Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What do you call the Third World?

Every fashionable internationalist knows it isn't called the Third World anymore. It's the South - or Global South if you are feeling extra hip and trendy. That's not to say you can't get away with the Developing World, but what was yesterday's cutting edge term is today's industry approved terminology.

Today at the office we've been having an interesting discussion about which terms we should be using. Leaving aside what I'd say at work (Developing World, but this is a purely pragmatic decision you understand) my preference is to avoid terms that are essentially meaningless phrases designed to disguise the inequities of the world.

That's why I'm opposed to Global South. Seeing as there are plenty of rich nations south of the equator and lots of poor ones above it. The same goes for Developing Nations. The term rather implies that they *are* developing don't you think? The history of the term also lies in the idea that poor countries are simply further back on the road to economic prosperity than rich nations. That is why you have developing countries and developed countries - ie that there is a process that can be completed.

I think both of these terms gloss over the fact that there is a relationship between the rich and the poor. Poor nations are not just poor, they are trapped in a system that works to keep them poor. Rich nations are not just born lucky - they maintain their wealth partially through their exploitative relationship with weaker nations.

So what term should we use? I'm told there is a term Majority World but let's stay off the crack pipe for a moment and assess whether Third World is salvageable. Some people don't like it because it implies a hierarchy. Guess what.... there is a hierarchy and pretending it isn't there does not help address it.

Of course there is an argument that whilst the term is generally used to refer to economic development there is a pejorative spill over into other areas. In essence it implies the Third World is inferior more generally than just economically. Well I understand this, and we should guard against these tendencies, but over all I suspect the urge to be nice all too often is the close relation of being patronising and unhelpful.

Perhaps Poor Nations would be better but there is something about the unequal relationship implied in the term Third World that attracts me - it has a robust, salty honesty to it that you can't get with those terms injected with anaesthetic.

Whilst I'm practical enough to use the right jargon when talking to certain people, or in certain contexts, all things being unequal Third World trumps all other terms. It may be old fashioned and associated with Empire but let's use terms that help us come face to face with the shape of the world, rather than smooth over its rough surface.


a very public sociologist said...

If I'm feeling especially curmudgeonly I use 'underdeveloped', or semi-colonial countries. These aren't perfect either. In what sense can you now refer to Taiwan, South Korea, and the Gulf Sheikdoms as such? And what about India? Sure, there is grinding poverty and plenty of underdeveloped and backward regions, but this is a country that's increasingly flexing its corporate muscle on the world stage.

I do prefer Third World overall, in lieu of anything else.

Joe Otten said...

How old is that map? South Korea and more should be in green. And only North Korea and Cuba in yellow.

Are you disagreeing that there is a process of development? Yet some countries are green now that were red or yellow when your map was made.

Isn't the question to ask: what is the difference between the reds that stay red, and the reds that develop?

scott redding said...

Enable Flash, and check out the Oxfam maps that morph depending on your criteria (world according to HIV, poverty, hunger). I've always been a bit wary of "developing country" as a term, since the middle class of India, already, is 50 million (twice the size of the Netherlands) and you have "third world" health conditons in parts of urban Britain. The "peripheralisation of the core" doesn't really roll off the tongue, though.

tyger said...

Estonia Second World?

Portugal First World?

Having travelled extensively to these two countries in the past few years, I find that hard to follow.

In Estonia you pay for your parking using a cell phone, you vote online and Wi-Fi is ubiquitous. Small businesses are retail are thriving and Tallinn airport is seeing a major extension.

Dorothea said...

"the urge to be nice all too often is the close relation of being patronising"

Too true. Being nasty works for me every time!

It has been said that the Third World is defined by a polar divide between rich and poor.

US socialist and Trade Union leader Oscar Ameringer foretold nearly a century ago, with uncanny accuracy, that the destruction of the nation state - a process we now call globalisation - would result in the consolidation of the ruling classes into one supranational group, and the creation of a global underclass. (The Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam).

New Labour have been making great strides towards this in the last decade. So soon we will all be able to rejoice in being truly Third World.

