Developing Countries: What Does “Developing” Mean Exactly?

Grab and Go Highlights

  • Be careful about the assumptions you make about a developing vs. developed country.
  • If you are interested in working in a developing country it is important to take into account that construction and pollution, are omnipresent.
  • Food poisoning and other illness are inevitable before your body adjusts.
  • If you know you are headed to a city with poor air quality, purchase a Respo Mask

When he was a correspondent on the Daily Show, Trevor Noah played a game once called “Spot the Africa.” Shown two pictures (one with dilapidated infrastructure and the other with a nice highway or children in school), Jon Stewart’s job was to guess which pictures were taken in the United States, and which ones were taken in South Africa. Of course, the pictures of new roads and children in school were…South Africa!

As with any good joke, it was funny, but also challenged our schema about what it means to be a “developed” vs  “developing” country.  

This is relevant to us because when you begin searching for jobs, or doing research before you accept an international offer, one of the biggest factors to consider is where you might want to live and what type of living environment lends itself to your desired lifestyle.

View from the backseat of a Thai Tuk-Tuk sitting in traffic
Don’t miss out on amazing opportunities just because a country is labeled “developing.”

I want to call into question your potential urge to write-off “developing” countries before learning more about them. You or people around you may assume that developing countries are dangerous, dirty or generally unpleasant to live in, and I want challenge that as someone from the United States, living in Vietnam.


In the US, you have large swaths of areas that are mostly safe and peaceful, as well as small pockets of areas that are unsafe, riddled with crime and violence.

Notice that people interested in visiting Seattle, Washington are not deterred by the violence in Chicago, for example. It doesn’t mean criminal activity doesn’t happen in Seattle, but Chicago, or parts of Chicago, are not representative of the rates of violence you would expect in Seattle or elsewhere in the country.

Now take a country like Mexico. Just like the US, there are more dangerous cities such as Acapulco with levels of violence and gang activity. But there are also places like Puerto Vallarta, where old couples go for retirement and college kids go to make life altering mistakes.

Yet, people make blanket statements about Mexico being “dangerous” or say there is “a lot of violence,” despite the fact that the United States and Mexico have similar crime rates.

Obviously, this isn’t the case with every comparison. Compare the United States and Fallujah and you come to a different conclusion.

Beautiful Building in Mexican square.
Just because it is a “developing country” doesn’t make it inherently dangerous.

The point is that just because a country is developing, does not necessarily mean it is dangerous. A list of countries that rank safer than the United States, which ranks 103rd in safety in the world, includes Vietnam, Ecuador, Laos, and Argentina.

The moral of the story is this: When looking at destinations for work abroad, or when receiving an offer to work abroad, don’t be too quick to pass judgement on a place based on what you think it is like or because it has a certain reputation. Do your due diligence in trying to determine if its reputation matches reality.  


 So far, we have determined that the term “developing country” is not a euphemism for perpetual societal Purge.

Another concept people conjure up when they hear developing is the image of shanty towns, dark alleys, streets full of garbage, and dirt roads.

Is this the case in some developing countries? Yes. But if you are headed somewhere like that, you will know long before you get there. 

Of course, things aren’t perfect in developing countries in the same way they aren’t in developed ones. For example, Vietnam’s infrastructure is still being built. They are developing light rail lines and highways, new skyscrapers and hotels, more housing, shopping and restaurants to accommodate for people transitioning from agricultural to urban areas.

But I mean, look at my city of Da Nang:

Skyscrapers, five star hotels, citywide-wifi, fine dining, newly paved roads, skybars and protected natural areas. Oh, and 30 kilometers of amazing beachfront. 

Not quite the stuff of Heart of Darkness.

There is one important thing to note when it comes to developing cities and their infrastructure. It is amazing to see a city being built before your eyes; everything changes quickly, new businesses pop up everyday and new buildings are built in a matter of weeks.

But if you interested in a developing country, it is important to take into account that construction, pollution, and general noise are going to be omnipresent.

In both Hanoi and Da Nang, it is constant. Big trucks kick up dust, jack hammers hammer, falling tools smash against metal, welding goes on all day and all night.

Developing countries are dynamic, exciting and provide lots of professional opportunities as international businesses move in. However, you should be aware of the drawbacks as well and weigh your personal preferences accordingly.  

General Health

It is possible that being sick in a foreign country with no friends or family with you is the loneliest experience possible. When I first moved to Hanoi, I got food poisoning once every few weeks, and it high-quality, grade A, Lord-take-me-now levels of illness.

This is not only likely when you move to a developing country, but it is expected. If you go to India, for example, “Bangladesh Belly” is famous for being a nightmare. Coming from the US or any other western country, even for those with steel stomachs, it is a matter time before you enjoy a sleep-on-the-bathroom floor, Screamin’ Eagle day of illness.

The nice thing is, your employers are going to know what the deal is:

In Vietnam, just like other developing countries, the food is amazing and delicious and fresh, but the people who are preparing the food aren’t professional chefs, there is no FDA, and there sure as hell ain’t no food handlers license. Your chef is just a lady who has a great recipe and has been serving it for 30 years. Thus, the food can be a little…dirty.

A Thai man serving delicious Thai street food.
No FDA in the world of street food. But the food is so, very, delicious.

The time it takes your stomach to turn to cast-iron depends on the individual, but I promise, you won’t be the 1 in a million who can handle it on day one. After two years in Vietnam, I could probably eat road-kill and be okay, but I was a train-wreck upon arrival.

Pollution will be another concern to think about when you are looking into where you might want to move. I didn’t take this seriously at first, but I should have. Hanoi, Vietnam has some of the worst air in the world, 7 times the World Health Organizations recommended pollution levels.  If you are headed to a city in China or Vietnam or a city you know has poor air quality, I would actually recommend getting a Respro mask, which is a UK made pollution mask that will keep your lungs and sinus’ protected.  Pollution kills 4.6 million people per year, so better to be safe than do long term damage.  

The Wrap-Up

Just like in any country, developing countries have their really nice areas, less nice areas, advantages and disadvantages. Getting sick and dealing with pollution are part of the deal, but don’t think that you are going to be George Orwell in Burma in the early 19th century. You aren’t going to be fighting for your life in a Purge like society.

If you want to splurge on fine wine, grab a fancy meal, take dip in a 5-star hotel pool, you will likely be able to find that stuff no matter where you end up. But I urge you to not be scared of “developing.” Do your research, and balance the pros and the cons of a country against what you feel you can handle or be comfortable with.

Note: I am writing from the perspective of a foreigner moving to a developing country for work, and I am aware that for many of the local people life is very challenging as their country joins the developed world. My job, as I see it, is to present the opportunity of working abroad in a way that accurately depicts what a foreigner can expect from their life based on my own experience, but that is not to neglect the issue that local people often face.

What has your experience living in or traveling through developing countries? Would be comfortable with working and living in a developing country full time? Let me know on twitter @12hrdifference.


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Aaron Horwath Written by:

Since graduating from the University of Portland in 2014, I have worked abroad. Currently, I live and work in Da Nang, Vietnam as the Head of Global Training at an international technology company. Through my blog, I share my experiences of working abroad to give others a glimpse into international life and help them decide if working internationally is right for them.