Third World

I was shocked to happen upon a Facebook group titled “India is not a Third World country”. The group seems frustrated with popular views of India being a backwater, with high disease rates and rampant poverty. It would prefer that India be viewed as an advanced and increasingly wealthy country. There is no evidence that any of the group’s members actually understand what it means to be “Third World”. Third World means poor to the group’s members. A group constituted in response calls itself “India is a Third World country”. Its profile states that India is “no longer” a Third World country, having become a “second world” country through economic and military growth. It is pretty alarming that so many educated Indians are ignorant of the real meaning of a geopolitical designation that their country played a massive role in propagating and consolidating. What is especially depressing is that the term Third World has become so thoroughly coated with negative connotations.

Finding these groups reminded me of two conversations I had with my father, who is himself rather well described as a “Third Worldist”. The first took place early in high school. I told my father that I had found a girl friend. “Is she an Arab?” No. She was Iranian. “Well, at she is of the Third World. So long as you do not bring back a redhead or a Swede, you have my support.” I found his statement bizarre for two reasons. The first was that my grandmother, that is his mother, was a redheaded Algerian. The second was that he was able to conceptualize dating in terms of geopolitics. What if I decided to date a mainland Chinese? Would he be bothered because she came from a communist country?

The second instance occurred earlier, in elementary school. After end of the school year activities, we had a roll of film developed that contained pictures of my elementary school classmates and myself doing things that children do. While he reviewed the photographs, he lingered on a picture of myself, a black girl (from Benin), a Thai boy, a Pakistani boy, and a Venezuelan girl, and a Caucasian student (who was positioned in the middle) all of whom were classmates of mine. He exclaimed “The Third World takes the First!” The only knowledge I possessed about the “Third World” was that it referred to poor countries and I believed it to be a negative appellation. I asked him what he meant. He said that Third World meant non-allied, independent, and neglected. It was what the Arabs, the Africans, the Indians, and the Asians all shared in common. It was good to be from the Third World, and it was not something to be ashamed of. I did not totally grasp what he was referring to at the time, but as I got older and read more, I understood what he was getting at.

Le tiers monde was first used in 1952 by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy to refer to countries, most of them poor and formerly colonized, that belonged to neither of the two Cold War blocs, the “first” (Western capitalist) and “second” (communist) worlds. Much like the old French third estate, the Third World was ignoré, exploité, and méprisé. It was first and foremost a geopolitical designation, establishing a conceptual placement for those state who attempted to remain “neutral” in the Great Power struggles of the Cold War. They were those who chose neither West nor East, and following the Bandung Conference in 1955, the concept found a home in reality — the Non-Allied Movement. The movement’s most prominent founders were Col. Nasser of Egypt, Nkrumah of Ghana, Tito of Yugoslavia, Nehru of India, and Sukarno of Indonesia. It was a forum by which “developing” and recently decolonized countries could find their voice internationally and make condemnations imperialism, and demand solidarity among the world’s oppressed or hungry peoples. Most of its members violated the tenets of non-alignment at some point or another, whether it was Cuba with Soviet hands on its waist, or Senegal with its French connections. This is illustrated well by the fact that all of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, are NAM member states. (China is not a member, and has observer status.) Despite this, the notion of belonging to a Third World is strong among  a certain class of older people from certain Africa, Arab, and Asian states. People who lived through the constitution of NAM often still see the struggles of  people from other developing states as their own. Many Algerian veterans look at the Vietnamese struggle against France and the United States as equivalent to their own national liberation struggle (it is rather interesting to note that Algeria was for a time the poster child for non-alignment and Third Worldism until the 1965 coup, which occurred just before the first Afro-Asian summit to take place in Africa was due to take place in Algiers and led to its never being held). Indians and Ghanaians often saw the anti-apartheid battle as a global one well before Americans and Europeans did. Such sentiments are also found in Western academic circles, often fueled by white guilt. NAM was critical in facilitating resistance to apartheid, a fact that some Western observers are either ignorant of or loathe to admit. Indeed, few things can be directly attributed to the efforts of NAM and its ability to keep the most vulnerable out of communist or Western clutches has not been entirely successful, its role as a platform for recently independent states to find their footing cannot be underestimated. Mauritania’s existence, which was from the start disputed by Morocco, is largely the result of the fact that its first generation of leaders had a place in which to build legitimacy and good will for their country which would not have been the case had NAM and other post colonial international forums not existed, allowing for post-colonial elites to network with one another, in a setting aside from the intrigues of their former masters (and their puppets) and their communist rivals, and formulate a common agenda that could be brought to the United Nations with meaning. This is not to say that NAM and other “south-south” cooperation arrangements do not operate like any other grouping of states; the strong are at greater advantage than the weak, which is why states rich in resources and prestige carry the most weight in its corridors; India, Nigeria, Malaysia, Algeria, Egypt, and more recently Venezuela, Iran, and South Africa. And the relatively wealthy observer states (particularly Brazil and China) also enjoy a great deal of influence. But the weak and the especially poor sometimes can bring their agenda to the top, due to the organization’s non-hierarchical arrangement.

