ESG back on the agenda in post-pandemic world

ESG back on the agenda in post-pandemic world

Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) are criteria that are a set of standards for a company’s operations that socially conscious investors use to screen potential investments. These ESG are apparently back on the agenda in the post-pandemic world all per Dr. Mohamed Ramady. Let us see what he says in his Arab News article.

ESG back on the agenda in post-pandemic world

The topic of ESG (environmental, social and governance) principles is back on the agenda as the world witnesses catastrophic flooding and fires not seen in decades, with “climate change” due to environmental mismanagement the seeming culprit.

While sustainability is now a hot topic due to the increasing awareness of climate change and global inequality, at the same time there is a debate that an application of ethical-based investment decisions by society at large can lead to a more sustainable economic and social basis, leading to questions about whether ethical investment and sustainability derived from ESG application are interlinked or separate issues.

There is still no universal definition of sustainability, but many note the seminal UN 1987 Brundtland Report that calls for sustainable development, which, in principle, meets our needs today without compromising the needs of those in the future. Others argue that religion has advocated similar principles, with Islam specifically stating that humans are mere guardians of nature’s wealth and not its owners and should act accordingly in this guardianship role to pass it on to future generations. Thus, the idea of meeting our needs without sacrificing the needs of our future generations is the basis of what the majority of mankind can agree as meeting a definition of “sustainability.”

The definition by default focuses on our planet’s capacity to meet our economic needs, as without a healthy planet, society will be unable to meet sustainable needs for food, shelter, clean air, water and other basic necessities of life. This, however, assumes that all societies accept the same “sustainability” definitions and goals, but in reality there are different opinions as these touch on politics and the degree of economic growth and resource consumption by different countries.

The debate is stark and will not easily go away with simple slogans as it involves those “who have” versus those that “have not,” a “North” vs. “South” debate, or more crudely, stopping a poorer “South” from “having their place in the sun” and in turn asking the “North” to sacrifice more for the sake of global sustainability and equality.

There is growing evidence that companies that take their environmental and social responsibilities more seriously perform better financially, making their shareholders happy and feeling righteous too.

Dr. Mohamed Ramady

The poorer “South” will argue that the “North’s” high-income earners are far more likely to be contributing disproportionately to climate change, while those who live in less affluent parts of the world are more likely to suffer the consequences. They watch in awe and disbelief as multibillionaires spend a few minutes joyriding in outer space at a cost enough to provide whole villages with proper sanitation, health, education and safer transportation, let alone feed hungry mouths.

In practice ESG today refers to the environmental, social and governance information about a firm and there is growing evidence that companies that take their environmental and social responsibilities more seriously perform better financially, making their shareholders happy and feeling righteous too. The bottom line for all is that ESG is good for business. The UN-Global Compact value driver model uses key business matrices common to all industries to determine the return on investments of corporate sustainability activities. These can be best summarized under: Growth (revenue growth from sustainable products); productivity (cost savings from sustainability related innovation); and risk management, all leading to a higher return on equity.

Have these matrices made an impact on corporate performance in reality? In essence companies that follow enhanced ethical and economic sustainability management characteristics have the potential to perform better over time, but the question is where? It would seem that improvements in environmental performance achieved with better technology, leading to cost savings and process efficiency, is one way, resulting in high sustainability companies outperforming their counterparts over the long term, through stock market and accounting performance. Analysis of some ESG-related stock market indices such as the MSCI KLD 400 Social Index, and MSCI Emerging Market ESG Index, seems to support this argument. So, what is missing to implement ESG?

In forthcoming articles, we shall examine the role of sustainability accounting, corporate stakeholders interaction and the need to educate both capital market borrowers and lenders on ESG policies, and on how international ESG regulators have faced this.

• Dr. Mohamed Ramady is a former senior banker and Professor of Finance and Economics, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran.

https://arab.news/j6y5j
Transitioning towards sustainable economy: Role of Financial Institutions

Transitioning towards sustainable economy: Role of Financial Institutions

Bibhu Mishra of Humboldt University, Berlin elaborates on Transitioning towards sustainable economy: Role of financial institutions such as Central Banks and financial systems in The Times of India.

