While I was doing my post-grad work in Economics (capitalizing that word feels like such a joke), and even well before then, the academics in the know never tired of mentioning that We, as a collective of thinkers and activists, had ceased to use the expression Third World. Instead, we talked about developing nations, or less/least developed countries, a move to which I wholly subscribed, because although I feel quite alone in this, I detest the phrase Third World.
But all of a sudden, everywhere I look, I see it springing up again. And I’m starting to wonder whether I only dreamt the popular rejection of the term years ago, or whether it’s enjoying some kind of rebirth. It certainly hasn’t been redefined: it’s a handy little moniker that encapsulates any brand of nastiness or degradation you might imagine, and it’s quite the punchline. Hate the state in which your office bathrooms are kept? Liken it to a Third World country. Annoyed that your hotel only offers three varieties of cream cheese at breakfast? Call it a Third World diet. It’s an exaggeration, see? So it’s funny! Lawl and stuff!
Implicit in these comparisons is the realization that the speakers not only have no idea about the reality of life in the so-called Third World, but further, don’t give a crap. They’re able to so flippantly refer to the poverty and lack of opportunity in some of these nations because they’re comfortable – not with the actual state of things, of which they have only a vague knowledge, or none – but with the fabled state of things. Starvation, disease and war existing on such a scale for such a length of time need not be treated with any reverence or respect, one, because it is completely removed from their lives and doesn’t affect them, and two, because some of the countries of the global South have, in the estimation of these speakers, become horror stories in themselves, and thus have transitioned into some kind of mythical status. Except, we’re not talking about centaurs and unicorns here. We’re talking about real, live, accessible people’s lives, of which, if someone can hit Enter on a keyboard, they can approach some basic understanding.
Further, the term Third World obscures all parts of a country’s culture apart from those which are to be pitied or improved. By no great coincidence, so does the mainstream media. Back in March, I highlighted the efforts of Chioma and Oluchi Ogwuegbu: two Nigerian sisters who had purposed to tell the story of the Africa behind all that media footage of distended bellies and power-hungry rebels. It’s not that a discussion of the problems of developing nations is not needed. It is. But when you commit to systematically representing a country solely as victims, you show only one part of who its people are, and not the greatest part. Third World also implies homogeneity across all the countries that are meant to comprise this class, one which simply does not exist economically, socially or politically. It suggests that regardless of level of economic and social development, comparative advantages or system of governance, they are all to be singularly treated always as less than.
And the final issue I have with this term is perhaps the most obvious: it suggests a hierarchy that in people’s minds is not neatly restricted to some ranking of progress in development indicators, and certainly not to the historical allegiance of nations during the Cold War, as its origins are claimed to be, but is attached to real people and by association, their ethnicities. It suggests that the US with its White majority is innately better than, say, India, and encourages not an examination of global inequality as a result of historical exploitation, but of the notion that these countries have less because they are objectively worth less. And that was its intent. When Frenchman Alfred Sauvy coined the term half a century ago, he was so inspired to do by the presence of the Third Estate in France, the commoners who, by virtue of their position, Sauvy thought destined to be in an eternal state of revolution against the higher classes of the First and Second Estates. “Like the third estate,” he famously wrote, “the Third World has nothing, and wants to be something.”
Leaders at the Bandung Conference that followed in 1955 embraced the designation as an indication of a new bloc, but that designation, tenuous even then, means nothing now. And anyone from a developing country who wants to reclaim the expression can, I suppose, go ahead and do so. I choose not to. I, as a Black woman from the Caribbean, am third in no one’s pecking order. This is not sensitivity to a useful academic category or definition – although even those types of objections often have merit. This is the thorough rejection of a highly stigmatized, completely arbitrary categorization that serves no purpose other than to equate a certain geographical provenance and ethnic heritage with lack and degradation.
I do not accept it, and I would encourage allies of we who originate, live and work on human rights and development in the global South to also reject it.
Marsha blogs at The Mongoose Chronicles. About herself, she says: Rogue economist escaped to the bright side. Writer, talker, dancer, songwriter, singer, walker, runner, roamer, cook. Fierce lover of family and friends. Lover and defender of my womanness, Africanness, my Caribbean heritage, my Barbados, my right to take up my space and protect our space.
