Understanding The Developing World

Last Updated on May 16, 2023

One of the most important parts of volunteering abroad in developing communities and countries is having a firm understanding of the ethics of development work and precisely what it is your “service” is doing for the people, culture, community, and environment where you are volunteering.

I’m not an expert on this subject, but there are many resources online, as well as books and conferences that can positively shape your expectations for volunteering before even begin researching organizations, and certainly before you leave to travel.

Below, I share the most helpful books, blogs, and videos I have found helpful in understanding issues with development work (which is what many/most volunteer projects aim to do), as well as just why the developing world in general is the focus of so much aid work and attention.

boats in yangon
Boats leaving Yangon, Myanmar at sunset.

What is a developing country?

A developing country is a nation that is still in the process of advancing economically, socially, and politically. Developing countries typically have lower levels of industrialization and infrastructure compared to developed countries, and they often face challenges such as poverty, limited access to education and healthcare, political instability, and weak governance. However, many developing countries are making progress in these areas and are working towards becoming more developed nations.

Best Reads on Global Poverty & Aid Issues

This is not a new topic of conversation, and there are many opinions and new discussions cropping up all the time. Here are a few good deep reads on the subject to get you started:

  • Should we care equally about poor people wherever they may live? A thought provoking article from the World Bank’s development research group when looking at middle income countries and international aid and development for the poor in those countries.
  • It Doesn’t Take a Village: The perverse effects of local aid: This article analyzes the idea that empowerment at the local level of governments and communities is best, countering with arguments of local-level corruption, elitism, and bureaucratic issues.
  • Little, Big Two Ideas About Fighting Global Poverty: A longread that pulls in arguments and synopses from many of the books recommended below and adds some additional context to the debates and issues in development.
  • The Bhutanese Development Story: A very intriguing look at how Bhutan developed, their idea of Gross National Happiness—I like that it allows you to read and form your own ideas of why and how it all worked.
  • The Greatest Good: I love the issues that this brings up a small but growing movement called “Effective Altruism,” which looks to ask: “Is there a most efficient way to save a life?”
  • Why We Should Give Free Money to Everyone: I super dig the idea of trusting that the poor actually know how to spend money. No matter your views on it, this is a great piece to further open your perspectives on poverty economics. The right sidebar also contains some other fantastic long-reads. (It’s in TedTalk form too if you’re better with video).
A tour in Oaxaca that supports a microfinance organization empowering local indigenous women to build and run their own businesses.

Videos and Podcasts About Poverty and Aid Issues 

  • Understanding Poverty Data: A short video series from the World Bank about how they define and place the international poverty line. In fact, explore the World Bank YouTube channel when you’re done watching as it has heaps of fascinating and well-done videos.
  • 27 Myths About the Developing World: While a few are a bit flippant, in general this does a good job as a light read on some myths you might hold as facts. Scan this list and you might be be surprised to find elements of these perspectives within your own beliefs about developing countries.
  • What Happens When an NGO Admits Failure?: This TedTalk is refreshingly honest about what didn’t work in his own NGO and why the development sector needs to publicly admit, scrutinize and learn from their missteps.
  • Freakonomics Podcast: Fighting Poverty With Actual Evidence: Queue this up for a long drive, or listen while you lunch (embedded below). Count on some eye-opening ideas and enough banter to keep it interesting. And this one about the World Bank also makes a good listen.

Essential Reads About Voluntourism

Debunking Developing World Myths

Hans Rosling is statistician, and he points his graphs, charts, and data at the global trends in health and economics. The graphics and running commentary transforms this talk from what could be a mere lecture into a dynamic discussion on the big picture of global development—it’s way cooler than it sounds.

If you’ve ever painted developing regions with a broad, stereotyped brushstrokes, this talk will change your perceptions and help you understand how countries are pulling themselves out of poverty, and what those trends have looked like since the 1960’s.

Why are developing countries more vulnerable to climate change?