Transitioning towards sustainable economy: Role of Central Banks and financial systems

Bibhu Mishra

Bibhu Mishra

“For peace to reign on Earth, humans must evolve into new beings who have learned to see the whole first”, said Kant. 

Climate change is real; it affects and will affect everyone. Mother Nature sends its signals regularly, and most recently through the flash floods in western Germany. These signals are an urgent reminder that we need to take action now. The action must be collective, significant, timely, and futuristic because, in the long term, the risks outweigh the costs. 

The Paris climate accord is one such step in the right direction. A holistic and stakeholder-driven approach would be required to achieve the target of maintaining temperature rise by 1.5 degrees Celsius. One of the most significant stakeholders in such efforts is the global financial system. The financial system’s role is pivotal because they provide finance and steer economic growth. Their actions have a significant impact on ESG, i.e., Environment, Society, and Governance.

There is a tremendous surge in investments which keeps ESG at the core of investment decisions. According to Bloomberg, ‘ESG assets may hit $53 trillion by 2025, a third of global AUM’. Despite a phenomenal rise in ESG assets in the past decade, the financial system still faces challenges like ‘short-termism’ and ‘greenwashing.’ 

Therefore, the role of Central Banks is vital. They look at the financial system of a country as a whole. Former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney coined the concept ‘Tragedy of the Horizon’ to explain this. He argued, “the catastrophic impacts of climate change will be felt beyond the traditional horizons of most banks, investors and financial policymakers, imposing costs on future generations that the current one has no direct incentives to fix.” It is a tricky paradox where the current system has little or no benefits but to save the planet in its current state or better for the coming generations.

Realizing the importance of its role, eight central banks and supervisors created (In December 2017) a ‘Network of Central Banks and Supervisors for Greening the Financial System  (NGFS).’The NGFS is aimed to make coordinated efforts to combat climate change. As of June 30, 2021, the NGFS has grown to a network of 95 members and 15 observers. The Network’s purpose, in their own words; “to help strengthen the global response required to meet the Paris agreement’s goals and enhance the role of the financial system to manage risks and mobilize capital for green and low-carbon investments in the broader context of environmentally sustainable development.” 

The NGFS is a significant step towards bringing central banks of different countries together and ensuring that central banks take the leadership role in fighting against the climate crisis. In its first comprehensive report (Pub 2019), It came up with the following six suggestions and floated the idea of global collective leadership. 

  1. Integrating climate-related risks into financial stability monitoring and micro-supervision 
  2. Integrating sustainability factors into own-portfolio management 
  3. Bridging the data gaps 
  4. Building awareness and intellectual capacity and encouraging technical assistance and knowledge sharing 
  5. Achieving robust and internationally consistent climate and environment-related disclosure 
  6. Supporting the development of a taxonomy of economic activities

Additionally, the steps taken by the Central Banks of England (Bank of England) and France (Banque de France) are noteworthy and worth a mention.

Recently, the [Central] Bank of England launched a stress test for banks and insurers to understand the ability of the UK Financial system to cope with climate change. The test is aimed to examine the resilience of the UK’s 19 biggest banks and insurers. The stress test can also be looked at as an acknowledgement that Climate Change poses significant financial risks to the existing financial system. Therefore, early planning of a transition is necessary. 

Moreover, ‘Banque de France,’ the central bank of France, took several initiatives to transition the financial industry into zero carbon.  In June 2021, the French ACPR (Autorité de contrôle prudential et de résolution, English translation: French Prudential Supervision and Resolution Authority) published the first climate pilot exercise report an overall ‘moderate’ exposure to climate risks.

Let’s understand the risk through an example. Investing in fossil fuels may generate returns in the short term,’ but it will accelerate climate change and, hence, negatively impact the ESG. The negative impact on climate could cause erratic rains or severe drought, leading to an adverse effect on investments made in agriculture and allied sectors. One sector’s gain can be the loss of another sector, posing a significant risk before the overall financial system. 

