Let’s Stop Calling Countries “Markets”

Robin Broad

Here’s my most recent — and, I believe, imminently winnable — campaign: Let’s stop calling countries “markets” or “economies.” And while we’re at it, let’s not call any set of countries “emerging markets.”

It seems like a small thing – the change in terminology from “countries” and “people” to “markets” and “economies.” But it makes countries and people – in all their diverse reality – disappear.  And it puts an unspoken premium on places that are buying lots of goods from U.S. corporations.

Some of us slip into this terminology ourselves, from time to time, without even thinking. But, when I hear my colleagues and students use it, I find myself cringing for all that is unsaid between the lines. And I cringed even more at a recent Washington, D.C. event when an Obama government official proudly introduced herself as someone with “emerging market” expertise.

I find that knowing the history of the term “emerging markets” helps me stop using it. So, here goes:

Perhaps the first use of the term “emerging” was in fact a positive one (as far as I’m concerned) – coming from the 1955 Bandung Conference, best known for leading to the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement. At that point, the new “emerging” powers or nations or countries referred to former colonies gaining independence.  Indonesian President Sukarno’s vision was that these “new emerging forces” would rival the colonial forces at places like the United Nations.

But what a difference almost three decades makes.  Jump ahead to 1981 and the onset of the reign of free-market fundamentalism – when a man named Antoine van Agtmael coined the term “emerging market economy” as an alternative to “developing country.”  And van Agtmael’s perch?: Deputy director of the capital markets department of the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C.

A side note: “Emerging markets” also was used by some after the collapse of the Soviet Union to refer to the “2nd world,” the former Soviet republics and satellites that were said to be “emerging” from socialism or communism to private-sector capitalism. (These are now more commonly referred to as “transition” economies.)

Back to the main plot: In the mid-1990s, van Agtmael’s “emerging markets” became even more defined and popularized – thanks to Bill Clinton’s activist Commerce Department under the leadership of Ron Brown. The term is typically associated with Jeffrey Garten, Brown’s Undersecretary of Commerce, and author of a speech (and later a book) entitled “The Big Emerging Markets.” The U.S. government’s concern wasn’t the poor and marginalized or poverty reduction in these poorer nations, but rather the roughly 10 countries “with the greatest potential for future export growth” (as Secretary Brown phrased it). As President Clinton explained: “We have especially tried to target … not just our traditional markets, but … the markets of the 21st century…. [W]e have unashamedly been an active partner in helping our business enterprises to win contracts abroad.”[1]

And so “emerging from what and to what?” was turned on its head. “Emerging” to become even better markets for products of global corporations (in Garten’s version, U.S.-based corporations, of course).

So, while it may sound subtle, it’s a decided shift.  Countries, and their people, are transformed into current or future consumers.

What should we call them?  Well, at a minimum “countries.” We have a series of unsatisfactory terms – Third World, South, underdeveloped, developing, majority world – but none as bad as “emerging markets.” It’s a sad commentary that we don’t have better, more precise analytical terms to use.  But even low-income and middle-income countries are better than “emerging.”

And, if one wants to analyze these approximately 140 Third World countries in relation to the global economy, one can do so far more analytically from the perspective of their position in the international division of labor in the post-World War II period: (1) those locked into primary product (agricultural and mineral) export; (2) those, like South Korea, who have broken out of the so-called “colonial division of labor” and into higher value-added manufactured exports; (3) those that manufacture and export only a few labor-intensive stages of a global assembly line, such as apparel and consumer electronics assembled by often-exploited workers (think Bangladesh garments); and (4) the oil-exporting nations. Arguably, India and China demand their own categories.

Speaking of China and India, let’s also refrain from the term BRICs (initially for Brazil, Russia, India, and China, with South Africa later added), a term born in 2001 in Goldman Sachs’ asset management division. Beyond its birthright, the category is not that useful since each of those countries is so different.

Whatever categories or names we use for countries, we of course need to distinguish between governments, private sectors, and civil society as well as within each. For example, so-called “emerging market” Brazil doesn’t think or do something in aggregate terms. The Brazilian government might. Or Brazilian elites might. Or the landless in Brazil might.

My main point: Let’s stop using the terminology of free-market economists or corporate-friendly government bureaucrats – who see (and term) the world through lenses of potential dollar signs –to talk about the diversity of the countries where the majority of the world’s population lives. At a minimum, they deserve their rightful status as full-fledged “countries” full of real-life people with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences.

Triple Crisis Welcomes Your Comments. Please Share Your Thoughts Below.

[1] Both quotes are from Jeffrey E. Garten, “The Big Emerging Markets,” Columbia Journal of World Business, (1996), vol. 31, no. 2, p.7. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022542896900204

4 Responses to “Let’s Stop Calling Countries “Markets””

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  2. […] should certainly be on that list. And the avalanche of new buzzwords and fuzzwords continues: emerging markets, inclusive growth, […]

  3. […] should certainly be on that list. And the avalanche of new buzzwords and fuzzwords continues: emerging markets, inclusive growth, […]

  4. Jenigma says:

    I’ve always felt uncomfortable about the term emerging, as it seems to disregard the histories and individualities of diverse countries, but I thank you for articulating more clearly why ’emerging markets’ is a horrible, dehumanising term. As a side note, I would also add that ‘Arab Awakening’ is horrifically colonial in its implication that affected countries have been ‘asleep’ prior to us hearing a call for Western liberalism.