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Hilary Usfun — October 26, 2009
what an amazing post - thank you. I am often frustrated by the way the term the Third World is used and you explain it so eloquently. I am more ignorant about all these issues than I should be, but as a white brit, I also hate 'the developing world' used as some kind of right on alternative to 'third world'. Perhaps if we called countries by their names the UK/US would have more qualms about treating them so badly.
vlucca — October 26, 2009
I have heard––and prefer to use––the term "majority world" to describe the countries which have been labeled as third. However, it also includes those which fall into the traditional category of 2nd, going beyond politics. It inverts the hierarchy, but rightly so: the majority of the world's population live in those countries!
jamy — October 26, 2009
I have no argument with this post, but I'd like to know why "less developed country" is a better term. Isn't "LDC" also subjective? Certainly seems to imply that it's better to be a "developed" country.
distance88 — October 26, 2009
Yeah, "developing countries" has the implication that some countries have 'stopped developing' or somehow reached the 'height of development'. Scary thought. I mean, hopefully, everybody is developing, evolving.
Outside the Walls of the White Tower — October 26, 2009
As a resident of a "third world" country in the Caribbean, I appreciate the sentiment of this article; but if we were to expend less energy on pointing out the injustices of nominal comparisons like "third world" and "developing country", and more energy on actual 'work' in these locations, such distinctions (real or false) could not and would not exist. I grow weary of being defended against words with more words.
Marsha — October 26, 2009
Thanks for the repost, Lisa.
I do take the points above about the terms 'developing' and 'less developed', and that 'less industrialized' might be more suitable, although there are arguments against that as well. I do, though, find these phrases considerably less offensive than 'Third World' and its origins, especially since the latter has no modern-day meaning or parameters, while the former do have some. So it was that sentiment that inspired the post.
Re. the less time being offended vs. more time working charge, I'm not sure why you would think the two actions mutually exclusive, or that silence and more work magically stop people from exercising their unwarranted prejudices against the Global South. As I said in the article, (re)claim that word if you must, but I choose not to, because everything in me objects to it.
Outside the Walls of the White Tower — October 26, 2009
I did not suggest that the two are mutually exclusive. I said that we expend inordinate amounts of time and energy talking about the problem vs. working in more practical areas to see conditions change. I think you would agree that this kind of discourse has taken on an economic life of its own. Academics make a decent living defending those of us unfortunate enough to be called third-worlders. I hate the term as well, but I'm highly dubious of what I am coming to see as a new type of exploitation. We are experiencing an academic 'gold rush' to publish on this topic.
I'm not accusing you. In fact I agree with you mostly. I'm just remarking on an observable irony.
P — October 26, 2009
How exactly is the "global South" not a "completely arbitrary categorization"? Or do you mean that we have to keep playing musical chairs with the terminology, moving on when our latest name for the Global South/Third World/LDC becomes too charged with stigma?
Birdseed — October 26, 2009
I think there's a two-edged sword to this. One the one hand, it's probably relevant to ask whether it's possible and desirable to group together a bunch of countries from Brazil to Indonesia with few or no cultural connects in the first place. Does it risk (as you say) creating a homogeneity that's a false abstraction?
On the other hand, doesn't choosing to avoid collective terms at all risk masking the inequality? There's a relatively small group of countries that are immensely, enormously richer than the rest; if we just think of countries as individual entities or even a continuum aren't we in danger of missing the material binary where some profit of the many? It's like when people choose not to talk about class, does that really help work against social inequality?
I think it's a conundrum, and I'm certainly not comfortable with any of the proposed solutions. And not just because of the homogeneity thing, but I just don't see how "developing countries" (very eurocentric) is any better, or for that matter "global south" (also fairly nonsensical and has a similar role in France as third world has here, plus what about Australia etc?) and "the periphery" (nasty, excluding and mired in Marxist ideology). So what should I say when I mean "the parts of the world that are not rich and culturally dominant"?
(By the way, a similar issue exists with the opposite - the parts of the world that ARE rich and culturally dominant. "The west" is super-problematic too, and I have no idea what it can be replaced with sensibly.)
T. B. — October 26, 2009
Here's a related issue (which I don't think you quite got to) -
The places that are labelled a "Third World" aren't actually on another world; they're on the same planet, with everyone else.
Recently, I touched on such questions about separations and connections in this blog post -
("Expropriation and devastation (and resistance)")
The over-the-top term "world" implies that the people living there are like an alien species.
(Although the term "world" isn't quite the same as planet, I think people tend to consider the terms "world" and "planet" to be interchangeable. "World-systems" discourse is one exception, but I think it's obvious that the vast majority of people don't view societal conditions through a "world-systems" framework. I also think that other approaches to the term "world" that aren't equivalent to "planet" are rarer.)
