Last week, when a mob of thousands of Americans stormed the Capitol Hill—the seat of the U.S. government in Washington DC—American senator Marco Rubio took to Twitter to call the event a “3rd world style” anarchy. While the incident itself will go down in the annals of American history as one of the most dramatic and dangerous acts of white supremacy and right-wing mob violence, the analogy of the “third world” has outraged many in the, well, so-called third world.
The “third world” is a term that is associated with economically weak countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, which are riddled with authoritarianism, conflict and undemocratic systems. The term is also loaded with an assumption that these countries are unsophisticated, uncultured and, therefore, anarchic.
In fact, so popular is the “third world” cliche that there’s even a joke about the U.S. being a “third world country with a Gucci belt”, implying that it is everything that is wrong with the “third world”, except that it is rich.
Last week, though, Senator Rubio’s tweet led to a lot of outrage from this side of the world.
But this isn’t the first time that democratic ruckus in the Western world led to comparisons with the rest of us. Last month, another U.S. senator Mark Warner stated that U.S. President Donald Trump is acting like a “third world dictator”, implying that the “third world” is run by reckless despots. In the same month, President Trump called the 2020 US election results like that of a “third world country”, implying that our troubled lands are accustomed to sham elections.
For decades, people have been outraging over the misuse of the term, and historians and academics have been trying to demystify the concept.
The term “third world” actually stems from half a century ago, when the Cold War was starting to take shape between Western capitalism—or the “first world”—and Soviet socialism—the “second world”. The rest, especially on this side of the world, called themselves the Non-Aligned Movement—a forum of 120 countries that did not align with the other two. They were quickly labelled the “third world”.
Over time, the meaning of “third world” has attained a pejorative connotation, one that separates western countries like the U.S. with Asian, African and Latin American (LATAM) countries. Often, this separation comes with racist or discriminatory connotations.
“This nomenclature is useless, dated and almost like a slur,” Trinanjan Radhakrishnan, a development professional in New Delhi, told VICE. “In its original parlance, it means non-aligned countries. But it’s been three decades since the Cold War has ended, and it now has got nothing to do with big power politics that the ‘third world’ was a part of. Instead, it implies poverty and deprivation.”
Belgian-born Indian economist and social scientist Jean Dreze added that the term has “no descriptive relevance today”. “It has largely fallen into disuse except as a pejorative term. It is best buried once and for all,” he told VICE.
Experts also point to controversial international poverty standards set by the World Bank, which separates the “rich” or first world countries from the “poor” third world.
Alf Nilsen, a professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria in South Africa who studies social movements and global development, told VICE that the current meaning got more entrenched in the 1980s when the World Bank compelled “third world” countries undergoing economic crisis to adopt structural reforms. “The collective attempt by the Global South (LATAM, Africa and Asia) to create an alternative to a western-dominated world order was completely erased and fell apart,” he said.
The term also harks back to a long history of exploitation and violence, mostly perpetrated by the “first world” on the “third world”.
“Folks in the ‘third world’ often use it to highlight deprivation that is a result of the first world,” said Radhakrishnan. “What we see in these countries is an effect of colonialism which the western world pains to associate itself with.”
Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this oppression is the involvement of the U.S. in Iraq. America launched a war against the middle-eastern country with the controversial rationale that it was done to remove a regime which could potentially use weapons of mass destruction. However, investigations not only found the motive faulty, but it also saw a series of human rights violations perpetrated by the U.S.
“By calling us ‘third world’, you’re putting a sheet of opacity on the real issues or the root of the cause,” said Radhakrishnan.
Nilsen added, “The only un-American thing about last week’s Capitol Hill riots was the fact that this is what the Americans usually do abroad. It’s been a comparatively long time since they’ve done it at home.”
In fact, the inherent inequality in the term “third world” continues to perpetuate racially-motivated discrimination and violence across the world.
But some think that term might not be entirely irrelevant just yet. “The fact that ‘third world’ has become a pejorative term is paradoxical because its origins imply anything but that,” said Nilsen. “The term was coined to represent the commonalities in interests and political vision among former colonies and among the movements that brought an end to colonial subjugation.”
“As these countries emerged as sovereign and independent states in the world order, they sought not the pre-established political power that the western capitalists or soviet communists created, but crafted a radical alternative to the geopolitical equations that they had been subjected to for far too long,” he added.
Nilsen also said that the term signifies some of the most political and social struggles, and collective movements of the 20th century that shaped the modern world.
In fact, the “third world” is home to some of the biggest and most organised social struggles, which we continue to witness even now.
Many “third world”-ers often use the term to critique their own democracy and governments, as witnessed in ongoing large-scale farmers protests in India, or the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong despite the harsh crackdown by Chinese authorities. “This is as opposed to white supremacists acting on their own last week at Capitol Hill,” said Nilsen.
In a similar vein, the usage of the popular phrase, “first world problems”, assumes a different meaning depending on how you apply it—be it to yourself or throwing it in the face of others.
So if I, as an Indian, talk to my best friend about how my artisanal coffee roaster is unable to transport the beans this week, and add a wry “first-world problem” to it, we both know that is an acknowledgement of my privilege in a country where most others don’t have that. But if an American from New York were to say the same, it’d be dehumanising and condescending to everyone.
Today, the “third world” is home to some of the richest countries in the world. It’s also significant to note that a majority of western countries are majorly dependent on Asian countries for everything from global politics to labour. For instance, some of the world’s biggest fashion brands are in the U.S. and Europe, but are dependent on Asian and South-East Asian countries for labour, manufacturing and export. Although, this transaction is highly exploitative and racist in nature, tilted in the favour of the “first world”.
Last year, COVID-19 left all the countries fending for themselves. In “first world” country U.S, the pandemic exposed a chaotic healthcare system, unprecedented racism and crime, and several institutional failures to make it into the largest global hotspot with 22.6 million total cases. This is as opposed to, say, the so-called “third world” Taiwan, which only has 828 total cases and has more or less resumed normalcy in life.
“We have to stubbornly remind everyone that the ‘third world’ was a progressive political project that aimed to create a better world than we have today,” said Nilsen.
Over the years, classification of the world order has evolved to include various terminologies such as “affluent” and “less affluent”; “rich” and “poor”; “developed”, “developing” and “underdeveloped; or plain “north” and “south”.
“The least racist way to go about classifications is to avoid any implication that some countries have to catch up with others,” Dreze concluded.
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