By Helene Andersson

One of the most gender equal countries in the world? That may so be. But when correcting for education, hours, and line of work, women in Sweden still make less than men do, women are at greater risk than men of being subjected to sexual violence, and the UN has criticized Sweden for its gender-segregated labor market. It suffices to say that there is still work to be done. Nevertheless this is not deemed a development challenge. Why is it not? Why does this not label Sweden as a developing country?

The term developing country has generally replaced earlier versions of the word such as “third world” or “underdeveloped” countries, in what might have been an attempt to focus attention on change and improvement in society, rather than signaling inherent inferiority. However, this choice of language poses new questions. If the aim is not to label certain countries as inherently worse, but to shift the focus to solving societal problems, then are not all countries developing countries?

One of the most fascinating ideas that I got to explore as a development studies major was the field’s relation to epistemology – the theory of knowledge. We studied scholars who were arguing that power and knowledge cannot be viewed as separate from one another; those with power create knowledge about the world that serves their own purposes. Historic descriptions of parts of the world beyond the borders of Europe as backwards, barbaric, and exotic served to legitimize colonial interference, as well as allowed them to construct themselves and their own culture as the opposite – advanced, civilized, and standard.

Gender inequality globally is often framed as a development problem. When talking about the women of Saudi Arabia who are not allowed to drive and young girls in Niger being married away, these practices are condemned and constructed as something foreign. Through the dichotomy of us and them, developing and developed, we are left with gender inequality on one side and the virtues of modernity and righteousness on the other. Sweden gets away with framing itself as the good guy, instead of the slightly less villainous.

At this point there is an important clarification to make. To be clear, I am not making the case that all societies face identical problems or that all countries’ issues are at the same level. There are plenty of countries across the globe that face enormous challenges and that have much greater problems when it comes to gender inequality than Sweden –  and for that matter plenty of other development problems as well: poverty, governance, health, and so on. However, we should not imagine certain parts of the world as being exempt from fundamental societal flaws.

By using language such as “developing” and “developed” countries we are ignoring the fact that all societies across the globe face challenges — from access to water to racial discrimination, from carbon emissions to economic growth, from public health to school attendance rates. This is above all a call for complexity in our language and understanding concerning societal problems and the countries in which they take place (all of them).

We need to find ways of simultaneously recognizing challenges in our own societies, as well as others. If language, knowledge and power are all interconnected, then it is essential to examine how our language and understanding of the world reproduces current power structures. We need to call all countries developing countries because they are all developing. International development cooperation efforts can hopefully still have a productive role to play in sharing experiences and resources. This cannot, however, come at the cost of seeing the problems in our own countries and others as fundamentally different.

A lot of development actors have already abandoned the term “developing countries.” Some use “low-income nations” or “the Global South” in a further attempt to avoid problematic phrasing but nevertheless group together countries with similar pasts or social challenges. However, I would argue that the problem lies in imagining a similar enough group that all the countries being referenced could fall under one label. “Rather than coming up with new names that reference the same ideas, we need to change how we are framing development.” Sweden has serious issues when it comes to gender equality that need to drastically improve. I want to see a society where women are included in news coverage to the same extent as men, where women on average stop receiving lower pensions, and where Sweden can stop claiming the embarrassing fact that it has never had a female prime minister. Until Sweden obtains social, economic, and political equality for all genders, I will continue to call Sweden a developing country.

By Helene Anderssson

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