Our Logo

About our terminology

North, South, East, West, and so on

There's a way to divide the countries of the world into groups, such that we end up with Cambodia, Malawi, and Haiti in one group; the U.S.A., Germany, and Japan in another; and perhaps Mexico, Bulgaria, and Thailand in a third, middle group. What brief name do we use for these groups?

A lot of choices are available.

First World, Second World, Third World. Largely from the Cold War era, these grab-bag terms referred roughly to English-speaking countries and their allies; the Soviet Union, China, and their allies; and the poorer and unaligned nations.

The North and the South (or, the Global South). The West and the Rest. These are perfectly suitable if they are understood as concepts, not as accurate geographic distinctions. We often use "The West" to refer to a group of countries and a related culture.

Terms such as "developing countries" suggest that some countries have reached a certain desirable stage, and others have not, but need to.

Developed, Developing, Less-Developed, Least-Developed. These are the most common terms. We sometimes refer to "developing countries" because that is understood, and nothing else is much better. But "developed countries" is more problematic; it carries an implication that the richest nations have arrived at a certain status which the others want, and are moving toward. We hope not. If the entire world begins consuming at the level the United States does, the entire world is in trouble, and not only because so much of it will be underwater. It is often said (but rarely believed, in the West) that "we can learn a lot from other countries." To say Western countries are most "developed" is accurate only if the Western countries define which factors are measured when we define the term "developed." It encourages us to think that "the answer" is for poorer countries to adopt as many Western features as they can, as fast as they can.

The Lords and the Hordes. Not to boast, but we coined this one ourselves. It captures an essential but unspoken element of how we believe each group views the other. However, "karma colonialism" is enough new coinage from us right now, and we're not using this. If you wish to, go ahead.

Rich countries, poor countries. This captures an important distinction and we often use it. It may seem to overemphasize one characteristic but money leads to power, and when we're writing about colonialism, power sits squarely in the middle of the discussion.

Government aid programs, international charities, and selected NGOs

First, a quick definition for those new to this field: NGO means "Non-Governmental Organization." In its broadest sense, this is any organization that is not government, business, or a political party, usually organized along not-for-profit lines. NGOs commonly work in fields such as the environment, health, education, and human rights. Some work only in the country where they are based; in the West, these are more often called "non-profits".

Many large NGOs have an international focus. Some of the very largest, such as World Vision and Save the Children, work in 50 or 100 or more countries, in many fields. Smaller and poorer countries have few locally-based non-profits and NGOs. In these countries the term NGO (or sometimes INGO, for International NGO) commonly refers to the organizations that are based abroad, then send money and staff into poorer countries for the purpose of helping people there. Some have a focus, such as health or education; others do a bit of everything.

On these pages, we use the term NGO and INGO as they are often used in poorer countries with a large NGO presence. We are not referring to organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

In this book, when we use the term NGO or INGO, these are the groups we refer to. We are not writing about organizations working only in the country where they are based and funded;(1) nor about organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which we believe have taken on difficult and worthwhile goals. We refer to those which claim that a group of foreigners with good intentions, armed with cash but little understanding of their destination, can go into another country and develop it. This includes UN organizations such as Unicef (which by some definitions would be separated into a new category of multi-government organizations, but whose behavior follows similar patterns to the major NGOs).

We recognize that NGOs aren't all alike. Generalizations can be unfair, but they are useful as long as we remember that they are generalizations. Some smaller NGOs, aware of the issues we discuss here, diligently and successfully avoid the effects that we criticize. Large ones can be too; we have great respect for Medecins San Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders). Our point is that overall, the NGO structure pushes them to perpetuate rather than solve fundamental problems. NGOs and international charities are the wrong structure to address the causes of poverty. And they are even worse when they address problems that they exaggerate for fundraising purposes.

NGOs are not the only sources of foreign aid. Government aid is even bigger. It usually goes from one government to another; or from one government to its own citizens and corporations, after they present a proposal showing how they'll use it to help another country.

Together, these are what we, and others, call "The Aid Industry." As you'll see on these pages, it could also be called the dependency industry.


In its original meaning, karma is used in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions of East and South Asia to describe the entirety of one's actions, good and bad, and their effect on one's present and future lives. It is also used to refer more broadly to the aura of good or bad that surrounds a person, place, or organization.

We use it in this broader sense. Karma Colonialism results when individuals, organizations, governments, and businesses focus too much on creating good karma around and within themselves, and give too little attention to the impact on those who are used to create this aura.

Notes and Sources

1. In fact, locally-based NGOs may act as irreplaceable watchdogs of the aid industry. We have, for example, quoted from Timor Leste's La'o Hamutuk elsewhere on these pages. (back)