Sunday, April 5, 2009

Apple #378: The Third World

Regular Daily Apple reader Jason wants to know:

  1. Where did the phrase "Third World" come from? Who decided what's part of the Third World and what's not?
  2. What are the First and Second Worlds and why don't we ever use those terms?
Good question, Jason. The phrase originated relatively recently, so you would think that would mean there is a clear answer about where it came from and who first said it and why. Unfortunately, who came up with it first is a bit muddy. And as it turns out, the answer to the second question is contained in the answer to the first.

  • First of all, the term Third World typically includes countries that are by and large economically depressed and politically repressed: countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania. Sometimes China is included, sometimes not.

In this depiction of the three "worlds," China is included as part of the Second World -- an ally of the Soviet Union.
(Map from Nations Online)

  • A few people say the phrase was first used in the 1920s to indicate a "third way" of political governance -- that is, not capitalism and not socialism. I find this argument less compelling, since the phrase used here tends to be "third way" not "Third World."
  • Most people say the phrase emerged during the early days of the Cold War, but they tend not to provide a date. During this period, the world was pretty much split politically between the US and its NATO allies versus the Soviet Union and its allies. "Third World" was meant to identify all the leftover countries that weren't specifically aligned with either one of those two powers. But nobody seems to know for sure who among the Cold War folks was the first one to say it.

Could the phrase "Third World" have originated at Yalta? My friend Jacki's history professor said it did, but I couldn't find anything to verify this.
(The Big Three, seated l. to r., are Winston Churchill of England, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the United States, and Josef Stalin of the Soviet Union. Photo from the National Archives)

  • Some people say that a French historian named Alfred Sauvy first coined the phrase in an article in 1952. He said that, like the Third Estate, which was all the commoners in France who had hardly any political power, these countries were "ignored, exploited and despised" and wanted to "become something" -- meaning that one day there would be revolutions among those countries.
  • By 1955, the phrase had gained widespread acceptance. During this particular year, representatives from 29 African and Asian countries got together in Bandung, Indonesia to talk about their mutual interests in economic and cultural freedom from colonial oppression. The attending countries called themselves "Third World" countries, as did people reporting on the conference.

African and Asian leaders who attended the Bandung Conference in 1955. The conference was organized by China, and the Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was very much in attendance. So some people include China in their use of the term "Third World," while others do not.
(Photo from Xinhua)

  • By 1989, however, Sauvy said we should stop using the phrase because it was no longer accurate, and it didn't reflect at all the diversity of political and cultural situations in the countries included in it. In 1991 when the Soviet Union was dissolved, the First, Second, and Third World designations seemed even more useless.
  • Many people now generally agree that the phrase is derogatory, imprecise, dismissive, and all in all bad form.
  • I have heard the term used less and less often. Most of the time, when I've come across people carving up the world into big political or economic hunks, the designations I've seen are the United States, the EU, China, Japan, and the Rest of the World. Sometimes Latin America, Russia, or Japan are included as separate categories.

Where I've come across the phrase "Rest of the World" (abbreviated ROTW) most often is in charts like these in market research reports. The charts like these that do indicate the ROTW are generally telling you that markets like the US or the EU or China are far more lucrative places to try to sell your product than anywhere else.
(Chart from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)

  • That "Rest of the World" phrase is also toss-everything-into-the-same-bin-ish, and many people object to it as being too dismissive.
  • As for why nobody says "First World" or "Second World" anywhere near as often as "Third World," I couldn't find much about that, but I can make some guesses:
  1. The original names (United States, Soviet Union) are more commonly known
  2. The phrases stand for individual countries, not groups of countries, so there's really no need for a nickname
  3. There is no Soviet Union anymore, only Russia, so the phrase "Second World" is no longer accurate
  4. Those in power get to decide their own names.
  • Generally speaking, those who win the wars get to write the history. Similarly, those with the power get to name everything. If the United States doesn't want to be called the First World, perhaps because it is smacks of an unpleasant kind of global dominance and maybe reminds people too much of "First World War", then nobody calls them the First World.
  • You might counter by saying, "Ah, yes, but remember how in 1955 all those little countries got together and called themselves the Third World." Well, yes, but somebody else called them that first. And I'm going to speak generally again and point out that once the underdogs get branded with some name, often they later take it on themselves and in so doing try to invest it with meanings that indicate their control over their own destiny. This has happened with lots of racial slurs that I won't mention.
  • Brian Friel's very fine play Translations dramatizes this concept of to-the-victor-go-the-names.

Here is the world. Now name its parts. As soon as you do, you'll probably reveal more about yourself than you will about the places you name.
(Map from Uppsala Universitet)

Nations Online, Countries of the Third World
Infoplease Encyclopedia, Third World and Bandung Conference
Gerard Chaliand, Third World: definitions and descriptions, Third World Traveler
History of Ideas vol. 6, Third World - Origins, Third World
Alain de Benoist, Language Usage: "Third World" vs. "Developing World," Stanford World Association of International Studies, November 20, 2008
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Chairman Mao Zedong's Theory on the Division of the Three World [sic] and the Strategy of Forming an Alliance Against an Opponent, November 17, 2000

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad Jason asked that question, since I've been wondering along similar lines myself. It's especially interesting to learn the definition of "third world", since I'm afraid that's where the United States is headed.


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