Why are some countries more developed than others?


Neighbours: The Case of USA & Mexico

To understand development, one must analyse the historical context in which humans have developed. Since the agricultural revolution with the first settlements, humans have been creating civilisations which have led to the creation of knowledge, technology, language, culture, identity, and ways of thinking; ways of understanding social dynamics, political and power structures, forms of government and theories by which humans have created a system that aims to achieve higher levels of development through different fictions.

However, defining human development is not as simple as it looks, given the cultural, political and social circumstances in which humans find themselves; the definition is given to “development”. Human development varies across a wide range of indicators, and the order or priorities of development change depending on the cultural and geographic setting. 

The world is a puzzle composed of pieces tightly fitted to each other, each with different & complex characteristics. As each piece has a different scenario and characteristics, it is essential to ask ourselves about the origin or the determining reason for developing a particular outcome at the domestic and international levels. One of the most common points of comparison is the level of development of the state in question. Assigning a level of development can be ambiguous as the understanding of development can vary depending on the school of thought, cultural aspects and social settings. Why would something develop in country A but not country B?

Aspirations differ depending on the socio-economic and cultural factors of the society. However, there are ways to measure the level of development based on some universal and objective criteria and non-discriminatory objectives that can be applied in any setting and world region. One example is the Human Development Index, which measures countries developed through a tridimensional approach divided into a long and healthy life, knowledge and a decent standard of living. 

When analysing the level of development in countries, an often-mentioned case is the comparison between the United States and Mexico, two former colonies, both of which had a starting point after gaining independence. The question is, how, being neighbours, did the Americans achieve much higher levels of human development than their Latin neighbours during the interwar period and especially in the last 70 years? 

Human Development (UNDP, 2023)

Human Development Index United States of America United Mexican States 
Total Score 0,9210,758
Life Expectancy at birth77,270,2
Expected years of schooling 16,314,9
Mean years of schooling 13,79,2
Gross National Income per Capita 64,765 USD Constant PPP$17,896 USD Constant PPP$

Comparing the Human Development Index levels of the two countries, the United States is notably more advanced than Mexico, ranking as the second nation with the highest HDI on the American continent. This is due to several factors that come back from the colonial era, as the two countries’ colonisation processes and state structure caused some of the differences that pushed the United States to develop faster than Mexico. Nevertheless, Mexico ranks closer to the USA in other indexes related to development. 

History=Development Pace 

Tired of the European fiction of government, the United States sought independence as a way to reject the old European model and create a more efficient economic, political and social system, start building the fiction of the so-called American dream, pushing production, and adopting an open economic model, opting for trade.  Americans wanted their governmental model without the European monarchic structures to evade mistakes previously committed by the European model of nationhood. In contrast, independence in Mexico arose as a dynamic against colonial oppression, the depletion of natural resources, the mistreatment and exploitation of the people, the social hierarchies, and the state’s legitimacy; the desire was different; the desire was political. 

But what do historical factors have to do with the levels of development centuries after the colonial era? Well, the reality is that the colonial period created the foundational DNA of both countries, and it is undoubtedly a relevant factor which must be taken into account to understand that the starting point towards development in both countries was different. While the United States adopted the European model for its government and people, Latin American countries, such as Mexico, tried to copy the European political models, resulting in highly inefficient governmental and economic systems and a slower development pace. These small historical decisions created patterns that later influenced general development, bringing us to the point where we are today. 

Post-war Growth 

In the last 70 years, especially during the Interwar period, the United States positioned itself as a global economic power; it benefited mainly from a large amount of production and the Industrial Revolution, which caused an increase in trade and production in the region. During the Bretton Woods Conference, countries relied on the American currency to adopt it as the base currency for a fixed exchange rate. Furthermore, developments in the modern world, such as machinery, assembly lines, and railroads, helped the USA position itself as a top producer and trader. This largely influenced the country’s Human development because the increase in Gross domestic product was translated into infrastructure investments to improve the well-being of individuals.

