What are the consequences of the shift from a two hump to a one hump world?

I’ve been using this idea in a few recent talks, and thought I’d test and improve it by bouncing it off FP2P readers. It uses a simple pair of graphs on global income distribution to start thinking through how the ‘aid and development’ sector is changing, or resisting change.

The starting point is that we have moved from a two hump to a one hump world – long since pointed out by Branko Milanovic, Max Roser, Hans Rosling et al. In 1974 the two humps shaped the global narrative on development – there is a poor hump (‘the South’) and a rich hump (‘the North’). Asia largely accounts for the South. Screengrabs from the wonderful Gapminder.

Key to graph colours

Development was about the North helping the South catch up (remember First and Third World?), whether through aid, or a fairer deal on trade and capital flows – a ‘New International Economic Order’ was proposed by the UN in 1974. That North-South thinking became a deep frame which lingers on, especially among the older cadre of aid workers and activists, Northern politicians and in the UN system.

Fast forward to 2015 and we now have a one hump world. China and much of the rest of Asia have moved up the income scale. What does this mean for aid and development?

North-South is no longer a particularly useful view of the world, (with the partial exception of sub-Saharan Africa). That’s the point brilliantly made by Hans Rosling. But what else follows from the shift? I see three trends, each of which is being resisted by the status quo ante.

Firstly, inequality: Instead of the nation state being the most useful unit in understanding global differences, what matters are the divides between social groups within and between countries – that is partly why inequality has shot up the agenda in recent years. The other reason is the unequal distribution of the wealth generated by the global economy over the last 30 years, memorably described by Branko Milanovic’s elephant graph (two camels and an elephant – nice). But talking about inequality is far more threatening for elites than talking about poverty, so there’s plenty of push back, or dilution of the concepts (think ‘inclusive growth’).

Second, the localization of politics: an increasingly vocal, literate and organized civil society and growing local middle classes have shifted the focus of social and political change to domestic arenas – issues like taxation, governance, welfare systems are now where they should be – primarily topics for national debate. In the aid sector, the rise of southern civil society organizations has prompted increasing pressure for aid to be channelled through them, rather than northern aid agencies, but the aid sector is proving highly resistant to reform. The same goes for academia, where tension is growing over the northern

Where’s the elephant?

domination of research and even the definition of what constitutes knowledge about development.

Third, a shift to common challenges. With the exception of a shrinking number of aid-dependent countries, many of

them with fragile or predatory states, and/or conflict affected, the rest of the world increasingly faces challenges that are either shared or collective: shared = road traffic, pollution, obesity, mental health, which are issues to be addressed in any country; collective = climate change, tax evasion etc, where solutions have to be collective, or they won’t work. For both shared and collective challenges, aid $ may not be the main issue – it’s more about joint action, exchange of ideas and experiences – i.e. a more grown up conversation between equals than the inherently unequal dialogue between donor and recipient. But much of the political and social appeal of the aid business is built on the exotic – diseases the North doesn’t have, farmers that barely exist, the poverty porn of extreme hunger. Mental health, road traffic or tobacco addiction don’t seem to work as well and struggle to get the attention they deserve.

So there’s 3 consequences of the shift to a one hump world – any others?

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11 Responses to “What are the consequences of the shift from a two hump to a one hump world?”
  1. This post has really got me buzzing over my proverbial cornflakes this morning … It totally reinforces the need for INGOs to transform what they do and how they do it if they work outside fragile states. Unbounded, knowledge sharing platforms rather than INGO designed projects. Taking a more equal approach if you want to tackle inequality sounds like a good move to me. There’s a lot more to add to your list of common issues too Duncan … gender discrimination, tackling violence, drugs….
    Brilliant post – still buzzing – thanks

  2. Great analysis and a good bit of self reflection and self criticism!
    Can you elaborate on the threat ‘one hump world’ thinking implies to organizations like Oxfam?