To ensure a smooth transition of the financial system towards sustainability and make it resilient from other systemic risks, early and coordinated action is needed. Central Banks and financial systems have a significant role to play in our journey towards sustainability.

Bibhu Mishra is a German Chancellor Fellow at Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and a researcher with Institute of Asian and African Studies, Humboldt University, Berlin.

The picture above is for illustration and is of the IFC of World Bank Group blog.

Two Thousand Dinars: A Lamentable Legacy

Two Thousand Dinars: A Lamentable Legacy

Two Thousand Dinars: A Lamentable Legacy By Nejoud Al-Yagout is a story that is fairly common to all countries of the GCC.

The picture above is for illustration and is of the Parliament of Kuwait.

First, we heard that residents above the age of 60 would not be allowed to renew their residencies if they did not hold a college degree. Then, after outrage on social media (by locals, to be sure, since any outrage by a resident would lead to arrest or deportation), there was talk that the rule may not be implemented; instead, we heard that those who came up with the decree would, at least, reconsider the age bracket, perhaps hiking it up to residents over 70 years of age (which in and of itself is lamentable).

Then, it was back again to 60 a few months ago, but with a proposal to fine residents annually (that is when talk of KD 2,000 arose). This latter proposal brewed for a while until it was announced only recently – in the midst of a pandemic, in the throes of increased unemployment and suicides and drug-taking and crimes, and in the whirlwind of murders and corruption – that the Public Authority of Manpower would “allow” residents above the age of 60 who do not hold university degrees to renew their residency provided they pay an annual fee of KD 2,000; as though by making it look like a favor, a permission granted, so to speak, the harsh brutality of the cost of remaining in Kuwait would seem less pronounced, brushed under the rug.

Though already considered official by all of us who read about it in the news, it appears that the “decision” needs a couple more weeks, perhaps, to be considered bureaucratically official, unless a person with strings will use his position of power to take a stand against it. The likelihood of such a selfless act transpiring is well, let’s just say, unlikely. Highly unlikely.

Although many residents above 60 who have graduated from college may have breathed a collective, perhaps even audible, sigh of relief, many others will be in tears, for they have parents and siblings aged 60 and above who live with or near them and who do not hold college degrees, and they themselves, holders of college degrees, will not be able to afford such a fee to keep the family together. And what about us locals? We cannot ignore the two-thousand-dinar elephant in the room.

Many of us who work in the public or private sector, with or without university degrees, or even with Master’s degrees and PhDs, would not ourselves be able (or willing) to pay such a lofty fee. Two. Thousand. Dinars. Imagine. And if we think this will not affect us, we are wrong. “They” are us! They, who we consider expatriates and foreigners and residents are us. We are them. We are one in this society. All of us. Each one of us, a thread of the same fabric, interwoven. What hurts us hurts them and vice versa. Let this register for all of us. Again and again and again.

There are residents in their sixties who were born here and have lived here their entire lives; residents who do not want to go “home” because their “home” is here, in Kuwait, where they belong, with us. Kuwait is the land in which they want to be buried, in which their parents were buried. After all their years of service to our country, we are now showing them the door under the pretext of making rules we know people cannot implement, all so that residents can leave of their own accord.

But they will not leave of their own accord. Ever. They will leave because neither they nor their university-degree-holding families were able to pay such an outrageous sum; they will leave because they are tired of living in a country that does not want them here. So many have left already; others are waiting for the right moment to leave. Others are waiting anxiously to see whether things will get better (or get worse).

We cannot stay silent. We cannot. And the last thing residents need is sympathy; if we are to feel sorry for anyone, we should feel sorry for ourselves for who we have become. Instead of patronizing them with our sympathy, residents should be applauded for their resilience, their bravery, and their contribution. They should be rewarded; they should be given more benefits as time elapses, not less.

