The Case for Dividing the World Into 'Fat' and 'Lean' Countries

When resource scarcity is a blessing, not a curse
greyweed/Flickr

The key to understanding the world may reside in a toilet.

Make that multiple toilets—in Japan and Kenya, where restroom-related invention has taken two very different forms. In the late 1980s, the Japanese toilet manufacturer Toto developed the portable "Sound Princess," which simulates the sound of flushing water, so that women using public toilets could drown out the noises associated with going to the bathroom. More recently, the Umande Trust, a Kenyan organization, designed "bio centers" that house toilets and convert human waste into biogas and liquid fertilizer, as a sustainable alternative to "flying toilets"—the dangerous practice in slums of dropping that waste in a bag and flinging it as far as possible.

As Dayo Olopade sees it, these divergent solutions speak to a fundamental truth about the way the world works today: There are "lean" countries, where bathroom-noise-masking technology isn't much of a priority, and "fat" countries, where the menace of flying toilets isn't exactly on people's radar. It's the buzzy business concepts of "lean manufacturing" and "lean startups"—applied to international affairs and human development.

In the fat nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Nigerian-American journalist explains, gross national income (GNI) per person is roughly $41,000 a year, and "problem solving is well beyond the basics of sanitation, vaccination, and electrification." In the lean nations of sub-Saharan Africa and East and Central Asia, GNI per person is around $1,200, and problem-solving operates at a more basic level.

The key insight of Olopade's new book, The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa, is that being a fat country isn't necessarily good, and being a lean country isn't necessarily bad. Most literally, fat states struggle with obesity epidemics. But they also confront issues like "a subprime mortgage crisis, pay-to-play politics, and an unfortunate taste for oil." For all the challenges African countries face—and these obstacles are real and numerous—they also have some advantages over their bloated peers. "If necessity is the mother of invention," Olopade writes, "Africa's adversities are the mother of necessity."

"Individual Africans waste less food, owe less money, and maintain a regional carbon footprint that is the lowest in the world," she explains. "And because the region had been largely excluded from reckless global markets, Africa actually avoided the worst of the financial crisis."

Energy Consumption by Region, 1971-2011

Final consumption expressed in million tonnes of oil equivalent, or MTOE (International Energy Agency)

Olopade told me this logic extends to fields like medicine. Doctors in wealthy countries may benefit from high-tech diagnostic tools, she explains, but her parents, who went to medical school in Nigeria, were trained to listen more closely to patients and make better use of low-tech instruments like stethoscopes—precisely because they didn't have access to more advanced technology.

"It's not that you wouldn't want CT-scan machines," she says. "But for tuberculosis, for example, by asking someone if they've lost weight, by looking at their eyes, checking if they have a cough—that gets you 85 percent of the way toward diagnosis clinically. Just because you have fewer resources doesn't necessarily mean that you can't get to the same sort of outcomes. You might actually be able to get these outcomes in a more nimble and efficient way."

***

Since the end of the Cold War, we've struggled to develop a taxonomy to replace the neat (if fluid and flawed) division of the planet into the First, Second, and Third Worlds. The void has been filled by a parade of terms ("global south" and "global north"; "developing," "developed," and "least developed"; "frontier" and "failed"; "emerging" but, oddly enough, not "emerged")—and acronyms (NICs; BRICs; MINTs).

Even the biggest cheerleaders for these taxonomies acknowledge that they are creatures of convenience rather than accurate portrayals of a complex world (Olopade agrees, telling me that leanness is present in fat countries, and vice versa, and that leanness manifests itself differently in different African countries). But the designations we choose have real-world implications.

"These divisions are deeply normative: When you talk about 'developing,' there is this implicit assumption that you are developing toward America or Europe," Olopade says. China's development model, "which looks nothing like the liberal democracy that is so vaunted in 'the West,'" demonstrates "that there are different paradigms for how you might want to achieve social progress." 

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Uri Friedman is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Global Channel. He was previously the deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

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