In the United States, many African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Arab-American (especially those influenced by Edward Said) activists began to appropriate the term “Third World” as a descriptor of people of color during the 1970’s. It signified a solidarity among minorities.Thus when I asked my dad what he would do if I married a black woman (I believe that in most Arab-American households this idea is a taboo), he shrugged and answered “I would be glad she was from the Third World and disappointed if she were uneducated.” In any event, the term is outdated, and is not especially valuable in the 21st century, when many other terms better describe the same geopolitical axis and space.

15 thoughts on “Third World

  1. Eh, I don’t know. Those designations are outdated to be sure, but having been to different parts of India on two separate occasions, I can attest that it is indeed, for the most part, staggeringly poor. Remember, this is a country that firmly has both feet planted in the trickle-down approach to economic liberalization, so while it may be developing, the real question is who is winning and who is losing from this development.

    I suspect that if you drew a random Indian out of a hat, they would likely be living something akin to a subsistence existence, without access to quality education or all of these other socioeconomic factors that give Indians entre into the better life that comes with the booming economy.

    Much like other places I have been where there is a great, largely unpopulated, divide between poor and wealthy (and yes, I am aware of India’s burgeoning middle class), the usual class prejudices are alive and well (and I’m not talking about caste system). Many younger and wealthier Indians with whom I’ve spoken eagerly and outwardly espoused inclusive, liberal, progressive views on how India should modernize, but few of these people would ever deign to associate with the masses of poor that surrounded them every day of their lives. Most were perfectly content talking a big game, while keeping daily habits that safely ensconced them in a bubble into which the world outside could not penetrate.

  2. Fellas, there is no denying that India is third world. I have discussed this numerous Indians, two of whom are professors (one in economics).

    As Brian as said there is a major dichotomy within India’s poor and wealthy. I’m sure if you have been to New Delhi Brian, you can also shed some light on how rundown “Old Delhi” is?? The contrast is stark, day and night.

    If you noticed, India’s HDI still incredibly low for such a nation with such grand visions http://hdr.undp.org/en/statistics/

    India has a Lower Human Development Index than nations such as, Cape Verde, Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Azerbaijan, Dominican Republic and Guatemala. HDI takes into account Life expectancy, GDP (Gross national product), eduction/literacy and Purchasing Power. The world bank classifies India as a “Low-income economy”. Their GDP seems diverse as 55% is based on services, 26+% on Industry and 18+% is based on agriculture. In short, i would say India is at a cross roads, and those who cannot see this are either young and ignorant, or naive and overly ambitious.