Leftwing Criminologist said...

one of the problems with developed/developing as well is that it assumes that developed countries are sort of 'perfect' and don;t need to develop at all any more. personally though I use third world

as other people have pointed out, the real division is between the have's and the have-nots, poverty exists in every country, it's just concentrated more heavily in some than others

Jim Jay said...

JO: the map is from when the coin was termed - I wouldn't like people to get too distracted by it frankly, particularly as the "Communist" bloc is now defunct - I agree with the points that essentially say it is difficult to draw lines as to where some things end and others begin.

I like the question "what is the difference between the reds that stay red, and the reds that develop?" although it suits a different context rather more :)

I do disagree that there is a process of development as such. in that the quality of life in some places can go down for prolonged periods.

I also agree with the points that imply this is just one axis and we must not forget that even the richest country has terrible poverty and the poorest its ruling elite.

Dorethea: I've not heard of Oscar Ameringer he sounds interesting... is there anything online about him?

Dorothea said...

Oscar Ameringer is another one of these great guys (used as a non-gendered noun) from the past who have been overlooked (deliberately?) by the people who write the whig history we get fed.

When I first Googled there wasn't much, but you can still get The Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam on pdf.

I just checked today, and there seems to be a bit more biographical material available now, so I may have to blog on him some more.

"Development" is BS imo. Wolfgang Sachs has some caustic observations and home truths on the subject in "Development: a guide to the ruins";

And Vandana Shiva dissects the anatomy of what is basically an exercise in commodification and ecological and cultural asset-stripping in her eloquent books of course.

Jim Jay said...

Thanks for that D! I will definately try to make time to read those links

Peter said...

In my head, the Majority World will always be the Third World; Inuits will always be Eskimos; learning difficulties will always be retarded; and Snickers will always be Marathons.

If I'd been born a couple of years earlier, I expect STDs (or STIs as they've now become) would always be VDs.

Words stick inside your head at a certain age because they come with a visceral image.

The term Third World, for me, will forever be associated with a skeletal Ethiopian boy with flies on his face. I guess regularly updating the term is a way to try and cleanse the stigma. Rolling stones gather no moss et al.

By calling it the Majority World, it might mean that, instead of conjuring an image of famine, kids recall an image of a stern Quaker pointing at a Peters projection map.

hmm, is that better or worse?

Anonymous said...

Rich nations are not just born lucky - they maintain their wealth partially through their exploitative relationship with weaker nations.

Who do Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, South Korea etc exploit, and how?

And when were they born lucky - there was a time when they were no richer than, eg, Mali.

Jim Jay said...

anon: it's a fair question, although I'd have prefered you to have not made it anonymously.

It's interesting that you think countries like Sweden and Switzerland do not exploit the third world, it's an idea that's encouraged imo by the idea that imperialism is simply about military force. For me it's about economics - which is sometimes backed up by military force, but this is the last resort of an imperial powerr, not the first.

Switz and Swe are both countries that have extraordinarily rich corporations based in their countries that directly profit from the thrid world - their natural resources, and their people.

Finland is in the same game but a far more minor player (but an up and coming one I believe).

South Korea is more interesting in that it could be argued to be a client state of the US. I'm not clued up about the specifics enough to make that case to my own satisfaction. What SK is though is a strong regional player as well as a full on exporter of goods. It is one of a small number of dominant economic powers in the region.

ps My point about being born lucky was that this is *not* the way to see it - I'm not advocating seeing them as attaining their living standards by luck

Anonymous said...

Your blog is awesome, dude.

Big AL said...

Great post! The greater question(s) is/are why do these countries continue to remain "poor" to the eyes of the world? Can they "ever" move from the stigma of being Third-World, to become a second and eventually a first-world country? ... are they forever relegated to being "Third-World". You have countries like the Philippines and India turning out some of the world's finest in the medical professions. Not to mention all the "outsourcing' for labor into all the other "red" countries. This may sound too simplistic, but would it not improve the economy of the entire world if the "Third-World" countries would simply say, we'll work and provide good quality, but not for "dirt-cheap" wages. That would probably keep some borderline jobs in some countries that are "outsourced" for pennies.