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1.3 What’s in a Name? Why the Third World?

1.3 What’s in a Name? Why the Third World?


One of the first questions I get from most
students taking this course centers on the name of the course itself. While we’ve all
likely heard the term “third world,” we often have little sense what exactly it means.
We may even think the term itself is discriminatory, reflecting an inherent hierarchy in the world
with the United States, Europe, Australia and other western powers at the top, and the
vast majority of the world’s population at the bottom.
Under this framework, First World, sometimes also called the West or the global north)
is rich, with a relatively small population, long life expectancies, and low child mortality.
The Third World, by contrast, is usually defined by its poverty and its large population with
short life expectancies and high levels of child mortality.
The truth is somewhat more complicated than that.
The term “third world” actually has very specific historical origins. It was first used following
the 1955 Bandung Conference, where the Non-Aligned Movement emerged. Remember that at that time,
the Cold War was in full force. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were actively
recruiting allies. And many countries in the global south were emerging from colonialism,
having only gained independence a few years earlier.
The 29 countries participating at the Bandung Conference shared a common interest in developing
their own developmental path. Most rejected both American capitalism and Soviet communism
as economic and political models, preferring instead to develop their own political and
economic systems appropriate to their specific histories, cultures, and societies. They saw
this as a “third way,” a path between American capitalism and Soviet communism. That “third
way” became closely associated with the term “Third World,” which was closely tied to the
principles of anti-imperialism, regional solidarity, and non-alignment that were articulated at
the Bandung Conference. By anti-imperialism, the Third World was expressing
its disapproval of the system of colonialism from which most of its members had only recently
emerged. At the Bandung Conference, they thus committed themselves to opposing colonialism
and imperialism where it continued to exist, such as in much of Africa and Asia.
They also committed themselves to working together to collectively solve their problems
on a regional level. This idea, usually expressed as regional solidarity, suggested that cooperation
within and between Africa, Asia, and Latin America would be key to achieving development
outside the American and Soviet models. Finally, by nonalignment, the “third world”
was committing itself to avoid the system of American and Soviet alliances that were
increasingly dominating the global system. They sought for neutrality in the Cold War.
The political significance of the term “third world” has largely been lost today, and the
term has begun to fall out of favor in some circles. In its place, countless other terms
have been proposed. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses.
Perhaps the most common phrase is “developing” world. This is the term you find in World
Bank literature and most development textbooks. It is seen as being fairly neutral, avoiding
some of the political baggage of “third world.” But it is also problematic. Some accuse the
phrase “developing world” of privileging a particular kind of development, and particularly
of casting development as a linear process along which countries steadily move. As we’ll
learn later in the course, development is neither a linear nor a uniform process.
Historically, the phrase “industrializing” country was often used. This term, however,
has fallen out of favor, both because it privileges a particular form of development (namely,
industrialization), and because many “industrialized” countries have now moved into a “post-industrial”
era. This is particularly true in the United States and Western Europe, where vast majority
of economic activity now takes place not in the industrial but in the service sector.
Under these conditions, it doesn’t really make sense to talk of industrialization as
defining feature of development or as a way to differentiate between regions of the world.
In recent years, the designation “global south” has become more common. This term captures
the geographic division of the world, largely into two hemispheres, by the Brandt line (noted
in blue on the map here). Of course, this term is also problematic,
as some developed countries (like Australia and New Zealand) are in the geographic south
while some developing countries (like Mexico, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, and others) are in the
geographic north. In short, there is no perfect or uniformly
agreed term to describe this group of countries, and we’ll likely move back and forth between
several terms throughout the course. But whatever term we use, there are some common
features that unify this group of countries. First, this group of countries tends to be
relatively poor and often share an economic structure centered around the export of primary
commodities like foodstuffs, oil, or minerals. They often have a disproportionate share of
the population engaged in subsistence agricultural production. The informal sector of the economy
is often large. They also often have relatively high levels of foreign external debt. And
finally, they almost all share a common, often recent, experience of colonization.
Yet these similarities also mask many differences. In terms of both population and area, countries
in the developing world can range from large landmasses with relatively low population
densities (like Botswana), to countries and regions with high population densities (like
Lagos, Nigeria). There are also important differences in terms
of relative wealth. Some countries, like South Korea and China, have experienced rapid economic
growth, while others, like Mali and Chad, remain quite poor.
While we’ll focus on many of the common themes and challenges faced by countries in the global
south throughout this course, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re painting with a
broad brush, and that many developing countries will not fit neatly into any specific box.
What’s true for one group of countries may not hold for another. And it’s important to
keep these differences in mind.

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