Fernando — October 26, 2009
I liked most everything except the final issue, the one about race. I think that was pushing it. Being third world doesn't have to do with whiteness, as japanese people are considered first world, it has to do with poverty, which can happen in a mostly white country like Argentina. The hierarchy it suggests is of development.
And let's be honest - third world countries or developing countries or whatever you name it - are in a bad shape. We can praise cultural values from a country all we want, children will still starve to death. I think basic things like sanitation, education, health, security are really the most important things, and that's what we should pay attention to.
As for the term. I'm against attempts to find new non offensive terms. As it has been shown time and again, the new term ends up being used to offend like the old term. There is no escaping that. What matters after all is not the term, but the intention of the speaker. If the speaker wants to harm, all he needs is a sarcastic/condescenting tone, not the right word. Don't fixate on the words. I used to say only "developing country", but I realized the futility of that and now I use all of them, third world, developing country, southern countries.
One last interesting thing to notice, I don't know about the other third worlders who might be reading this, but over here in Brazil we also use the term "first world" to refer to something that is rich/high quality/expensive/etc. Things related to wealth and quality of living. Even in tv shows and advertisements. Ironically, even though I use the term first world for good futilities, I don't like when third world is used to describe bad futilities.
A — October 26, 2009
Shouldn't Greenland be green?
AMarie — October 26, 2009
Thank you for posting this! I irritates me to no end when I read "third world" in academic papers! I deconstructed the term briefly in a blog post: http://aconerlycoleman.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/sex-trafficking-and-the-language-of-power/
"I take issue with the term “third world.” It calls to mind the Cold War polarization of the world: the 1st world is implicitly the “Western” world, while the 2nd world is Soviet Russia and its satellites, and the 3rd world being non-aligned and neutral nations. It just *happens* that these “3rd world nations” tend to be less influential on the world stage, with less capital, and less influence in supra-national organizations and trade agreements. The term unnecessarily marginalizes further those nations that are already seen as “less- developed” and “lesser than.” (And it is not lost on me that most of these nations are peopled by persons of color.)"
Jillian C. York — October 27, 2009
I think it's also worth noting for the sake of readers that the map you provided is fairly inaccurate and at best representative First, Second, and Third world countries as related to World War II. It is certainly not representative of what today might be referred to as any of those categories (e.g. the UAE is often referred to as developed at this point, or at least developing and certainly not third world). (The map is not actually accurate historically, either, as it mis-categorizes South Korea - which was First World, Cuba - which was Second world, and Syria, which I believe was also Second world, though I could be wrong on that one).
That said, I too hate the term "Third World" and don't like to use it or "Global South" most of the time. Instead, I try to use more descriptive (albeit somewhat less consistent) categorizations that provide a more accurate picture of a country.
sar — October 27, 2009
So, what is a better term?
Charlotte — October 27, 2009
On a side note, the designation of North & South Korea is interesting...
fourierist — October 27, 2009
Grouping parts of the globe together under one label is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. But should we pretend that there aren't rich countries and poor countries? That would seem to be a very dangerous and dishonest approach. And I don't see why "Global South" is somehow better than "Third World," which did indeed simply mean a Third Way that was supposed to be non-capitalist and non-socialist. If everyone uses the "South" instead of "Third World," the negative stereotypes - which have to do with poverty, not the term itself - will simply be attached to the word "South."
"Developing countries" is, however, a terrible and offensive term, since it clearly means that countries have to "develop" (i.e. stimulate capitalist growth), and that there is only one path of "development."
fourierist — October 27, 2009
Also, I really doubt when Sauvy coined the term in analogy to the Third Estate, he meant that Third World countries were innately inferior. The Third Estate included the bourgeoisie and their French revolution, obviously, was successful and they became the new masters of society. Sauvy's quote is simply a paraphrase of Sieyes, the French revolutionist, not some kind of insult to non-Europeans. Sieyes was in favor of the Third Estate, not disparaging it.
It doesn't help your argument to not have the facts straight.
Anna — October 27, 2009
Surly few would dispute the richness of community, art, culture, values and morals that may exist in so called 'developing' or 'third world' countries, however I believe that these terms are used primarily when refering to levels of material and economic wealth, levels of industrial development, education, welfare state, health care etc. of these countries. If there is no 'problem' need or aspiration, then there is no need to help these countries materially or otherwise. Let us pretend that there are no differences - then we can ignore any need!!
