Index of all articles, click here

Why Third World countries are poor

By Luc Loranhe (2006)

Most rich countries are in the North of the globe, and most poor countries are in the South, but it's not geography that causes wealth or poverty. After all, Australia and New Zealand are part of the Southern hemisphere, and both are doing fine. You couldn't say this of Papua New Guinea, which is the Asian country closest to Australia and New Zealand.

A superficial view is to blame racial differences. Black Africa is the poorest and most disordered part of the world, and Haiti, with an almost entirely black population, is the poorest country of the Americas. But the coincidence is accidental.

What makes some countries rich, and others prone to poverty is not related to skin color or racial factors. Many immigrants from poor nations do very well in the US and Canada (though one has to admit that both countries are likely to make immigration easy only for the best and the brightest of those who hail from Third World countries).


It is also not the presence or lack of natural resources what makes a country rich or poor in the long run. Japan is a country with very limited natural resources, and it has been the richest country in Asia for a long time. On the other hand, it is easy to predict that some Third World countries that currently are rich because of immense reserves of natural wealth while not being burdened with large populations, will slide back when the natural resources are depleted.


But why are the people of some countries doing well, in spite of the destruction brought by lost wars, and in spite of the lack of natural resources, or an unfavorable climate?

It's wrong to search for just one answer. There are many aspects that determine how well, or haw badly, a country will fare economically.

Some aspects relate to the attitudes of people (and the roots of such attitudes can date back many generations). Other aspects are just of a matter of the political system (think North and South Korea). And I assume that in the coming world, with an ever higher degree of globalization, providing a favorable political and social environment will become ever more relevant.

Educational systems certainly play a role. Richer countries typically have better educational systems, and the discrepancy normally reaches back more than just a generation or two.

Furthermore, in some cultures, parents and the society put more value on education than in others. Societies that have been influenced by Confucian teaching, from Singapore to Korea, will likely feature more educational drill than, for example, Islamic societies.

As in protestant Christianity, societies guided by Confucian teachings will also be more likely to regard business success as a consequence of righteousness, thus propagating an ideology that is conducive to the accumulation of riches.

I cannot, and don't want to attempt to, list all the aspects that determine whether a country is relatively rich or relatively poor. I really only want to discuss some aspects that have come to my mind.


One aspect that determines the likelihood of economic success in a given society is the emphasis, or lack of emphasis, that is put, psychologically and philosophically, on the common good. This emphasis can be measured by the degree to which, emotionally or consciously, people agree that a common good justifies restrictions on the individual, including oneself. It could also be described as the degree to which the members of a society are willing to forego individual advantages if thereby a larger advantage is secured for the community.

A cultural mentality that emphasizes self-sacrifice for the common good has played a major role in the economic development of Japan and other East Asian nations in the second part or the 20th century.

Industrialization in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Singapore

From the perspective of the individual with advanced self-cognition, emphasizing the common good (and therefore solidarity) sometimes makes sense, and sometimes it doesn't. When emphasizing the common good results in an advantage for the individual during his life time, it is philosophically sound for the individual to act in solidarity. When such an advantage cannot be derived during a person's lifetime, or when such an advantage cannot be realistically expected, it makes better philosophical sense for the individual to emphasize his own good, an not the common good.

And please note that my activism is firmly based on the idea that there is a chance that it will result in a society in which my own life will be better. But even though, I would only go so far in my fight, and I would not sacrifice myself for a better world for my progeny or posterity. I would also not expect this from those who join me in my endeavor, for ours is not a movement of lunatics but of people with a high degree of self-cognition and a healthy mind.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the society as a whole, is may well be better when individual members of a society always emphasize the common good, even when it would lead to self-destruction. It is for this anachronism that sometimes, societies based on an irrational ideology, even a foolish religion, can be stronger, and economically stronger, than societies in which the people have a philosophically more sound approach towards the question of when to emphasize the common good, and when one's individual advantage.

While lip service is paid to the common good anywhere around the globe, the degree to which individuals are put under restrictions, or choose self-restriction, for the common good varies from society to society, and both psychological and philosophical factors have to do with this.


Psychological factors depend, for example, on the ethnic fabric of a country. If a society is ethnically homogenous to a very high degree (as are, for example, Japan and South Korea), it will be more likely that individuals will strongly identify with the community, and thus be willing to emphasize the common good.

The opposite situation, we have in many countries of sub-Saharan Africa where the borders of countries have been determined by how European powers had previously divided their colonies. In a worst-case scenario, newly independent nations were made up of two major ethnic groups who have been bitter enemies in pre-colonial times, and who then competed for dominance over the newly independent state. Such creations have spelled humanitarian disaster in various central African countries.

A bit luckier are countries that have just one dominant ethnic group, combined with a multitude of smaller ethnic groups.

However, any country that is fractionated into ethnic groups that not only compete with each other but also hate each other will make psychological identification with a common good more difficult than a country with an ethnically homogenous population.

The lack of ethnic homogeneity, to a certain degree, explains why the economies of countries of sub-Saharan Africa fare so poorly. Africa is by far the ethnically most fractionated continent of the earth, and practically no country there has boundaries that match ethnic territories. The people primarily identify with their clans, and beyond their clans, they identify with their ethnic relatives (by and large those who speak the same language). People don't identify with their central governments, and not even with the organizational structures of the town they live in. This creates an atmosphere that isn't conducive to economic development. Hence, these countries are poor and will likely stay poor.

