Eclectic Grounds

conflicts and conversation

“Third World” – Stop saying it, stop thinking it!

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The term “Third World” is the issue of a post in an interesting new blog I recently discovered. Author Mar writes:

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.

While I agree with much Mar says, I differ with her in that I think the generalisation ‘Third World’ is often used with apparent positive intentions, by politicians, aid advocates or in every other Sunday’s sermon. The inherent negative, patronizing and racially charged character of the word, however, is all the same.

Its division of the globe into three distinct “worlds” makes it particularly ugly. But replacing “Third World” with “Global South” or “underdeveloped countries” doesn’t make things much better.

One might wonder which term to use instead, and it seems like there is no solution because the problem is not the term itself but how it is charged. If a new, “politically correct”, term might arise of the discussion over the word “Third World”, it will soon be charged with the same demeaning and orientalist stereotypes as the former.

Is a generalisation like “Third World country” really necessary? There is no homogenous group of countries that can be classified with such a term. Countries with, say, a comparable GDP level, differ fundamentally based on their region, their political system, their cultural history, even their economic structure.

Writing a comparative macroeconomic study, it makes sense to group countries in relation to the indicator used: HDI, GDP, GNH, any other index (which all reveal quite different results, by the way). “An analysis of countries with HDI indicators between 0.35 and 0.40 reveals…” – this sounds like a promising start of a sentence. Using the term “developing countries” instead would be a pretty arbitrary step away from the former set.

From the perspective of dependency theory, it appears that “underdeveloped” vs. “developed” is a necessary dialectic to describe world systems. Yet it seems to me that it would make much more sense to focus on the system parameters that create dependency (terms of trade, political and military power) than to use detached and de-politicised language such as “Third World” or “Global South”.

To me, such a distinction is utterly useless for anything beyond grossest economic theory . There is no essential cultural, political or historical insight that can be derived from such a terminology. What’s the similarity between North Korea, Botswana and Colombia, please?

In the end, the classification of “Third World countries” or “developing countries” does not evoke anything more useful than obscure colonialist fantasies. So let’s drop it altogether.


Written by henrik

October 28, 2009 at 8:29 pm

One Response

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  1. […] and the subsequent category of “development countries”, which was discussed here before. From this angle the analysis of social relations — using the analytical unit of the state — […]

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