When Kate approached me about writing a blog on why the term ‘third world’ is outdated and what you should use instead, I *literally* jumped at the chance as it’s a topic that’s important to me. The fact that this term is outdated may seem blatantly obvious to me, but that’s probably only because I studied International Relations and Politics at University and have worked in International Development for almost a decade.
I’ve noticed the term still being used quite a bit and decided to use my Instagram stories to get an idea of the proportion of people still using the terms first and third world. It was a pretty even split with 45% of respondents saying that they use them. Many of the 55% who don’t use them admitted to having used them in the past and shifting away from them recently after learning more about it (except in the instance of ‘first world problems’ for some).
Whenever I explain to someone why they shouldn’t use the terms, the response is always “Oh, I didn’t know that! what should I say instead?”
So today I’m here to break it down for you!
HOW ‘THIRD WORLD’ ORIGINATED
Although many people use the terms ‘first world’ and ‘third world’, like with a lot of language we use, the history of these terms, how they originated, and what they really mean is often unknown. Although somewhat logical, it is often a surprise to people that there was also the term ‘second world’, largely because it is a term that has become obsolete.
Believe it or not, the concepts of First World, Second World and Third World actually originated during the Cold War. World War II was followed by a period of geopolitical tension between two ‘superpowers’ that opposed each other ideologically, politically, militarily, and economically.
The Soviet Union with its satellite states (the Eastern Bloc), promoted the ideology of communism, whilst the United States with its allies (the Western Bloc) promoted the ideologies of liberal democracy and the free market. NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and the Warsaw Pact military alliances were created by the United States and The Soviet Union, and most of Europe became aligned with one or the other. These alliances formed the basis of the concepts of the First and Second Worlds – they were so different that they were seen by many as essentially two worlds.
The terms were first used within this context in an article by Alfred Sauvy, where ‘Third World’ was originally coined. In reference to the three estates – the first two estates being the nobility and clergy and everybody else comprising the third estate – he compared the capitalist world (First World) to the nobility, and the communist world (Second World) to the clergy. Just as the third estate comprised everybody else, Sauvy called the ‘Third World’ all the countries that were not in this Cold War division.
The ‘Third World’ was, therefore, countries that were ‘non-aligned’ with either of the above, which included many former colonies in Africa, Latin America, Oceania and Asia. With the coining of the term Third World, the first two blocs came to be known as the “First World” and “Second World” and the ‘three world model’ was created…
With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Eastern Bloc and ‘Second World’ ceased to exist, and with it, so did the term. But, the use of ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ remained. The key unifying characteristic of the non-aligned countries of the ‘third world’ was poverty (and colonisation) and so the term evolved into a blanket term to describe this.
THE PROBLEM WITH ‘THIRD WORLD’
1. It’s Outdated
The term ‘third world’ was originally a political, rather than an economic, grouping and no longer represents the geopolitical climate. If people are no longer using ‘second world’ then why are people still using the terms ‘first world’ and ‘third world’? Since the alignment is obsolete, so too should be these terms.
2. It’s Confusing
If you look at this map of the ‘three worlds’ of the Cold War era, you’ll see that the ‘third world’ included countries such as Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Finland, and that the ‘first world’ included countries such as Papua New Guinea, Angola and Mozambique – based on non-alignment or aligned colony…
That doesn’t really fit with the perception of what it is to be ‘first world’ or ‘third world’ today, does it?
Whereas the different ‘worlds’ and alignment were clearer during the cold war, the idea of third world as an economic rather than political term has always had blurred lines and no precise definition. You can find numerous maps identifying ‘the third world’, and they will often look different.
3. Most of all… It’s Offensive!
We’re all familiar with first, second, and third place rankings in competitions and races – first is the winner and, in a race of three, third is the loser. Everyone wants to come first and no one wants to come last. So, this 1, 2, 3 ranking reinforces the idea of superiority and hierarchy and that the first world is better than the third world who seem to be losing the race.
