development globalisation

The world’s most under-achieving countries

This week I’m reading Duncan Green’s book How Change Happens, and in one section he talks about a campaigning politician in a place where change isn’t happening. It’s one of just three countries in the world that failed to achieve a single one of the Millennium Development Goals. I wonder if you can guess what they are.

hdiI suspect some of you just thought of Zimbabwe, and you’d be right. The country slipped backwards considerably under the chaotic rule of Robert Mugabe, slowly reversing many of the gains made during the 70s and 80s. At 92, Mugabe is the world’s oldest head of state, and it’s pretty clear that he intends to leave office in a long wooden box. The country may have turned a corner in the last few years, but Mugabe has still got to be one the least reliable, least effective leaders of our time, presiding over decades of wasted potential.

No prizes for guessing North Korea either, one of the world’s most politically isolated states, still ploughing its own lonely furrow of totalitarian self-reliance. It’s not a philosophy that has worked well for them, but it nevertheless remains impossible to challenge from the inside, and impervious to external pressure. I hope to see the day that it finally caves in and opens up to the world, but it doesn’t look like it will be any time soon.

The third country is not so obvious. It’s Papua New Guinea. Green describes it as “a strong candidate for the world’s worst underachiever”. His best explanation for why it has struggled is the local culture of ‘big man’ leadership, where anyone with authority uses their power to strengthen their own position rather than working for shared benefits.

There are other factors too. PNG is famous for having the most languages in the world – 840 at the last count. How do you govern a country with that kind of diversity? How do you create any sense of national identity? Imagine the complexities of encouraging literacy or shaping a national curriculum. The diversity of languages is mainly a result of geography. There are hundreds of small islands, and communities on the mainland are fragmented by inhospitable mountain ranges. Large parts of the country are only accessible on foot or by plane, and some of it is unexplored altogether. It is home to some of the world’s last uncontacted tribes.

In other words, it’s got to be one of the most challenging countries to govern, and one of the hardest places to build infrastructure. And who’s to say if everybody wants development and government anyway? Bringing a road to an isolated community is a very mixed blessing, as the country’s HIV prevalence sadly demonstrates. If opening up to the world means loss of local language, culture and identity, how many people would choose that? Is it a risk worth taking?

I don’t mention these three countries to shame anyone, but because they offer interesting perspectives on what it means to be left behind. They raise issues of culture and leadership, but also ask more awkward questions about what development looks like and whether one size fits all.


  1. “who’s to say if everybody wants development and government anyway?”

    Definitely thought to ponder. Maybe, left behind is not bad after all? Wouldn’t it be easier to make wealth history in these places?

    1. The way I use the ‘make wealth history’ metaphor, you’d need to have some wealth to lose, so it’s a message for affluent countries really.

      It’s all about the trade-off for places like Papua New Guinea. How much of the modern world do you want to take on board if it means eroding local culture and language? What do people value more? The challenge for PNG is to find ways to bring the essentials – literacy, healthcare, water and sanitation – within the structures of informal tribal government.

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