The Geography of Development - ngo-federatie


The Geography of Development

Profile picture for user
Contactpersoon: Thewissen Femmy
Gepubliceerd op: 11 Feb 2019
Gewijzigd op: 29 Nov 2019

The geography of development is fundamentally changing. Economic, social and environmental evolutions have redrawn the global map of poverty and development. This geographical shift initiated a new policy agenda towards global development (see Trend 2) and a lively debate on the necessity of new concepts to explain and understand the changed geography of poverty and development: the global poor no longer live in what was once called the Third World, developing countries or the ‘Global South’. What are the consequences for international development?

The Geographical Shift

The gap between Northern and Southern countries is closing 
For the first time since the Industrial Revolution inequality between individual world citizens has dropped. The global income Gini across individuals fell from 69,7 in 1988 to 62.5 in 2013.[2]  This trend is mainly because of decreasing levels of between-country inequality. In other words, there has been an economic convergence between countries, which was primarily driven by economic progress in a limited number of countries – China and India – which are highly populated. But also Sub-Sahara-Africa and South-America saw progress as illustrated by the transitioning of a number of countries from LIC to MIC status.

From between-country to within-country inequality 
Although between-country inequality decreased, within-country inequality increased. Both within ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ countries this trend has been observerd. The trend is in particular visible in upcoming economies such as India, China and Russia. In contrast, in countries with already high levels of within-country inequality (mainly low-income countries in Sub-Sahara Africa and South-America) the Ginis did not increase – or even dropped.[3]

The global gap between the poor and the wealthy remains
On the individual level the global distribution of wealth remains extremely polarized, with 8 people having the amount of wealth equivalent to the bottom half of the world’s population.[4]  The country of residence still predicts more than half of an individual’s income.[5]  In other words, the main indicator for development still remains the place where children are being born. More in general, a historical and persistent inequality gap remains between the global ‘North’ and ‘South’: the poorest Americans are still much better off than the poorest of the poor in absolute terms.

The bottom billion is decreasing, yet is complemented by a new class of poor
The proportion of the global population living in extreme poverty has dramatically fallen.[6]  However, a class of new poor have been growing: the ‘vulnerable non-poor’. They are no longer extremely poor, but are characterized by precarious jobs and limited rights. In addition, this new class of poor does not only emerge in ‘traditional’ developing countries but also in the US and the European Union.[7]

The bottom billion remains at the bottom
Increasingly the extreme poor are located in fragile contexts, where the poverty trap is feeded by a complex mix of economic stagnation, violent conflict and failed state institutions. These pockets of poverty are persistent. It is projected that 80% of the world’s poorest will live in conflict-affected and fragile countries by 2030.[8]

Redefining Challenges

This geographical shift implies a redefining of challenges and the capacities needed to tackle them. In particular the following new challenges are worth noticing[9]:

  • From poverty reduction to fighting inequality: “It is increasingly clear that every nation is ‘developing’, and concern for inequality now shows sufficient potential as a politically actionable agenda that it might gradually displace poverty eradication as the overall goal of ‘development’.”[10]  But does this mean that world poverty is becoming a problem of national rather than international distribution, with between-country inequality declining, and within-country inequality on the rise? And does this mean that national domestic taxation and redistribution policies should become more important than ODA?[11]
  • A shifting rural-urban balance: rural population totals are expected to remain relatively stable, whereas the urban population is expected to grow dramatically in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. As a consequence populations living in slums will also increase. Also worth noticing is the fact that coastal populations are expected to grow: with the increased impact of climate change they will become more vulnerable.
  • Shifting instability and conflict: from a long term perspective the world has become more peaceful compared to the Cold War period. Nevertheless, in 2017 still 90,000 battle deaths have been counted, a decrease of 32% compared to the latest peak in 2014 when the Syrian conflicts was at is highest.[12]  However, the nature of violence and conflict is shifting and goes well beyond battle-related deaths: political and criminal violence becomes more enmeshed and half of most conflict-affected and fragile contexts are classified as middle income. High inequality rates in countries like Mexico and South Africa result in increased levels of violence.[13]
  • Dealing with fragility. As highlighted above the majority of extreme poor live in fragile places. The international community has not yet found more effective ways to adapt their efforts to these fragile contexts. Until now their response has been to shift and increase humanitarian aid. However, there is a need to adapt to a diversity of fragile contexts (compare for example a conflict-affected country such as Jemen versus MIC countries such as South-Africa or Mexico with high levels of criminal violence) in order to tackle the root causes instead of the consequences of fragility.[14]
  • Terrorism: There has been a dramatic increase in the number and fatality of terror attacks in recent years. This rise is projected to continue. The complex web of anti-terror laws will continue to impact the humanitarian sector.
  • Populations on the move: longer wars and protracted crises as well as the consequences of climate change will lead to a further increase of refugee flows, to a large extent to neighbouring countries of conflicted and fragile states. This will impact on the instability of hosting countries. The situation in refugee camps fails to improve. These camps are increasingly located in cities.
  • Demography: the global population continues to grow, and is primarily driven by countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, the rate of growth will begin to decline. In all regions, except Africa, the 65+ age group will be the fastest growing.
  • ‘New’ social and health issues: there is a gradual shift from traditional ‘northern’ social and health issues (Ageing, obesity, alcohol and tobacco addiction, mental illness, the illicit drug trade and road traffic accidents) towards southern countries. In these countries they kill considerably more people than, say, malaria.[15]
  • New agents of change: large sections of the global population have seen their conditions improve over the last decades. Factors such as a rising middle class globally, increased connectivity, improved health care, increased literacy and urbanisation, have contributed to more vocal citizens and an ‘associational revolution’ world-wide. Furthermore, there is great potential in young people, women and an increasingly ‘globalised population’ as ‘new’ agents of change (see also Trend 2).


  1. This trend document starts primarily from the thesis of Horner and Hulme that summarizes recent research on trends in international development towards a new geography of development. See Horner, R. and Hulme, D. (2017). ‘From International to Global Development: New Geographies of the 21st Century Development’. Development and Change, 0(0): 1-32.
  2. Horner & Hulme. (2017). p. 6.
  3. Horner & Hulme. (2017). p. 17-18.
  4. Horner & Hulme. (2017). p. 19.
  5. Milanovic, B. (2013). ‘Global Income Inequality in Numbers: In History and Now’. Global Policy 4(2): 198–208.
  6. Horner & Hulme. (2017). p. 2
  7. Horner & Hulme. (2017). P. 19.
  8. OECD. (2018). States of Fragility Report 2018. Highlights. p. 1-14.
  9. The Spindle, Partos & Perspectivity. (2018). Adapt, Counteract or Transform.The future of Dutch development cooperation. p. 45-46.
  10. Bond. (2015). Tomorrow’s World. How might megatrends in development affect the future roles of UK-based INGOs? p. 9.
  11. Sumner, A, and Mallett, R. (2014). The future of foreign Aid: Development Cooperation and the New Geography of Global Poverty. Palgrave Macmillan: Hampshire & New York. p. 5)
  12. Petterson, T. And Eck, K. (2018). ‘Organized violence, 1989-2017’. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 55(4), p. 535-547.
  13. OECD. (2018).
  14. Kharas, H. and Rogerson, A. (2017). Global development trends and changes. Overseas Development Institute.
  15. Green. D. (2015). Fit for the future? Development trends and the role of international NGOs. Oxfam. p. 3.
Website by MINSKY