We have a lot to learn from them. Even while many are treated as second-class members of the community, they stay, they work, and they support their families. This rhetoric of residents profiting from us is immature and arrogant; we must remember they are doing us a favor, a huge one, by being here as well. We are in this together; and in a healthy community, that is how things work; we give and we take; we take and we give.

Some residents may still find a way to stay here, in their home. But with this new “fine,” there is no way they can save money or help their families. And how can we sleep at night knowing we are creating obstacles for residents to send money back home? How can we sleep at night knowing that there is no money to pay for a parent’s kidney transplant or a relative’s tumor removal or a child’s education because the money is being paid to an oil-rich country instead? What principles are we building our foundation on?

These are certainly not our principles. And as long as we hold on to these pseudo-principles, we will continue to create laws which protect us and ostracize others, laws which are far, far away from the values of our heritage, founded on hospitality and inclusivity. Aren’t we tired of this us vs them attitude? Do we really want a Kuwait for Kuwaitis? Is this our legacy? Can’t we remember who we are?

It’s done. All we can do now is lament and ensure we resurrect a new Kuwait based on the ideals of our welcoming forefathers who never flinched at demographics. All we can do now is remember that what goes around comes around. This is a law. It is not a doomsday prophecy, but a warning, an invitation to recalibrate, a chance, an opportunity, to restore the karmic balance.

This is our chance to wake up and ask ourselves: Is this our legacy? And we should ask ourselves this question every night. That way, we can rectify the situation before karma knocks on our door. Loudly and fiercely. Two thousand dinars. Let’s remember that number. For it may come back to haunt those of us who stayed silent, those of us who spoke out for justice only when it came to our rights and, often, at the expense of others.

local@kuwaittimes.com

 

A ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development

A ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development

It’s all about Value. It’s the name of the game. Create it economically; capture it distinctively. So, a ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development is put forward here by Green Biz authors.

A ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development

By Neil Hawkins & Laura Asiala

A ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development
framework concept art

Whatever theoretical economic framework (such as game theory or decision analysis) or business model you want to select, value is at the heart of it. Individuals, organizations businesses and governments act to increase value — also referred to as utility — from their perspectives.

We believe this is a key to understanding the actions of various stakeholders in sustainable development, developing new strategies for making sustainability progress and, most important, for building effective collaborations across and between stakeholders upon which real sustainability rests and relies. 

Collaboration requires a desire for shared value — finding the commonalities in seeking defined outcomes, then working together to increase utility or value propositions for all involved stakeholders. Not everyone needs to like each other or agree on every outcome to build effective collaborations, but they also can’t be at odds. This requires all parties to understand perspectives and find the common ground.

Businesses — with their human, financial and capital wealth — represent an enormous (or potentially enormous) powerful force when it comes to sustainable development. Therefore, we think it critical to understand the value propositions that all businesses face — both danger and opportunity — in terms of sustainability. In the long run, their viability and success also depend upon it.Collaboration requires a desire for shared value — finding the commonalities in seeking defined outcomes, then working together to increase utility or value propositions for all involved stakeholders.

All companies have in common five primary value propositions, although not everyone regards them as a set. Each has a direct connection to sustainability:

  1. Profit
  2. Revenue
  3. Talent
  4. Capital
  5. Collaboration

Growing the bottom line: Profit

It’s the bottom line — revenues minus the costs — that still makes the ultimate business case.

It’s also one of the easiest cases to make for sustainability. A company can increase its profit directly by reducing costs, and for many companies, energy, water and waste costs can be significant.

Reducing these through focused measurement, process improvement and/or specific projects can directly improve the bottom line while also improving the sustainability of the overall enterprise. It is where many companies start their sustainability engagement and with good reason: The economics can be enormous.

Dow Inc., in its first set of 10-year sustainability goals, returned $4 billion to the company on a $1 billion investment in projects. Energy reduction also reduces costs and carbon emissions. Reducing its environmental “footprint” is also often the most immediate way for a company to build credibility for its sustainability efforts. Companies that talk a good game about sustainability but don’t take meaningful action to reduce their own footprint lose credibility and reputation, which hurts them in markets for products and services, talent and investment. 

