The term ‘Third World’ was used during the Cold War to refer to countries that were neither aligned with NATO or the Soviet Union. Those countries were referred to as First World and Second World, respectively. The Cold War has since ended, but the terms First and Third World are still thrown around. Today, the general understanding is that a First World country is a developed country, while a Third World Country is a developing country. In fact, the term ‘developing’ is the politically correct or more widely accepted way of referring to underdeveloped countries. What about Second World countries? Well, they have now been pooled into the developing/Third World basket that is most of the world.

I have roughly spent half of my life living in first world countries and the other half living in third world countries. My travels, have also led me to an even mix of developed and developing countries, each with its own fascinating aspects. After nine years without going back to my native Brazil, my return has prompted some curiosity. Why is it that in almost a decade (which included a World Cup and Olympics) the country has experienced so little progress? These personal experiences have led me to a broader question, why is it that some countries manage to turn the corner and become developed while stay stuck on ‘developing’? After all, some of these countries I have visited have abundant natural resources, beautiful tourist attractions, a critical mass of highly educated upper class and developed industries.

To answer that question, I have noticed there are a few similarities that developing countries share beyond indexes and human development figures. Surely, on the surface, what most third-world countries have in common are: low income per capita, high income inequality, high crime rates, poor infrastructure, and low levels of education and health, among many other things. Those facts and figures show a superficial picture of what a makes a country ‘third-world’. These problems seem to be symptoms of deeper problems that most of these countries share. What amazes me is that whether I am travelling in Melanesia or South America, there are certain similarities on how things get done that are undeniable.

The first and most obvious is the high level and inefficiency of bureaucracy. Some bureaucracy is needed, and when done correctly, it is quick, effective and painless – just ask the Germans. Whether it is setting up a company, renewing a driver’s license or just going through an airport, there are ways of making these quick and painless but some countries choose just the opposite. Let me share a few examples. The first is the time and amount of people it took to renew my driver’s license in Brazil when compared to Australia. In Australia, you pop into the Motor Registry, after a few minutes wait, they call you up, you do an eyesight on the spot, pay the same person you spoke to, and after another few minutes, you walk out with your license. In Brazil, you go to a mega bureaucratic complex called ‘Poupatempo’ (it means ‘save time’). You first have to book a time slot to be served. Once booked, you go up to a receptionist who will then assign you a caseworker. A few minutes later, the caseworker takes all your documents, which includes copies that you have to bring in. Once verified you have all your documents, you go to another desk to pay, then another room to do a medical and eyesight exam, then back to another desk to pay for the exams and at the end, you still have to return later in the day to get your new license. In Australia, you speak to one person, go to one desk, they make any necessary copies and you leave with your license there and then, while in Brazil you speak to six people and have to return the next day.

Another example is international transfers in Chinese airports when compared to most European airports. In China, between landing and boarding your next international flight you have to go through at least three understaffed queues, get the boarding pass stamped for no logical reason other the need to employ these individuals and project an image of control. The only achievements of such unneeded bureaucracy are stress and missed flights. In Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, on the other hand, you land, maybe go through security again and then board your next plane. No queues, no stamps, no issues, no dramas.

The cost of inefficient bureaucracy is time (and money) wasted waiting in queues and the opportunity it opens for corruption, as people are willing to pay their way for easier and quicker access to what it is that they want. It is no coincidence that the least developed countries are also the most corrupt.

Another characteristic shared by developing countries is the lack of order, courtesy and etiquette. This is an obvious generalisation as every country has polite, rule-abiding and courteous people, but have you driven in in the US and then in Mexico? The point here is that in developed countries there are laws and rules and these are followed motivated by civic duty or fear of punishment. In most developing countries, there are also laws and rules, but they are merely suggestive. The odds of getting punished are also very slim meaning there is no incentive to follow them beyond one’s own sense of civic duty. This goes from courtesy in traffic to respecting someone’s position in a queue. It seems that in developing countries most people are trying to get a leg up on each other by not observing common etiquettes, rules or laws.

Another common observance is how small authority figures behave. By small authority figures, I mean police officers, security guards, ushers, clerks, etc. It seems that in developing countries, bar a few exceptions, these small authority figures aim to offer as little help as possible. I call it ‘small power syndrome’. It is a reminder that although these people have little power, they have enough power to ruin your day. There is certainly small power syndrome in developed countries, but not to the same extent. I have noticed that small power figures use the little power they have to help improve things.

In more general terms, I just find that in the developing countries, there is a bit more sense of urgency, a desire to improve things and provide good service. In developing countries, there is a sense of complacency, of not caring enough and doing as little as one can get away with.

Obviously, these are generalisations, and there are exceptions for every case. However, the figures don’t lie. Why is it that developing countries have lower GDPs per capita, higher crime rates, lower transparency scores, lower productivity, sub optimal infrastructure? These are all symptoms of the deeper problems closely related to inefficient bureaucracies, lack of respect for the rule of law, complacency and acceptance of the status quo.

One might ask, what about countries like Italy, Greece, Spain or Portugal? Aren’t they considered developed countries and yet suffer from these same problems? The answer is a resounding “yes”! They do, and that is why when compared to other developed countries they don’t fare too well. I would argue that if it weren’t for their membership in the European Union and the benefits that come from that, those countries would be sharing similar fates to Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina. May the 2010 Debt Crisis be a reminder of that!

In a nutshell, there are certain cultural traits that pin down a country and slow down its development.    No matter how effective a country’s economic policy, it will generate development in the short and even mid term, but long-term, unless these cultural issues are addressed and changed (which may take generations), full development and prosperity will never be experienced.