Too much time and energy is expended on the contemplation of terminology for fear of upsetting oversensitive souls and those who conjure up hidden meanings to words.
Rose — October 27, 2009
Labels are always strange. I have the same reaction to hearing people called "illegals" as if that were some new species.
TheVancouverManifesto — October 28, 2009
1st world= hegemonic world
3rd world= majority world
2nd world= strategic.
Christine Nectarine — October 28, 2009
I've also heard the terms "economic north" and "economic south" used as an attempt at being less offensive, but I fail to see how these terms are better that "first" or "third" world. Thoughts?
Letitia Campbell — October 28, 2009
I appreciate this lively discussion. I am a graduate student writing on globalization and ethics, and in particular the way that particular religious practices create patterns of political solidarity between U.S. North Americans and communities in the [insert term of choice here.] I struggle all the time with this issue of how to name regions of the world that are marked by inequalities of wealth and power, and I have moved between preferences for almost all of the terms mentioned here (Third World, Global South, Majority or Two-Thirds World, Developing or Less Developed World, periphery) as well as "resource-poor regions of the world," which is cumbersome and problematic in its own ways.
I don't like "third world" for many of the reasons already elaborated, and especially b/c it seems to have outlived its historically specific moment. I don't like "developing" or "less developed" because it presumes a modernizing/industrializing trajectory, which enshrines the economic history of Europe and the U.S. as normative. For a while, I consistently used Global South, but then I read a convincing critique of the term that pointed out that it eclipses any reference to inequalities of wealth and power and thus depoliticizes the term, in addition to being only partially geographically accurate. "Majority World" and "Two-Thirds" world does attempt to emphasize the importance of the regions/nations in question, but it also risks the depoliticization dilemma that Global South runs into.
At the moment, I've taken to using "resource-rich" and "resource-poor" to describe regions/ communities. I still think that this is imperfect, because some of the places we group into this category actually have enormous natural resources, and they all have human and cultural resources that we wouldn't want to ignore. But this also gets away from the focus on nations as a unit of measurement, and allows for the recognition that conditions of poverty, inequality and disempowerment exist within wealthy, industrialized nations, and vice versa.
In the end, perhaps this problem of naming is pushing me to do more clear and sophisticated thinking about what I mean to say, and about whom. Maybe generalizations that rely on these terms do more to obscure than illuminate. But still... I can't help but think that structural analysis will require some kind of terminology of this sort.
Can anyone recommend particularly lucid publications (books, monographs, articles) that parse these questions? I would be interested in following this discussion a bit in the context of my dissertation research, as I decide what terms to use... !
Leigh — October 29, 2009
Your map confuses me. Isn't "third world" greenland part of "First World" Denmark...?
Laura Agustin — November 1, 2009
I am far more annoyed by terms that rely on assumptions about 'progress': developed, developing world. The 1-2-3 division never made sense, no one ever referred to the soviet world as second. There's never a perfect term for groups, identity politics are filled with landmines and imposing political correctness isn't appreciated by all.
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Cecilia Gonzalez — February 3, 2015
You are not alone in detesting the term, I have detested it from the first time I ever heard it when I was a little girl in Ecuador. And now that I have lived in various countries, including the U.S. and visited a couple dozen countries more, I can't stand it. It reveals people's ignorance of the world we live in. I recommend to hear Hans Rosling's talks trying to help in educating people about the world, www.gapminder.com. "Does your mindset match my data set?"
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[…] Are We Still Saying That? Because We Should Stop. […]
Brian Lewis — December 20, 2016
I totally get you. I just commented on a "friend's" FB status quoting some "1st World problems." I detest it too.
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[…] the term ‘third world’ is often disputed as a racist term, as it “obscures all parts of a country’s culture apart from those which are to be pitied or […]
Cary Dames — June 6, 2020
In the midst of the protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, I comment on a friend's Facebook page that made a joke of Tanks in the streets - now we really are a Third World country.
"it’s a handy little moniker that encapsulates any brand of nastiness or degradation you might imagine, and it’s quite the punchline. Hate the state in which your office bathrooms are kept? Liken it to a Third World country. Annoyed that your hotel only offers three varieties of cream cheese at breakfast? Call it a Third World diet. It’s an exaggeration, see? So it’s funny! Lawl and stuff!"
It's not ...We should stop saying that because we are still saying that.