The UN's preoccupation with development is tied to the division of its membership between rich and poor nations, a division that the Secretary-General has frequently characterized as a leading long-term threat to world peace and security.
In 1945, when the UN was established, this sharp dichotomy could not be drawn. The wealth of Europe had been wasted by the ravages of war. Only the US could claim to be rich, and even the US, with the depression of the 1930s still a fresh memory, could not be confident of lasting prosperity. What made the challenge of development central to the thinking of every aspiring country was the rapidity with which the countries of Western Europe recovered their prosperity and went on to attain higher levels of economic and social well-being than they had ever experienced. Meanwhile, economic expansion continued apace in the more prosperous countries that had not been directly hurt by the war—the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. And within a few years, in Asia, the miracle of Japan's recovery and growth was matching Europe's postwar record.
Nothing comparable occurred among the colonial peoples and former colonial peoples. Tropical Asia, Africa, and Latin America had been cultivated in preceding generations largely as appendages to industrial Europe and North America—on the one hand, supplying essential primary commodities not commonly found in the temperate regions and, on the other hand, serving as profitable markets for consumer goods produced in the temperate regions. The peoples of these economically underdeveloped areas made rapid political progress in the postwar era. Significant economic progress also was recorded in a number of these countries, so that by the late 1950s, it was considered not only tactful but also proper to refer to them as "developing" rather than "underdeveloped" nations. As a group, however, the developing countries were far outdistanced in economic growth by the temperate zone industrialized countries, which were finding the postwar era the most propitious in history for their development. Before the UN had completed its first 15 years, it was abundantly evident that a very disturbing gap had opened up between the industrialized and the developing nations and that, despite very substantial foreign aid efforts, the gap was growing broader year by year.