“Perhaps it’s impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.” — Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.

It strikes me how much terminology shapes one’s identity, especially in the field of development. We are swamped with terminology. North and South. Industrial and industrializing. Developed and developing. Underdeveloped.

These concepts are commonly accepted in today’s society, but they are a relatively recent addition to our vocabularies. Let’s go back 70 years, to where people did not label themselves using such terms, they did not fall into a category. Poverty existed, but it was not threatening or dehumanizing like it is today. Nanda Shrestha, who grew up in Nepal in the 1940s and 1950s and wrote on “Becoming a Development Category,” commented that the word for “development” existed in his language, but it did not carry the meaning it does today. He remarked, “So, poor and hungry I certainly was. But underdeveloped? I never thought – nor did anybody else – that being poor meant being ‘underdeveloped’ and lacking human dignity.”

“Development” has, for better or worse, come to represent Western values for a good life. It was – and still is – associated with fancy objects, higher education, and new technologies. Those who lacked these things were labeled “underdeveloped,” backwards, in need of aid.

When the labels were first applied, society changed. People who used to value manual labor learned to value material objects. People living in poverty thought of themselves as lower-class citizens. Nations without modern technology doubted their successes. People began to fill the roles that were created by these new terms. They began to live as though they were in fact “underdeveloped,” until they believed every bit of it was true.

But I don’t believe that they are “underdeveloped”; I simply believe in the power of language to shape one’s identity.

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(Photo: New Longoro, Ghana, 2008)

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