Are there good words to divide the world?

Hi, this is Mirko, a co-founder and chairman of Datawrapper. This week we take a look at some ways to classify countries, based on a recently published scientific article.

Let us assume you go on holiday and you meet someone for the first time. You introduce yourself: “Hi, I am Mirko, I am from Germany.” What would your reaction be if the reply were: “Ah, you are from the Walled World”?

How would that feel? Correct? Insulting? Putting you into a box you don’t want to be in?

The “Walled World” is simply one possible classification for one part of the world. As you might guess, the term describes the roughly 36 rich countries, containing 14% of the world’s population, whose borders are hard or impossible for others to cross. If you dislike this label, you’re experiencing a feeling that most people have all the time, because their countries are classified with terms — like “Third World” or “developing country” — that often have negative connotations.

How do we classify countries?

Would it be possible to find better, more correct terms to describe the world? This question is discussed in a recently published scientific article, “How we classify countries and people — and why it matters.” Its authors argue that the “vocabulary of global health and global development today [has its] origins in racism and colonialism, which has created a false hierarchy among nations, ascribed a higher value to some lives, and allowed some groups to extract, exploit and subjugate others.”

In the article, there is a helpful table summarizing different classification terms used in global health and development, their origins and concerns. Selected examples are below — the article has a considerably longer list.

The Brandt line — the origin of “Global North” and “Global South”

One widely used alternative pair of terms is “Global North” and “Global South.” The line that divides them would look like this:

This particular dividing line has its origin in a report named after Willy Brandt, a Social Democrat who was chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974.

The ‘Brandt line’ is a visualisation created to illustrate international inequalities and the socioeconomic gulf that separates regions of the world, popularised in North-South: A Programme for Survival – also known as the Brandt report. Snaking across continents to divide the world into the richer North and the poorer Global South, the Brandt line has for four decades been one of the most recognisable and influential ways of visualising world politics.

Nicolas Lees: “The Brandt Line after forty years: The more North–South relations change, the more they stay the same?" November 2020

For the Brandt line today, the verdict is not all negative — but of course there are still criticisms. One is that the line takes a number of strange turns, like including Australia as part of the North although it is geographically clearly part of the South. The point here is simple: Can we ever be on the right track if the boxes we create are that large — north versus south, west versus east?

A more granular approach might serve us better and allow for growth and development on multiple levels. Yes, classifications may be needed for communication. But we can do our best to check whether the concepts implied are correct and relevant or whether they are now outdated. Certain classifications might have been well-intended, but later have an unintended effect in blocking development and progress.

How can we do better?

The authors of the article on classification on global health offer a few suggestions.

  1. Recognize cultural and geographical distinctions, not just economic ones. "Africa, for instance, contains five distinct regions — West, East, North, South and Central. Likewise, Asia is divided culturally and ethnically, into the Middle East, South Asia, and South-East Asia."
  2. Find new terms that emphasize the most current reality. Ideally such terms would have an inclusive and optimistic tone, but that isn't the only possibility. For example, “Walled World” might not be positive, but it can serve as a reminder to people in the West about the policies that are enforced right now.
  3. Be more specific about why and how a country is classified in a certain way. What are the missing resources — finances, infrastructure, knowledge? "Such nuanced categorization opens space for richer discussions that go beyond the dichotomy of some being low or limited resource and others not. It opens the possibility of digging deeper to explain why a setting is a low resource and another is not."
  4. Stop using certain terms; use others with caution. "For instance, First World versus Third World and developed versus developing countries are clearly ambiguous and have racist connotations."

What is the takeaway here? Firstly, as journalists, researchers, and students, we should know about the terms we use and what their origins are. Plus, there are helpful newer terms — such as the distinction based on income by Hans Rosling — which help to describe the situation more precisely than too-broad boxes such as "Africa" or "Developing World." Or, in the words of the researchers:

"Everyone in global health and global development (that includes us!) must be thoughtful about the terms we use on a daily basis, and understand their origins, meanings, and do our best to resist oversimplified dichotomies, and instead use nuanced terms that recognise the vast variations among countries and people, and respect how people want to be described."

Khan, Abimola, Kyobutungi, Pai: How we classify countries and people — and why it matters. May 2022

That final sentence is a good suggestion: When in doubt, reach out to the people you are labeling and ask them.

Further reading (and listening)

Notes on the map

To draw the Brandt line, I turned to our mapmaker, Anna, who helped me create a custom line marker that could be imported to a Datawrapper locator map.

Most of the time, Anna works on creating the basemaps that you find in the map selector for choropleth and symbol maps. Anyone can request the creation of a new basemap with areas like electoral districts or regional divisions for any country in the world, and every new map is freely available to all Datawrapper users. Thanks to Anna's work, Datawrapper has recently crossed the mark of 3000 basemaps! And for advanced users, there is even the option to upload your own basemaps

Thanks for reading this Weekly Chart. It’s always good to update our assumptions and to refine our vocabulary, towards a world that is inclusive and where we solve problems together.