Why you should stop using the term “Third World”

So probably by now you are more than familiar with the term “first world problems”–a trivial frustration often sourced in privilege with an implied contrast to the problems faced by those in extreme poverty. The term was popularized by a meme that depicts a woman dramatically crying. If you are unfamiliar with the meme, here are a few examples:

First World Problems 3

First World Problems 2

First World Problem 1

The “first world problems” meme was so popular that it even spurred this poignant campaign for drinking water:

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think that the whole “first world problems” does point to a huge disparity of those living with immense economic privilege compared to those with much less. I do think that it causes people who live in wealth to reconsider how we can help those in poverty.

The glaring problem of using the term “first world,” however, is that the term points to a set of outdated terms from the Cold  War period–the “first,” “second,” and “third World” countries. This outdated set of terms points to a set hierarchy that only continues to suppress countries where poverty continues to be a problem. It discounts countries that aren’t considered to be “developed,” that they do not have anything to offer the world. So how did these terms come about and why have they become so widely used?

The Origins of the “Third World”

The terms “first, second, and third world” countries became popularized in the period of the Cold War. Used as a geopolitical term, “first world” was used to refer to the United States and its allies and “second world” was used to refer to the Soviet Union and its allies. But there was a third group of countries that did not quite fit into either group. Many in this last group of countries were former colonies, not in either camp of Western democracies or Socialists.

The term “third world” was actually coined by the French Demographer Alfred Sauvy in an article published in a L’Observateur in 1952. In the article, referring to the Western, Soviet, and colonized spheres, he said, “three worlds, one planet.” The term was based on the idea of the “third estate” from the French Revolution. Sauvy satated that “this ignored, exploited, scorned Third World, like the Third Estate, wants to become something, too.”

But the “third world” was never a comprehensive nor a clearly defined group. It was based simply on what the countries were not–neither allies of the United States nor the Soviet Union. As a result of many of the recently decolonized countries starting to gain footing politically and economically, the term soon became synonymous with countries that were impoverished.

Considering the “second world” ceased to exist over 25 years ago and the term simply lumped a huge number of countries together,why is it still so widely used?

An Insulting Hierarchy?

Labels are a simple way for humans to categorize and sort information. But the 1, 2, 3 hierarchy puts one part of the world before another. Why is the United States considered to be better than say the U.A.E.,where there is immense economic growth? These labels create a discourse that elevates the standard of the Western world above all other parts of the world. This discourse is especially dangerous in that it is forcing certain expectations upon countries that do not fit the “Western correct” label. Why is a capitalist form of industrialization the “correct” form of development? What if there was another way?

The “first world” is also misleading in that these “first world” countries often also have immense problems such as the racial inequality, public health crises, and large hidden impoverished communities as found in the United States.

Correct Labels? 

As noted above, labels are useful tools for humans to help categorize information, but can often be problematic in that they perpetuate stereotypes and hierarchies. Faced with this issue, is there a term that can be used to refer to impoverished countries?

The Associated Press style guide suggests using “developing countries,” but once again there is a problem of hierarchy. In an interview by Marc Silver, Sociologist Shose Kessi, a lecturer at the University of Cape Town, states, “In my view, the developed-developing relationship in many ways replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. The idea of development is a way for rich countries to control and exploit the poor. You can see this through the development industry where billions of dollars are spent but very little gets achieved. Come to think of it, actually, I hate the term!”

Using the term “developing country” implies that there is a certain way to develop and that the “developed world”has already done the correct method. In addition, it emphasizes the need for the “developed world” to come and save the “developing world.” All in all, this term is the “third world” discourse in a different costume.

Some prefer to use the term “Global South” as most of the impoverished countries lie in the global south. But what about the countries like Haiti and Cambodia that lie above the equator? What about high-income countries like Australia and New Zealand that lie to the South? Geography is not accurate enough to encompass this group.

Perhaps GDP would be a more objective form of categorization. The World Bank uses the terms Lower-Income Countries and Middle-Income Countries (LICs and MICs) to refer to countries with lower GDPs. Neil Fantom, who leads the World Bank’s Open Data Iniative, states that not every country does a good job of collecting data about GDP, so the statistics can be inaccurate. So perhaps numbers can fall short.

In his article against the term “third world,” Marc Silver suggests using the term “Majority World.” According to the World Bank, over 80% of the world lives on $10 or less a day, making them the majority. This term is new, fresh, and not loaded with baggage (yet.)

Even moreso, using the term “majority world” is not dishonoring, but merely stating the fact that there are many people living in poverty. It points to a problem: that a minority of the world holds most of the power and resources and that there needs to be a solution to this inequality.

I use the term “majority world” because I hope for a time where those in disparate poverty will not be the majority. It reminds and pushes me to continue fighting for the oppressed. Will you join me in starting the fight with your language?

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