    Working for a (development) knowledge brokering organization and being development economist by training the tension over the definition of what constitutes ‘knowledge about development’ is also a crucial insight for me.
    That (desirable) development cannot and should not be defined by the ‘front runners’ (= powers that be) is an old insight for me, dating back to the 80s.
    Recently added to that is the insight that the very concept of ‘knowledge’ wrongly pretends the possibility to distil something ‘value free’ from the narratives and the experience of the poor and powerless in this (one) world.
    ‘Development’ is about the world as we want it, about ideals and values, about creating it with the performative power of our language and visualisations (elephants, camels and dromedaries!) and NOT about representation (‘knowing’) the past and ‘developing’ the present accordingly!

  3. Heather Marquette

    It’s worth revisiting this paper on ‘The Future of Development Assistance: Common Pools and International Public Goods’ that Ravi Kanbur, Todd Sandler & Kevin Morrison published back in 1999. Its relevance 20 years on is a bit spooky and is a reminder that there’s always a paper in this field published X number of years ago that makes many of the same points we’re all making now… https://www.academia.edu/37950883/The_future_of_development_assistance_Common_pools_and_international_public_goods?email_work_card=title

    On ‘first world, third world’, these were labels related to the Cold War and not to poverty. First world = US and its allies, second world = Soviet Union and its allies, third world = non-aligned movement countries. If we wait long enough, you never know how these labels could be recycled…

  4. Why the log scale for the x axis? It seems calculated to disguise another really important reality, which is the level of global inequality. That really is a *very* long tail to the right. There’s been a modest increase in income for Asia, but incomes in the global north have been rising far more swiftly.

    • Duncan Green

      arguments on both sides I think Andries. An extra dollar to someone living on a dollar a day is clearly much more significant than an extra dollar to someone on $100 a day….

  5. Brilliant blog Duncan – having heard you discussing this before, I appreciate reading it now to see with more clarity the issues at hand.

    Would you be open for a challenge? You are right in loads of things here but wrong or at least misleading in others.

    1. It’s true… there’s been loads of progress across the globe and across many development outcomes. Like Hans Rosling said, we should celebrate the world is now more homogeneous, we don’t live in parallel words as we used to in 1974. Spot on to say also inequality within countries matters ( both economic inequality and between social groups), you are also right to say many other developmental issues beyond very basic minimum capabilities matter now more than ever, especially in middle income countries, but….

    2. Let’s not lie to our self, there are still humps! There are still huge inequalities between countries that need to be addressed too! Only you need to use a different graph to see it! The graph from Gapminder you used is great, I like it, but it stacks the different regions one on top of each other, so it hides inequalities between countries. Also, regions are supper heterogeneous!

    I played a bit with the same Gapminder tool you used, changed the parameters, and ups! The Humps are back!

    How would you feel about a linked blog with the title “the humps counter attack”?

  6. André Castro

    Dunca, thanks for this thought provoking piece! However, don’t you think you spoil your whole argument by inserting ‘with the exception of sub Saharan Africa’? It seems to me that your own arguments further defeat this exception you announced,.Any thoughts?

  7. Tracey Martin

    A stronger civil society (but with a shrinking civic space) and issues that are common across all countries – I think INGOs should be focusing on enabling civil society across countries to connect with each other, learn from each other and share knowledge and resources and lobby at the international level (NOT INGOs doing it on their behalf!). And keep civic space open.

  8. Daniel

    Gapminder graph is good to understand what is going on, but there are many ways to represent the data, and they are also key to understand our World. See for instance:
    My conclusion would be that we should adopt a multiple perspective approach to tackle inequalities. For instance, we could use different units of analysis (in this graph, continents), but we can also analyse by country, regions, urban/rural, districts, households, within the households… We can apply absolute lines or relative lines (based on the average or the median) to stimate poverty lines, and so on. And every time we get a different picture, and different conclusions about how to work to reduce health inequalities.