In spite of the rules and restrictions, governments in African countries try to impose, the sociopolitical and economic systems of all these countries is best classified as radically liberal. It is so liberal that even physical violence is a tool of commerce. And because being out of power often is synonymous with being repressed, a common attitude towards political change is to not accept it if one can avoid it. Any party or politician will subscribe to democratic principles if they help into power or preserve power. But if democratic principles favor opponents, the principles are abandoned, not the claim to power.

On the other hand, this is an attitude shared by many a common man and many a common woman in Third World countries. Most people in Third World countries have a good sense on what is advantageous for them and what isn't, and they don't have qualms to abandon principles or change sides when it is advantageous for them.

The above also goes a long way to explain corruption. Corruption is not just a problem of political systems; it's an attitude problem in countries where people are little inclined to accept personal disadvantages for the common good, or where they are quick to take personal advantage at the expense of the common good.

For many ethnically fractioned Third World countries, especially in Africa, an important first step for economic development would be the creation of smaller countries along ethnic boundaries, as this would likely allow a country's people to better identify with a common good.

The quagmire of this path, however, is that the smaller a country, the easier it is dominated by the military might, and the moral imperialism, of a superpower.

The trend towards smaller countries of course already exists in the Third World. Newly established countries include Eritrea and Timor (with Somaliland a candidate in line), and civil wars or low intensity conflicts for independence along ethnic lines are fought in many parts of the Third World. But independence doesn't come easy, and until it comes, if it comes, the enormous costs of internal wars, along with a prevailing lack of identifying with a common good, will keep many Third World countries poor.


Countries with respected traditional authorities are in a better position. In countries like Thailand and Japan, where old monarchies are revered, they contribute to the identification of individual members of society with a common good, represented by the monarchy. By contrast, many of the poorest countries of the world are so-called republics where there isn't even a respected presidency.

Yes, there are numerous other factors that determine economic success; but other factors being equal or just comparable, the degree to which the individual members of emphasize the common good reliably predicts how well a society will fare economically.


One can measure the degree to which, in daily life, the individual members of a society value the common good through a simple indicator: road traffic

When a large number of participants in road traffic are willing to give way because it makes sense for traffic flow overall, people uphold the common good versus individual advantages. The opposite is a me-first attitude, even at red lights. Traffic chaos indicates little respect for the common good, as well as the inability of the authorities to implement rules of the common good against me-first traffic participants. Either way, traffic chaos indicates a decreased likelihood for successful economic development, while countries in which road traffic discipline is observed will usually do much better.

Traffic discipline is excellent in Northern Europe and North America, which goes hand in hand with countries in these locations being the richest in the world. Traffic discipline is better in Bangkok than in Manila or Jakarta, which is in line with the development progress in the respective countries over the past decades. Traffic rules are largely ignored in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

I do not mean that economic progress of countries depends on road traffic conditions. I only say that road traffic conditions are an easily observable overall indicator for the likely economic development path of a country in the coming years. In Third World countries, the degree of observance of traffic regulations corresponds fairly well to the economic development potential. In general, you will find that the less the people of a country are willing to put the common good ahead of their own personal advantage, the less a country will develop economically.


I have indicated above that societies are all the more likely to prosper the more its members are willing to emphasize the common good over individual advantage, even to the point of self-sacrifice, which, from the perspective of self-cognition, is wrong.

Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam have both heavily benefited from the willingness of its disciples to give their lives for the ideals of their religions.

However, just as a genetic trait doesn't become philosophically true because it procreates itself, a philosophical idea doesn't become any more sensible because it gives its followers the strength to out-compete those who have other philosophical ideas.

Once we have achieved enough self-cognition, we are aware of our individual death, upon which we cease to exist for all eternity. Thus we realize that the only sensible individual values are optimal sexual experience, and after that, a gentle death.

Our genes, however, have only one interest: to procreate themselves.

Philosophically, we know that it is our interest to avoid suffering, even if we have no offspring. However, the interest of our genes is to procreate at all costs. If we have not yet procreated, it is the interest of our genes that we go through any magnitude of suffering, if only we sire offspring.

It is therefore quite obvious that there is a fundamental divergence between our individual interests and the interests of our genes. Our individual interests make philosophical sense, but it's our genes that form the next generation, and it's in their interest to negate the cited philosophical truth.

Likewise, that lunatic belief systems such as Christianity and Islam can force themselves on societies doesn't make these belief systems any more true.

The same is true for over-emphasizing the common good, even though such over-emphasizing of the common good does make societies, as well as political movements, more competitive. But from the perspective of self-cognition, Al Qaida suicide bombers are just as wrong as were Japanese kamikaze pilots.

Wrong also was the medieval mayor in England who first convicted his son to death because he had slain a Spanish foreigner; and who then, because he could not find an executioner among the town's folks, hanged his son himself. All for the sake of justice (a definite common good). Isn't this insane?

Logically examined, many European cultural values fall into the same category of a lack of mental health.

Take Kant's categorical imperative, an attempted philosophical proof for moral principles. The categorical imperatives can be translated into simple axioms, for example that one ought not to do to others what one doesn't want done to oneself. But there really is no logical foundation why anyone should not want to do to others what he doesn't want done on himself. It's like trying to convince cats not to eat mice because they do not want to be eaten by dogs.

Nevertheless, Kantian philosophy, just as Christianity, both of which result in the over-emphasizing of the common good, have contributed to the cultural and economic supremacy of the West, of which the current world order still is a legacy.

Index of articles, click here.

Copyright Luc Loranhe