The other day a young friend of mine who was born and raised in a so-called "developing country" -- a step up from the old term, "less developed country" -- told me her American husband thought it was inappropriate that she allows their nearly five-year old child to see her mother's bare breasts. He was even more disconcerted that the child liked to touch them occasionally.
"I don't get it," my friend said. "These breasts fed her for nearly three years. They are still a place of comfort for her. Besides, that's what breasts are for, right, to feed and console our children. When did they become nothing more than sex symbols so that it's okay to show them in movies and on magazines but not when you're feeding a child? I don't get it."
Listening to her I was reminded of how comfortable women are in other countries, including African nations, with baring their breasts to feed their young. African babies are adept at pulling their milk supply from beneath their mother's wraps and no one thinks anything of it. Moreover, I've never -- and I mean never -- heard an African baby cry for want of food and nurturing. They are the happiest kids I've ever seen.
There is more we could learn from the African countries we love to lament. When my mother was in a nursing home at the end of her life I asked a male nurse from Mali what they do with their elderly when they become difficult to care for. "For a start," he said, "we don't put them in places like this."
So whose country is the "less developed" one?
My Canadian cousins and my European friends from more affluent (and therefore "developed" countries) can't begin to imagine what is going on in the States regarding guns. They are speechless over the accidental deaths and the number of murders committed here everyday because of guns, baffled by open-carry laws, incredulous at the power of the NRA, and astounded by a Congress unwilling to confront the powerful lobby whose own members think something needs to be done to curb gun violence.
I am at an utter lose to explain it to them because I don't get it either. That's not to say that violent acts don't occur in other countries; they do. But the violence is far less likely to occur with guns or to be random or to kill children. Just consider the statistics. There's no way you can call a country with over 33,600 homicides by guns in one year (2013), i.e., the U.S., with countries like Austria or the United Kingdom whose number of gun deaths is a few hundred annually. Even Thailand, South Africa and Uzbekistan have dramatically lower rates that we do.
If you compare us to other "First World Countries" on issues like higher education costs (which don't exist in many countries), infrastructure development, transportation and certain technologies (like, can I please get a cell signal where I live?) we fall very far from the mark, just as we do on wages, family leave and other worker benefits and health care.
The dichotomy between "developed" and "developing" countries has its origins primarily in economics. Institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, which tend to worship "growth", have statistical measures for the convenience of classification but their measures can be unclear, frustrating, judgmental, and devoid of certain kinds of insight.
It is indisputable that one big problem in poor countries is the lack of health care infrastructure, resulting in high morbidity and mortality rates overall (with infant and maternal mortality being dramatically high) along with lower life expectancy. But let's not overlook indigenous health expertise -- knowing plant properties for healing, for example, or having the expertise of Latin American Curanderas when it comes to childbirth. And that's just one sector's example.
I don't mean to romanticize the terrible problems that poverty causes in most of the world; a vast number of people live lives of subsistence, illness, and hardship. Their children long for at least a primary education. Meeting the most basic of necessities can be challenging beyond anything we can imagine and life for women in particular can be deeply punishing.
But perhaps we need to pay tribute to the practices, values and cultures of other peoples from whom we stand to learn something about human behavior and about the human spirit. Too often we are quick to overlook what they have to teach us because of our affluence, materialism, desire for expediency, and sense of superiority.
If we could see the beauty in a nursing mother, take the time to hold the hand of an elder and listen to their wisdom, lay down our guns, value education enough to make it accessible to all of our children, and value our families enough that we support them in the workplace as they strive for healthy, balanced lives, then maybe we could call ourselves a truly developed nation. Without that we err in judging our neighbors to the south, labeling them in ways that suggest they have less to offer the world than others, when they may well have more to give in terms of "development" than the rest of us.