Developing countries are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change due to a combination of socioeconomic factors and limited adaptive capacity. Here are some key reasons:

  1. Limited resources: Developing countries often have limited financial, technological, and institutional resources to invest in climate change adaptation and mitigation measures. These countries face challenges in accessing funds and technologies needed to adapt to and cope with the adverse effects of climate change.
  2. Dependency on climate-sensitive sectors: Many developing countries have economies that heavily rely on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries. These sectors are more susceptible to climate variability and extreme weather events, which can lead to reduced productivity, crop failures, and loss of livelihoods.
  3. High population dependence on natural resources: In developing countries, a significant portion of the population depends directly on natural resources for their livelihoods, including subsistence farming, fishing, and forestry. Climate change can disrupt these ecosystems, leading to reduced access to food, water scarcity, and increased vulnerability to natural disasters.
  4. Limited infrastructure and urban planning: Developing countries often lack adequate infrastructure and urban planning, which increases their vulnerability to climate change impacts. Inadequate housing, poor drainage systems, and the absence of early warning systems exacerbate the risks posed by floods, storms, and other extreme weather events.
  5. Weak governance and institutions: Many developing countries face challenges in governance, institutions, and policy implementation, which can hinder their ability to respond effectively to climate change. Weak institutions, corruption, and political instability can impede the allocation of resources for climate change adaptation and result in limited capacity to implement effective policies.
  6. Geographical factors: Developing countries often have geographical characteristics that make them more susceptible to climate change impacts. For example, some countries are located in regions prone to sea-level rise, such as small island states, making them particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion.

It is important to note that vulnerability to climate change is not solely determined by a country’s economic status but also by its specific geographical and social contexts. Addressing the vulnerabilities of developing countries requires international cooperation, financial support, technology transfer, and capacity building to help them adapt and build resilience to climate change.

Best Books About Global Development

You likely won’t make it through all of these, but consider buying one and making it a nightly nightstand read. You’ll learn a lot by deep-diving into the subject.

Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

I read these types of books for the perspectives—I like to learn from informed people at the leading edge of development work and this book meets that criteria perfectly. It’s the most recently published of these books (2012) and gives a fascinating look at field tests the authors ran over the course of 15 years and the context and stories add such a human perspective to the entire topic.

The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It by Paul Collier

Global poverty is falling rapidly as more countries develop stronger economies and larger healthcare infrastructures—these are often overlooked facts. But the bottom billion, and the countries where these people live, are the core issues in the developing world now. Collier presents some interesting opinions on why these “bottom billion” countries are failing, he brings in interesting geo-politics, historical analysis, and recent development data to support his points. This book is an easy and fast read and the perfect place to start if you’re keen on a thorough introduction to the subject.

Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen

This book will shift your views forever on not only the developing countries, but the fundamental economic principles that are currently shaping developed countries as well. Sen’s understanding of economics is a wonderful counter-point to some of the opinions on development, and he argues that expansion of free markets and capitalism are the primary solutions to current development problems. This book is surprisingly easy to understand considering Sen’s knowledge of the topic, and it will leave you with a very clear understanding of how economics both shape and change our lives.

The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics by William R. Easterly

This book analyzes the policies and actions the world’s wealthiest countries have always used to develop the world’s poorest regions, which are typically those in the tropics. Beyond looking at what has been done (and failed) in the past, Easterly takes a future approach with alternative suggestions and improvements on the efforts that have failed time and again. This is a good introduction to the economics of development and aid work.

Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty by Muhammad Yunus

Part memoir and very intriguing, this book looks at one of the first major micro-lending programs in the world, Grameen, and how and why the author went on a limb, and against all advice, began the micro-credit movement. This is the most inspirational of the books because it looks at issues through a specific story and if you’re interested in micro-loans add this to your book queue.

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins

This book is a fascinating read because Collins takes a very detailed and human approach to sharing how the world’s poorest are actually able to solve the everyday issues they face—housing, feeding their children, transportation, etc. The book takes the approach of telling the stories, first-hand accounts of how these families survive on so little money, which transforms the book from mere commentary and speculation into a deeply resonating account of what this reality is for many people. Beyond the stories though, the researches then present information about purchasing power and just where that $2 per day figure comes from—much of the information was new to me.

Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential by Dan Pallotta

This book is controversial and instead of specifically tackling developing world issues, it examines how non-profits and charities work at the most fundamental levels, and offers up some debatable solutions to the issues. One of the core points is that non-profits that are looking to solve the issues caused by capitalism should start by recruiting top talent—and paying that talent top wages. The author’s theory is that by paying larger wages to CEOs, the organizations will be able to more effectively operate and thus do more good.

I add more resources as I read and learn more about the topic. If you have a book, video, or link you think furthers the discussion, please leave it in the comments!