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

By Uri Friedman

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." 

The developing/developed dichotomy also encourages overconsumption, she adds. "'Developing' has a linearity to it: 'We're developing toward Las Vegas.' It tends to belittle things that are not highly capital- and labor-intensive types of achievements."


When we divide the world into developed and developing countries, Olopade argues, we tend to assess developing countries by the extent to which they resemble their developed peers, rather than evaluating lean countries on their own merits.

As she writes in the book:

[W]e focus on Africa's formal organizations and its formal solutions. How many schools have you built? How many mothers died last year? Was the election free and fair?

It turns out we have been throwing a party in an empty ballroom. One of the biggest problems with the world's longtime orientation toward Africa is a preference for interactions between governments, or between conventional institutions, when the most vibrant, authentic, and economically significant interactions are between individuals and decentralized groups.

At first glance, Olopade's assessment seems callous—a country's maternal mortality rate seems like a pretty critical measure to track. But she's not saying these metrics aren't important or worrying in many cases. Rather, her point is that when we apply the frameworks of fat countries to lean ones—and especially countries in Africa with jerry-rigged borders and illegitimate, incompetent governments—we prioritize often-hollow formal institutions over the creative, intricate informal institutions that have arisen as a substitute. In developing countries in Asia and Africa, the informal economy accounts for 25 to 40 percent of GDP, according to World Bank estimates.

World Trade Organization/International Labor Organization

"The real scandal in African development practice, and perhaps development practice generally, is the over-reliance on the state as the unit of change and measurement," Olopade tells me. "When development practice gives 99 percent of the oxygen to the state framework, it's missing the vast majority of the more interesting story about Africa. And it also tends to focus our attention on what Africa does worst."

For instance, when NGOs, governments, and international institutions condition foreign aid on civil liberties, the rule of law, and good governance, they often encourage dysfunctional African governments to "pantomime progress and liberal democracy without necessarily achieving either end"—at the expense of their people. Olopade continues:

When institutions are broken, playing by their rules becomes a laughable proposition. Where political freedom, social protections, and economic opportunities have failed to materialize, ordinary people have taken ownership of their fate—tearing down the assumption that states matter more than their alternative arrangements. In short, the fail state has created millions of libertarians.

It's a sensible posture: the coming century will be dominated by forms of organization both smaller (think family) and larger (think Facebook) than the state, forging new allegiances on issues ranging from security to epidemics to trade.

Of course, the informal networks we see in lean countries don't always produce inspiring stories about fleets of sustainable Kenyan toilets. When ordinary people make "alternative arrangements," it fuels a vicious cycle: Informal work drains governments of revenue and flouts their rules and regulations, only weakening state institutions further. Studies have shown that informal economies, relative to their formal counterparts, are often less productive and less hospitable for workers. But we still need to give the informal sector the attention it deserves.

What does recognizing formal and informal structures look like in practice? It could take the form of the UN's Global Pulse project, which mines digital data from sources like social networks, search engines, and satellite imagery to predict socioeconomic shocks. Researchers can monitor the volume and emotional valence of tweets about food and fuel prices in Indonesia, for example, to spot coming inflation. Or it could look like the Map Kibera project in Nairobi, Kenya, where residents of one of the largest slums in the world used GPS technology and OpenStreetMap to literally put their community on the map for the first time.

"There needs to be much more emphasis [in development work] on empowering non-state actors," Olopade tells me. "It may be more difficult work. It may not involve sitting in a conference room with men in ties having diplomatic discussions about the budget of the ministry of health." After all, that's not where the action is.

This article available online at: