The Tricky Definition of Third World

The problematic nature of “third world,” and how we might go about correcting it.

The “third world” has long been a mystery to those discussing it. The term originated in the Cold War, used to describe countries that were not affiliated with either Western capitalism (the “first world”) or the Soviet bloc (the “second world”). Its link to a state of impoverishment came after the fact because many of those countries also happened to be poor. Despite its definition of “impoverished” in the American vernacular, “third world” remains only vaguely defined.

A nation’s economic status would be better represented on a scale (better yet, a multidimensional one; better still, descriptively) than by a categorical designation. Thus the act of dichotomizing nations is both conceptually and practically limiting: it is statistically inaccurate and perpetuates the notion of countries in the “developing” camp as other and lesser.

It is not hard to see that the phrase carries enormous levels of bias. Is it any coincidence that the creators of the phrase decided that the world they lived in was the “first?” It implies inferiority and suggests that inferiority is permanent—countries cannot simply switch worlds. In recent years, a host of other terms have come to take its place: “the developing world,” “the Global South,” “low-income” or “middle-income” nations, “resource-poor,” or “underdeveloped” nations. These attempts to address the derogatory nature of “third world” by striving to be more descriptive in nature, and therefore less culturally tinged. In comparison to Germany, for example, who would argue that Colombia is lower-income? Even so, the status quo would maintain the Western world as the standard bearer: developing is relative to developed, low-income to high-income, resource-poor to resource-rich.

One of my favorite terms I’ve seen used recently is “resource-limited” because it acknowledges that a region’s economic state is contingent on factors it often cannot control, and as such, that its poverty is not the fault of its inhabitants. But even terms like “resource-limited” are problematic because they assume that there are two distinct categories a nation’s existence can fall into. Where do you draw the line between “developed” and “developing,” “first-world” and “third-world?” Aside from the stigma associated with the label “developing” (or worse, “underdeveloped”), throwing 120-odd countries under the same broad category makes it difficult to assess the true economic situation in any of them. Poverty in Sudan, arising from political instability, ethnic tension, drought, and malnutrition should be conceived of differently than, say, poverty in Venezuela, which is largely linked to gang violence, drug trafficking, and the mismanagement of nationalized resources. Simply terming both countries as “developing” obscures the nuanced socioeconomic reality of both and replaces their unique cultures with a monolithic view of the Global South. Likewise, there is no universal set of criteria that makes a country “developed”, nor are all “developed” countries equal. China, for example, tried to remain under the “developing” label as long as possible to avoid steepening international contributions (climate change, for one). Are we really to blame them for that? Perhaps it wouldn’t have been fair to ask China, with its recent rapid development and vastly lower per capita income than the U.S. to pay as much as the United States for climate change prevention efforts. Additionally, these labels often don’t match what a given country can offer. Cuba is generally considered “developing,” yet it provides many of its residents with health professionals and health policy assistance. Conversely, the U.S. is “developed” by most any measure, but gross levels of income inequality persist.

Also, there is no consistent measure of development used to quantify each category. Simple measures of GDP per capita or GNI per capita, which underlie most cursory attempts to characterize the third world, offer only a narrow insight, and the UN’s list of “developing nations” has no official definition. It even comes with a warning—“the designations “developed” and “developing” are intended for statistical convenience and do not necessarily express a judgement about the stage reached by a particular country or area in the development process,” as if deconstructing the stigma were so easy.

Indeed, our very need for a word to describe such a large segment of humanity demonstrates the theoretical misrepresentation of the described. Research has shown that foreign aid efforts are far more effective when tailored to the local culture of a specific people, yet by and large the approach of those efforts is a one-size-fits-all. The same holds true for military interventions—the U.S.’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were justified by appeals to the liberation of women in those nations, yet the intervention served more to harm them and their families than offer any civil liberties. Viewing the resource-limited world as a uniform other has led us astray time and time again—and let’s not forget that the word “aid” itself is misleading, when the root of the poverty in many “aided” countries was colonial rule by the “aider.” Framing matters.

Maybe it’s so hard to find the right language because we shouldn’t need it in the first place. Terms like “lower-income” or “resource-limited” might improve the derogatory “third world,” but they still don’t address the baggage associated with divvying up the world into sections neatly labeled by the Western world. Specificity, on the other hand, breaks down stereotypes and sweeping judgements. If one is talking about unemployment in Zimbabwe, call it that; if they’re talking about a nation, state which one. Doing so might start to minimize the need we feel—the need I ran into many times, while writing this—to categorize at all.



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