it up, and poor people are put on the line. Many thanks to the reporters of the world who finally dug in the issue. Money laundering at its best!

 9) Relying on aid hurts developing nations.

The argument usually goes like this: “If developing nations rely on foreign aid, they will never develop their own economies.” However, it is important to remember that the aid that directly saves lives, such as medicine and food, is really an investment in the nation’s future. Without a strong and healthy population there is truly no hope for independence from aid.

I totally disagree with this. This is clearly an elitist Western-centric thinking. In the first place, international aid agencies have their own development plan without even consulting local communities. There is no exit plan. The only goal is to dispose off the aid money, use the people, publish the program for promotional purposes, then leave. In the end, this does more harm than good. I’ve been a field-based development worker for four years and it always hurts knowing international agencies are more interested to know of how you disposed off your budget than your research’s findings and recommendations. That’s why I left development work in December 2014.

10) Volunteering in a developing nation is the best way to make a difference.

Wikimedia: Elitre

A common misconception, although a valiant one! However, volunteering in a developing country usually benefits the volunteer more than locals, unless you have specific, applicable skills like medicine or engineering. The volunteer will learn a lot but will likely have little impact on community development. The best aid is the kind that gives locals the ability to craft their own institutions that can continue on long after the trickle of aid money has come to an end. Traveling to teach English for a month is not near as impactful as funding the local schoolteachers who will live and work there for their entire careers.

To make a lasting impact takes time, energy, patience and dedication. It can be frustrating. It WILL take years. It’s a mission that can take a lifetime.

11) Pictures of starving people, or sad children, are a great way to motivate people to make a difference.


huffingtonpost.ca: This goes for any photo we want to share!

There is a name for the type of imagery that is supposed to shock people in developed nations with the realities of extreme poverty: “poverty porn”. While there is a time and place to document suffering, it is important to make sure the person in the photograph is aware of what the picture will be used for, and that the image is presented with context. When photos of children with distended bellies are used as symbols instead of portraits of living people, they are erased as individuals. Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully and presented with dignity: as a person with their own dreams, character, and motivations. Although these images undoubtably work at provoking sympathy, advocacy efforts need to be motivated by accurate information and these images don’t tell the whole story.

This is seriously insensitive. I really abhor these images. First off, every photo should be given consent by the subject person prior to publication. How are bloggers and writers able to do this when their subjects live thousands of miles from their home countries with no access to the internet or to phones? 

12) People living in extreme poverty are poor because they made bad choices.


spiritscienceandmetaphysics.com: This is what we call an extreme form of poverty. Ironic, isn’t it?

This rumor has been around as long as poverty has. The world’s poorest are often stigmatized as stupid, lazy, dirty, and violent. Structural inequality can be subtle and difficult to understand, but these types of assumptions poisons the efforts made to change the systems that keep people poor. Just because a person is successful, it shouldn’t give them the right to shirk responsibility to address structural inequality.

Let’s talk about opportunities available for the poor first and foremost. For example, while there is a host of home-based English teaching opportunities, qualified people from poorer communities are not able to do the job because of their tenement-style housing where you hear dogs barking, children crying, and your neighbor talking among others. They live in vulnerable environments where it’s definitely far-off from being conducive to teaching and learning.  

13) There just isn’t enough food to feed everyone.

Wikimedia: Elitre

This is usually the conclusion people make when they hear that so many people all over the world go hungry. In fact, there is enough food to feed the planet one and a half times over. People who can comfortably afford food usually waste a staggering amount. Hunger is not a supply issue, it’s a distribution issue.

14) Developing nations are all corrupt, and aid just supports that corruption.

Wikipedia Commons

First of all, let’s not pretend that developing nations are the only ones with corruption at the government level. When a mayor in the developed world is found to be corrupt, no one suggests that we cut off services to the city in question. It is important to ask ourselves if we are willing to sacrifice the lives of people who rely on aid until we are sure that every incident of corruption is removed. Of course institutions and governments should be transparent and accountable, but the cost of corruption usually only accounts for a small percentage of total aid.

I think aid agencies should try to strengthen their numbers on the ground. It’s always easier to give money and products; and way more difficult to strategize on how to bring that aid to the people who need them the most. This is why they always give the difficult job to local governments and institutions. If aid agencies, within their hearts and souls, would really want to help, they will focus on improving lives grassroots up. 

15) We should focus on poverty in our own countries before trying to help anyone else.


addictinginfo.org: First, let’s define “poverty”

There is poverty, food insecurity, and homelessness in developed nations. No one is suggesting that these problems should be ignored. However, the fact remains that less than 1% of most developed nation’s budget goes to foreign aid whereas large portions of their budget address domestic health and infrastructure. The type of poverty in the developing world is objectively different from the type of poverty experienced in developing countries.

16) Future technologies will solve all of the problems of global poverty.

Wikimedia: Reynold Brown

Though it’s refreshing to see some optimistic myths about global poverty, the fact remains that relying on future innovations is not a viable plan and it does nothing for those living in poverty today. Which leads to me to another myth…

17) Developing nations are technologically backwards.


audritails.files.wordpress.com: Exactly how it should be!

There are places where there’s a lack of access to digital technology but it isn’t like developing nations are cut off from the tech boom. In fact, many times technology has spread faster in developing nations than developed ones. Cell phones are widely used and they have contributed to many innovations and has led income increases. Ignoring the use of technology in developing nations ignores how important it can be as a part of strategies for ending global poverty. This myth also ignores the innovations in digital technology that originate in the developing world.