    Lastly, India is too corrupt to be 1st world🙂

    2 Nouri:

    You will have to provide sources to support your claim of the term being outdated. These terms are not as arbitrary as you think. If one is to juxtapose a thriving nation vs a country in destitute these terms suffice. The real question is if there is a “Second world” country or is this just Grey area? I see that you did mention the Soviet Union in your post, but in support of your stance you could have mention the term “second world” was initially designated for “Eastern Bloc” commie/Leninist nations. That alone is clear how “outdated” in years these terms may be, but they still serve their usefulness.

    The only difference in contemporary socioeconomics is terminology, not practice. 1st, 2nd and 3rd world can be seen today as: High Income, Middle Income, and Lower Income economies. And with varying degrees of intermediates sub categories (e.g. “Lower-middle”)

  3. “you could have mention the term ‘second world’ was initially designated for ‘Eastern Bloc’ commie/Leninist nations. That alone is clear how ‘outdated’ in years these terms may be, but they still serve their usefulness.”

    I think that is exactly why the terms are not useful with their original parameters, though. The specter of authoritarianism Russia notwithstanding, much of the “second world” has been or will be swallowed up by the EU. The term denoted a different economic system entirely – one which is unlikely to exist in those conditions again.

    For quick reference, I suppose we can establish three checkpoints through which countries pass as they achieve certain levels of per capita wealth and “development”, but as the case of India has demonstrated (or even Arab Gulf states, for that matter), I think these are far less useful than some of the data you provided in your comment.

  4. You will have to provide sources to support your claim of the term being outdated. These terms are not as arbitrary as you think. If one is to juxtapose a thriving nation vs a country in destitute these terms suffice. The real question is if there is a “Second world” country or is this just Grey area? I see that you did mention the Soviet Union in your post, but in support of your stance you could have mention the term “second world” was initially designated for “Eastern Bloc” commie/Leninist nations. That alone is clear how “outdated” in years these terms may be, but they still serve their usefulness.

    That isn’t the consensus among IR specialists and development scholars that the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world categories have expired in their usefulness. Second world, as I did note in the post referred to the communist world (it included only those communist countries allied with the USSR, which is why Yugoslavia was not a part of it, nor was China after the Sino-Soviet split), which for all intents and purposes no longer exists as a unified bloc in the way that NATO and its allies (the old first world) continues to. There are many different systems of classification pertaining to development that are less simplistic than simply dividing the world into one two and three, based on political and ideological allegiances of almost 60 years ago. I can’t provide a hard source right now (because I’ve not got my books with me), but any international relations or geography text book (or indeed any text dealing with globalization or development) provides 1) a discussion of why the three world frame of analysis is out of date (long story short — the Cold War is over, and the second world doesn’t exist; you can’t have a Third World without a Second World and the system of alliances that created that understanding of the world system no longer exist; there is often a discussion of the derogatory connotation of “Third World” as well) and 2) a lengthy discussion of modern terminology to refer to the world’s poorest countries. One of the most common break downs is Most Developed Countries (MDCs) and Less or Least Developed Countries (LDCs), with several classifications in between them. Lowe middle income, upper middle income, etc are used rather widely. The Worlds Theory is generally rejected and if it is used it’s usually as part of a four worlds break down with the poorest making up the Fourth World. Again, though, that frame of analysis is usually rejected in part because it is seen as being left over from the Cold War and also because it has Maoist origins and has its origins more in political theory than in development theory.

  5. The taxonomy is only as useful as the accuracy to which it describes the empirical world. To me, there is little to gain from discussing whether we can redefine and save the first-through-third-world paradigm in a more presently correct manner; when its usefulness as a tool has expired, I say get rid of it. If anything, “third world” is a useful term in common parlance because it is frequently used interchangeably with other descriptors like “developed”.

