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.