Growing the top line: Revenue

Revenues grow through increasing market share or successful development of new products and services in response to society’s needs and desires, and it’s clear that sustainability trends have become big drivers.

Tesla is one example of visionary and bold investment in a single, although major, sustainability driver: electrification of mobility. Tesla has been very successful in this regard, but looking across all auto companies, you see the accelerating interest — and new product announcements — to capitalize on this incredibly important driver. (It will be interesting to see if GM and Ford can make the transition to become leaders in the future of electric mobility; we like their chances).

In the water area, companies such as EcoLab have built entire platforms around the management of water, cleaning water and recycling of water. The list goes on, but the key principle here is to identify the trends, invest in R&D and new products and processes, and ride the wave all the way to successful business growth.

Attracting, developing and retaining top talent

Employees are the core of any successful company. Top talent is drawn to — and kept in — companies that are successful in developing and implementing the kind of proactive sustainability strategies for their companies that make a material and purposeful difference.

Very few top students want to join a company whose activities are viewed as making climate change worse or polluting rivers and oceans or harming biodiversity and nature. Sustainability is the new “table stakes” for attracting top talent today.

When Neil was CSO at Dow, Dow attracted thousands of new employees in China from top universities with a “Green Jobs” program where recruits could join Dow to have real sustainability impact in applying their degrees (and Dow’s retention rates for these students was much higher than peer companies). When Laura was director of communication/citizenship at Dow Corning, top students didn’t wait for on-campus recruiting. When the company launched its first Citizen Service Corps, students started calling the company’s media center.

Look at any companies on campus these days and you will see that their efforts in sustainability are featured prominently. What is more interesting is the importance of sustainability to developing and retaining top leadership talent.

Like a customer you don’t want to lose, retaining the most valuable employees is critical. The drivers for hiring new talent are really the same as “rehiring” current employees. Dow very successfully used sustainability experiences — special projects, in-field assignments, academies and simulations — to develop leadership and strategy skills, while integrating sustainability across the company. Many of these future leaders remained because of the skills that Dow invested in for them in sustainability.

A ‘value proposition framework’ for sustainable development
Framework concept art, second version

Attracting and retaining investors

All companies require capital. And the pace of acceleration for consideration of environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors has increased significantly. Virtually no company can survive and thrive anymore with its investor base without addressing sustainability concerns as an enterprise.

Dow started third-party verified Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) reporting more than 15 years ago, and it learned and grew along the way; it worked with other reporting programs such as CDP as well. In 2020, Dow was named to the Dow Jones Sustainability World Index (DJSI) by S&P Global, the 21st year Dow has achieved this prestigious ranking due to its comprehensive sustainability programs. Dow became much more involved more than five years ago after the Paris climate talks when Michael Bloomberg and Mark Carney appointed Neil (then Dow’s CSO) to join the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures, part of the Financial Stability Board.

Dow helped establish the reporting criteria, but beyond that, the experience provided Dow real learning and insight into where banks, financial institutions, insurance companies, bond underwriters and investors were headed. All companies today need to pay careful attention because investors are paying careful attention. One has only to read BlackRock CEO Lawrence Fink’s growing expectations in his annual letter or observe ExxonMobil’s abrupt board member changes to see that the term “activist investor” has been redefined. Times have changed.

Collaborating for mutual success while addressing key challenges

Finding safe places to collaborate to create the healthy ecosystems in which enterprise thrives is critical: supply chains, marketplaces, workforces, communities, industries — no company goes it alone.

Finding safe places to collaborate is neither easy nor simple. Competitors have antitrust concerns. Customers and suppliers have adversarial positions relative to costs. NGOs often have adversarial advocacy positions to individual companies or to whole industry sectors, and governments view their roles as to regulate and tax companies.