Additionally, a further advance of the USA in the past 70 years was the abolishment of racial segregation and the adoption of the fiction of equal rights. Nevertheless, the country continues to face challenges, and human development and well-being remain a topic of discussion in the US. Even though the network to access these services is wide in the country, citizens still face economic barriers due to the lack of public access to some services that are mostly privatised, like healthcare and education. 

Unlike the United States, the colonial period in Mexico was fueled by exploitation and had a solid socio-economic impact on the country through hierarchical structures that persisted long after the country’s independence. Maintaining these structures caused a flawed governmental system with high levels of instability, including numerous revolutions, while the USA maintained a more or less stable political system after Independence. This was one of the main reasons that caused different levels of development to move at various paces. While the United States primarily benefited from independence, Mexico remained and relapsed under a flawed system.

It is also important to note that historically, both countries have divergent characteristics; the United States has a low indigenous population density, and the migrants moved motivated by the aspiration of earning money and creating a different collective consciousness. In Mexico, the indigenous population density was enormous, oppressed by the colonisers and remained under poor conditions through an elitist and hierarchical system after the decolonisation process.

In the last 70 years, Mexico has faced a plethora of circumstances that have prevented it from creating human development equal to that of the United States. Firstly, the fight against corruption and the establishment of democracy have been strong problems that persist today. Addressing the issue of poverty in a large population is challenging, while the fight against drugs and organised crime has also shifted the priorities of the agenda For the country to reach a level of human development resembling that of the United States, other problems must be solved; which act as barriers and constraints from reaching a high level.

Other Indexes 

Indexes United States of America United Mexican States 
Happy Planet Index 37.4 Total Score 54.3 Total Score 
Social Progress Index SPI 81.70 Total Score (Tier 2)68.49 Total Score (Tier 3)
Gender Development Index 1,0010,989
Global Peace Index Rank 131Rank 136

Last Thoughts

In general, the rate of development in the US is higher than in Mexico. In other non-conventional indexes related to human development, such as the Happy Planet Index, which concentrates on social well-being, Mexico ranks higher than the US. Mexico ranks closer to its neighbouring counterpart in other indexes, such as SPI, GDI and GPI; nevertheless, when talking merely about the levels of development, differences primarily in historical factors in which the United States benefited from industrial and technological advances to position itself as a world power in trade and production.

At the same time, Mexico had a historical starting point, which prevented it from improving development at the rapid pace of the United States. Looking back, the last 70 years of development have also been crucial. Until NAFTA was signed, Mexico had a closed economic policy in which trade was heavily constrained and faced high tariffs and barriers under a long period of economic protectionism. When the policies changed in the late 80s, the economy opened, eventually allowing for more growth and development. 

However, the ways in which countries develop are changing; we are seeing a shift in power in the global economy where the United States might not be the one and only global player, now more countries are entering the game, Mexico for example, has benefited largely from nearshoring, a trend in the last five years where countries invest in manufacture in Mexico to take advantage of the USMCA free trade agreement and enter the US markets without tariffs and barriers.

Human development has increased greatly in the last decade in the country, however in this case, trade and production are crucial factors in reducing the informal economy and moving to a society with higher levels of capacity and human capital, increasing the country’s production levels, wages, employment, and thus over time the quality of life of people. It is interesting to see how countries develop changes; there is not only a single path of development. The future proposes a change in the classical structures of development.

It will be interesting to analyse how the future will mark a shift in the economic balance and the classical structures of development long followed by liberal economists, such as the modernisation theory of development. Evolution comes with change, and change is relentless in a rapidly evolving global scenario. The next decade will be crucial in determining shifts in balance and development.

Emanuel Mayagoitia
Emanuel Mayagoitia
Highly motivated International Relations student with a passion for global politics and a strong understanding of international relations theories. Strong research and analytical skills, with experience in policy analysis and cross-cultural communication. Seeking opportunities to apply skills and knowledge to real-world issues.

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