How many people in the world are willing to pay hundreds to thousands of dollars for relaxing spa retreats, or off-the-beaten serene travel destinations? People not totally dependent on technology have the best of all worlds: less stress from the “right here, right now” culture, and more grounding on intimate relations far more meaningful than virtual ones. 

18) Developing nations are violent and unsafe.

Flickr: Ian Hasley

Wars are certainly one of the biggest causes of poverty and displacement, but not all developing nations are unsafe. Parts of highly developed nations can be less safe than parts of developing nations. The assumption that all parts of developing countries are torn by violence probably comes from movies and the kinds of news stories that come out of some developing nations.

I’ve never been ripped off by taxi drivers in the Philippines; I’ve been many times in Europe and other parts of Asia!

19) The decline of poverty is all due to international aid (especially celebrities contributing to charity). 

Wikipedia Commons

This myth ignores the strides made by the people within developing nations. The fact that the work Western nations are doing is the most visible doesn’t mean that Western people are doing the most. Aid is important to empower those living in poverty to lift themselves out of it. By giving them access to the basics: food, water, health, sanitation and education etc. Economies won’t boom just from aid, aid can give millions of people access to basic needs, allowing them to be entreprenurial and participate in the market.

20) Any kind of aid is helpful to a developing nation.

Wikipedia Commons

There are some kinds of aid that can end up taking more resources from poorer communities than they contribute, especially when you consider the cost of shipping, storing, and distributing certain donated goods. For example, after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami thousands of useless items like winter coats, high heeled shoes, and expired canned food were donated to effected nations. Though this was a generous act, donators didn’t research what was actually needed by the people effected.

21)  If people in developing nations started acting like people in Western nations, they wouldn’t be so poor!


destination360.com: The Banaue Rice Terraces– Filipino ingenuity at its best!

There is a long tradition of people saying that poverty is a cultural problem. Though there can be facets of a culture that slow economic growth, such as human rights violations, women’s equality, etc. But a culture that happens to have a greater incidence of wealth is not a better culture because it is political history that’s the biggest factor in determining who is poor. People believed that Irish culture was at fault for their poverty during the 19th century.

As said, the idea of development is relative. People from different cultures and sub-cultures have their own versions of “happiness”, “fulfilment” and “success.” Respect others and you can expect others do the same for you.

22) Developing nations are dirty.

Wikimedia: Russavia

There is no nation that can be considered as a whole “dirty”, just as there is no nation in which all of the people are poor. In fact, developed nations produce far more trash and waste than developing nations. Calling developing nations dirty is disrespectful and trivializes the real issue of sanitation for those living in extreme poverty.

In 2013, 50 shipping containers full of Vancouver garbage arrived in the Philippines, ranging from household to medical waste. And up until now, we Filipinos are fighting for our rights to have Canada get them back! What are we, a global wasteland? 

23) People are poor because they are having too many kids they can’t afford.

This myth is a classic misunderstanding of cause and effect. Putting aside that “too many” usually means “more than I think these people should have”, studies show that people aren’t poor because they are having too many kids. Rather they can’t choose to have fewer kids because of poverty.  Without access to contraception or sex education to use it effectively, people in extreme poverty have limited choice in family planning.

24) Aid just leads to people in developing nations having more kids, contributing to overpopulation.

This is simply untrue. There is a belief that since aid is increasingly effective at saving lives, i.e. children that would have otherwise died from preventable disease, aid will cause a population crisis. Some people believe that with the extra resources from aid those living in extreme poverty will decide to have more children. Studies have shown the exact opposite results. The combination of girls staying in school longer and families having access to family planning causes birthrates to go down. 40 years ago, women in Bangladesh had an average of 7 kids and expected a quarter to die; now women in Bangladesh have an average of 2 children and only 1 in 20 don’t make it to their 5th birthday.

Also, we have to remember overpopulation is but an offshoot of many other core issues like lack of education. 

25) All developing nations are near the equator. 


worldatlas.com: Singapore’s place in the world

Believing that most people living in poverty live in hot climates is probably related to the assumption that the developing world means Africa. However, poverty is also a real issue in incredibly cold climates like those found in Central Asia, where staying warm is a top concern. Bonus fun fact: there are climates in sub-Saharan Africa where it snows.

And hello, Singapore and Australia are near the equator, too!

26) If living in a developing nation can be so hard, people should just leave. 

Most people living in extreme poverty don’t have the money to move somewhere else. Often enough people do leave their nations to go where there are better opportunities. However those leaving are typically those with some education and/or wealth. This ends up being another important resource leaving developing nations.

Also, as what can be found in indigenous communities, they treasure their ancestral lands and take care of them as living, breathing entities. This is how it should be anyway, but most of us were brought up into thinking humans are the highest forms of beings in the world; thus having us neglect where we truly came from. 

27) Nothing ever gets better and aid doesn’t make a difference.

This myth is probably the one that is the most important to bust. Listing how many things have improved in the last 20 or so years would need a whole other list entirely. In fact, here’s one. The fact is plain: aid makes a huge difference, and has already saved millions and millions of lives, with your help, it can continue to do so.

As said on Number 9, aid can be helpful IF intentions are pure and true. It’s really difficult to find aid agencies who are willing to do development from the grassroots up, because this kind of development takes lots of dedication, patience and passion. Communities-backed programs, where they are given full ownership of programs, are the best of its kind but difficult to accomplish when the heart is not in it for the mission. 


Note: Since I am reposting the list, I used rel=”canonical to properly attribute the work. This means, blog traffic goes to the original source and not to Anthroonfoot. I encourage you to use this when reposting someone else’s online work.