All of that adversarial energy can be put to better use if the focus is on more narrow objectives, especially those that involve sustainable development of regions, countries and the world as a whole. There is usually widespread agreement that we cannot regulate or litigate to stop negative trends in nature, public health, social equity and ecosystems, and that if we work together we can accelerate progress. But to do that requires a maturity of perspective on the part of stakeholders that we can agree to disagree on many things, but still find common ground to solve more narrow challenges.Adversarial energy can be put to better use if the focus is on more narrow objectives, especially those that involve sustainable development of regions, countries and the world as a whole.

The collaboration between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and Dow, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is one such example. Finding ways to incorporate the value of nature inside the company to better inform strategic decisions was of interest to Dow, and TNC was interested in preserving nature. Both saw that valuing the services of nature would help them to meet their respective goals, and they could collaborate with integrity. It set a new standard and example for collaboration, which continues to benefit both organizations, serve as an example to companies and organizations across industries, and preserve and enhance nature, using the power of capital in a way that no mere philanthropic strategy ever could. 

When Dow worked with the University of Michigan to establish the Dow Graduate Sustainability Fellows more than a decade ago, significant faculty concerns were raised about their independence and intellectual academic freedom. Together, the company and the university put in place safeguards in response to those concerns, and hundreds of Dow Sustainability Fellows have benefitted, as have the University and those communities whose projects were addressed and implemented.

Neither example would have occurred without a strong platform for collaborating on sustainability challenges. These collaborations have helped Dow advance its business strategies and helped it learn and grow, positioning the company for future success. At the same time, these stakeholders also thrived. Win-win.

Value propositions for corporate sustainability

What company does not want top- and bottom-line growth? What company does not want top talent in their sector? What company does not want access to capital that is lower cost and more plentiful? And what company does not need platforms to collaborate with their value chain, in their communities and with their governments?

This five-part value proposition framework holds that promise for companies. Nothing short of their survival and growth is at stake today.

But we also believe that the other major stakeholder groups can benefit from understanding this framework for companies, by surfacing new ideas and creating proposals for collaboration that are more sophisticated in understanding the aspirations of their prospective company partners. At the end of the day, we all want to drive more sustainable action and bringing all stakeholders into collaborations will help us accelerate progress. Show comments for this story. 

First World, Third World? Let’s coin new binaries

First World, Third World? Let’s coin new binaries

In a Khaleej TimesOPINION AND EDITORIAL, Michael Jennings of the University of London comes up with criticism of the now well-established labels of First World, Third World, suggesting that it is time for coining new binaries. Then First World, Third World? Let’s coin new binaries; but what about the MENA region’s stand, one would ask. The answer is below per the IMF’s Economic Overview.

First, the illiteracy and educational indicators are significantly more unfavorable for women than for men. Second, MENA countries compare poorly to other countries when account is taken of spending on the social sectors, highlighting the impact of distorted labor markets, an inefficient educational delivery system, and neglect of female education. Third, when various human development indicators are combined (e.g., as in the UNDP human development index) the region’s ranking among countries in the world is less favorable than that based on income criteria alone.

The picture above is for illustration and is of the World Bank Blog.

First World, Third World? Let’s coin new binaries

22 June 2021

All too often, these terms have played into wider prejudices about places that reflect and are fed by the values ascribed to each.

For anyone living in ancient China’s Zhou empire in the first millennium BCE, the world was simple: they were in the “Zhongguo”, or Middle Kingdom, and everything outside was barbaric. Understanding the world at the height of European imperialism also was easy. On maps, vast swaths of territory were coloured in hues denoting each empire. Human nature strives for simplicity, and today we have come up with a multitude of descriptions for the world’s regions. But terms such as North/South and First World/Third World have flattened diversity and complexity through a simplistic binary gaze.

It isn’t just a problem of simplicity, though. All too often, these terms have played into wider prejudices about places that reflect and are fed by the values ascribed to each.

We can see this on social media, where the rise of intemperate comments and put downs against others can often be based on the implied superiority of where one lives or comes from. Social media weaponises and reinforces prejudices and racism that come from a facile understanding of the world. More than ever before, in an age of parity between the informed and the less-so, we must be careful of the words we use to describe each other.