    I only harp on this, Nouri, because having gone through the IR graduate-education ringer myself, I think I spent *way* too much time reading literature devoted to debates over terms. We need to clearly define our terms, yes, but very quickly these paradigmatic or semantic discussions lose their utility to anyone or anything not publishing within the discipline. There’s a lot of verbal muscle-flexing, and very little policy-changin’. I think it’s unfortunate too, because I’m an IR guy, and I think that it is this very thing that continually bogs down some very important work (well, that and the fact that the content of IR scholarship rarely filters up into policy at all).

  6. “2) a lengthy discussion of modern terminology to refer to the world’s poorest countries. One of the most common break downs is Most Developed Countries (MDCs) and Less or Least Developed Countries (LDCs), with several classifications in between them. Lowe middle income, upper middle income, etc are used rather widely. The Worlds Theory is generally rejected and if it is used it’s usually as part of a four worlds break down with the poorest making up the Fourth World. Again, though, that frame of analysis is usually rejected in part because it is seen as being left over from the Cold War and also because it has Maoist origins and has its origins more in political theory than in development theory.”

    This part of your post corroborates with the ending of mine. As i said, the terminology has changed, but the concept and practice is the same and in place. If the question is about pejorative use, then that is also a plausible case for these terms being obsolete, but this alone (nor some of the other reasons given) does not discredit the theory behind it.

    My point is that if nations can be numerically parceled, be in economics, sociology, geography, and demographics, than it is not archaic label such nations appropriately and accordingly. Now i guess your gripe is not about labeling specifically, rather the type of label and context it is used in? The 4 system taxonomy nomenclature system that you mention, and that i alluded earlier to is an improved framework . Whether it is superior or not is not my argument, nor pertinent to the discussion imo, but the essence of classifying nations of various levels of a DEFINED economic stratifications, is what i am/was getting at.

  7. Brian:
    seems like we posted at the same time. Just skimming through your post, there are some things i would like to address, but time is a virtue. I will tryback later today.

  8. Indeed a thirld world country as designated by many but i though agree to that point that india lacks behind in terms of having a absolute growth.Bearing one-third of world’s poor its quite heavy to instill a sustainable growth.As a growing citizen and awared citizen of India I do feel India being a developing nation,in terms its people are indeed very poor.
    As per the economy is concerned it grows while the government is in deep slumber.Its what India stands for,forgetting all hindrances we want to further reinforce and revamp our country’s wealth .But its for all of us a high time to fight with poverty in India to get rid of the most terrific tentacles of poverty in, India which other countries lack.so lets not wait now in giving ugly commets about politicians as being the most corrupt citizens but lets therefore get all our strength summed up to fight with the most ugliest faces of terrorism .and if not today tomorrow never comes.

  9. Agreed on the misuse of the term ‘third world’ and d’accord with a general discontent with the terms used in the development industry. The line between developed and undeveloped increasingly shifts from a cross-country to a cross-class position.

    But to get back to the initial question: The question of whether to label India as a [insert simplification here] or a [insert simplification here] country, could in my eyes be viewed as the question on whether India should continue to receive massive aid inflows or not. Financially India would be in a position to decrease domestic poverty without international aid, yet money is spent for other purposes. Additionally the process of aid allocation is very strongly controlled by the Indian government, therefore directing the aid into desired sectors. I know for a fact that it is a serious consideration at the world bank to re-evaluate the position of such strong countries as India or Brazil in order to focus on e.g. African countries. So in my opinion these facebook groups may be seen in such a context.

  10. @ hannes

    The world bank aid is actually a low interest loan. By that measure, what about the aid European countries are getting from IMF etc in 2010 as a bail out.

    Or, what about the loan US has to return back to China. So by that measure Europe and US is also “poor” and a “third world”.

    Lets not go into anecdotes like “crowded places” and “dirty streets” etc, cause parts of US, Europe etc are worse than parts of India in that measure. I have seen worse housing quality in parts of inner city US and far better gated communities compared to Europe, in parts of India with quite high quality of life actually.

    Many people still call China a “third world”. The world needs a paradigm shift, isnt it?

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