I have a pretty embarrassing confession to make: I used to believe a lot of these myths.
Much of my initial experience with the developing world came from TV commercials of Westerners asking people to sponsor a child. It's an all too common story for people in my generation. The kids in these ads were always African and always portrayed to be barefoot and helpless. While there's no doubt that the NGO's who crafted these images had good intentions, this picture does not come close to telling the whole story. We're determined to change that.
Below are 27 myths about the developing world. Are there any that surprised you? Let us know in the comments.
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.
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...
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. This myth also leads people to conclude that...
5.) Developing nations don't have their own cultures or histories (because they have always been poor).
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 tribal 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.
6.) The people in developing nations are all poor.
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 people. Only focusing on those in desperate poverty makes for ineffective policies and leads to false assumptions about how people live in other countries.
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.
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%.
9.) Relying on aid hurts developing nations.
Flickr: Bread for the World
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.
10.) Volunteering in a developing nation is the best way to make a difference.
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 instituions 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.
11.) Pictures of starving people, or sad children, are a great way to motivate people to make a difference.
Wikimedia: Oxfam East Africa
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.
12.) People living in extreme poverty are poor because they made bad choices.
Wikimedia: Ton Rulkens
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.
13.) There just isn't enough food to feed everyone.
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.
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.
15.) We should focus on poverty in our own countries before trying to help anyone else.
Flickr: Franco Folini
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.
Flickr: Tanalyn Dollar
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.
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.
19.) The decline of poverty is all due to international aid (especially celebrities contributing to charity)
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.
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!
Wikimedia: Valter Campanato
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.
22.) Developing nations are dirty.
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.
23.) People are poor because they are having too many kids they can't afford.
DVID: Sgt. Ken Scar
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
Flickr: Todd Huffman
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.
25.) All developing nations are near the equator.
Wikimedia: Taylor Weidman
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.
26.) If living in a developing nation can be so hard, people should just leave.
Flickr: Vicki Francis/Department for International Development
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.
27.) Nothing ever gets better and aid doesn't make a difference.
Wikimedia: Joseph Jude
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.
Did I miss any myths that you've encountered while becoming a global citizen? Let us know in the comments. We all still have a lot to learn.