Trying to analyse and explain the world has always required some generalisation. We lump together countries or regions that share some similarities and gloss over details and important differences. But describing the world is not just about looking for objective points of commonality or difference. It involves recognising different world views, assumptions and values. The problems come when one side of that binary division of the world gets to decide what is the norm, reflecting the realities of global power and ongoing colonial legacies.

Since the end of empires, two dominant ways of dividing up the world have emerged. The first reflected the Cold War, seeing the world through the prism of an existential conflict between the democratic-capitalist West and the communist East, comprised of the Soviet Union and China. The “rest” — which related closely to maps of former colonial territories — were the regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America that together comprised the arena for this battle of ideas and influence.

The second way took a more economic perspective, categorising regions through their GDP or level of “development,” and allocated various terms to describe those differences. Some — such as the terms “low-,” “middle-” (or “emerging-”) or “high-income countries” — are unapologetically economic in their focus, based on levels of GDP that still conceal great diversity within populations. These remain widely in use but at least have the virtue of being a label one can escape: Tanzania and Benin recently moved into middle-income status, while Mauritius has now joined the group of high-income countries. But other terms have attained wider reach within popular and analytical vernacular. The terms “North” and “South” were always less about geographical location than about distinguishing between the rich and globally powerful regions and the poorer, less powerful ones. “Developed” and “un-/under-developed” have similarly focused on poverty.

The term I grew up with, the “Third World”, was originally coined in the 1950s by the French demographer, Alfred Sauvy, to describe those nations that were part of neither the Western nor Eastern blocs. By the 1960s it had become firmly linked to poverty, under-development and poor governance. In a world that still contained third-class train carriages, in which “third” was inevitably less good than “first”, the term was applied to those parts of the world where the majority of citizens were people of colour — and which, coincidentally, had been under imperial rule. The racism and patronising undertones of the term were readily noted and understood by those on the receiving end.

What underpins all these ways of compartmentalising the world is the assumption that the European and North American models of development, with the same governance and other values, are the end-goal for all global regions. The closer you resemble these two, the more you can claim entry to the North, the First World and to “developed” status. These terms assume that emulating Europe and North America makes a country better, so it’s what every other nation should aspire to.

Yet rich Middle East states like the UAE or Asian nations like Singapore have no desire to replicate Western norms. In the 1990s, Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, sought to articulate the “Asian Values” that marked a departure from a Western paradigm that twins development with liberalism.

Clearly, the binaries and indexes we are left with are not objective or scientifically indisputable. They are based on what counts most to a minority (albeit powerful) portion of the world. Is a nation’s GDP the sine qua non of being “developed”? What about Costa Rica and Cuba? Both are significantly poorer than the (very much “developed”) US, yet both enjoy better health and quality of life across a number of different indexes than their First World neighbour. As the past year has shown, rich countries contain enormous pockets of inequality and poverty — residents of a poor housing estate in Manchester might share more with those from a working-class area of Hong Kong than they care to admit.

Over the past couple of decades, the terms “Global North” and “Global South” have emerged in reference to global regions. While there is still some overlap with old terms, they do attempt to acknowledge how important discrepancies in power are in shaping relations and opportunities. They are at least an attempt to do away with disparaging terms for particular regions.

I use those terms myself, but with significant reservations. Do they really avoid the division of the world according to colonial legacies?

While that might make sense from the perspective of the Global North, would someone in India, for example, see themselves as more aligned with, say, Kenya, than with Thailand or even South Korea? It all depends, of course, on what you’re comparing with and on what the context is. It solves some problems, but not all — and it certainly does not distance you from a perspective and values that are far from universal. Perhaps it’s time for voices from outside Europe and North America to come up with new terms and for politicians, academics and journalists within Europe and North America to listen. There is much talk these days of decolonising education, development aid and global health, among other things. So how about decolonising our perspective on the world?

Michael Jennings is reader in international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.

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