There’s no two ways about it: IT. IS. OFFENSIVE!
I feel that this is compounded even further by two things:
1. The fact that the terms imply more than one world.
The term ‘world’ is generally accepted to mean the Earth, and to include all people and societies that live on Planet Earth. The idea of more than one world is divisive and creates a sense of ‘other’. Another world is something outside of human civilisation, something alien… They are not like us and we are not like them.
2. The fact that there is no ‘second world’, and with regards to these terms it’s either first or third – there is no second place. It is as though the third world is SO far behind that they couldn’t even be considered second.
I’m pretty sure that as a kid – before I studied the Cold War at school and found out about the term ‘second world’ – I thought that this was the meaning behind these terms. I had never visited or spent any time in a ‘third world’ country and everything I knew about them was from the media, school and red nose day (Comic Relief) which all point to the differences in what the first world has, compared to what the third world lacks.
So, it seemed like the most logical conclusion to me – the idea was that there may as well be a whole other world between us… We are literally worlds apart. But anyone who has spent any time in countries that are considered “third world” knows this not to be the case – which is exactly why it’s offensive.
EXPLORING ALTERNATIVE TERMS
So, if we shouldn’t say ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ what should we say? My Instagram stories poll showed that 71% of people are already using other terms, and below I’ll explore some of these alternatives:
– ‘Developing’ and ‘Developed’
The terms ‘Developing’ and ‘Developed’ are probably the most well-known alternatives. Unsurprisingly, this was by far the most common answer to my question of ‘what other terms [do you use]?” in my Instagram survey. The terms ‘Developing’ and ‘Developed’ are generally followed by one of three words – World, Nations or Countries.
Using the term ‘developing’ has far more positive connotations than third world and seems – on the surface at least – more accurate. ‘Developing’ communicates progress and that the categorisations aren’t static – a country could feasibly move from ‘Developing’ to ‘Developed’.
These terms don’t however, come without their problems and baggage…
The Developing VS Developed dichotomy still assumes a hierarchy between countries and implies that ‘development’ is a standard, linear process. It implies that ‘developed’ countries have finished developing and are the norm towards which all countries should strive. We know that this is not the case – there are many ways in which nations evolve over time, and each country has its own unique strengths and challenges.
There is not and should not be a ‘one size fits all’ for development. It also paints a picture of ‘developed’ industrial and capitalist societies as ideal, when I’m sure you’ll agree, there are many problems and inequalities in these societies as well.
I think this point, and the worst kind of ‘development’ practices, is perfectly highlighted by the following video:
Secondly, there is no established definition of ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries. Economic criteria tend to dominate discussions, but real development cannot be reduced to simply increasing basic incomes.
The Human Development Index (HDI) has perhaps been the best attempt to provide definitions by way of an indicator for ‘development’ and measure of progress. It tries to paint a more complete picture and is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators. A country scores higher HDI when the life expectancy at birth is longer, the education period is longer, and the income per capita is higher. This score has often been used to distinguish whether a country is a developed, a developing or an underdeveloped country.
Using the HDI, countries fall into four broad human development categories: Very High Human Development, High Human Development, Medium Human Development and Low Human Development. Developed countries have often been categorised as those with a very high (HDI) rating, and the last three are all grouped in developing countries.
The WTO also recognises least-developed countries (LDCs) – those countries which have been designated as such by the United Nations. The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is a list of developing countries that, according to the United Nations, exhibit the lowest indicators of socioeconomic development, with the lowest HDI ratings of all countries in the world.
The terms ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘Least Developed’ however, have particularly strong negative connotations that reinforce the stereotypes about poor communities and represent them as nothing but poverty. Having spent time in 16 of the current LDC’s I can tell you that this couldn’t be further from the truth! Take a look at the list…
I bet you’ve been to a few and you’d be surprised to see them categorised here. So, except when referring to these very specific set of circumstances and criteria, developing country is generally used in preference to a less-developed country.
Thirdly, the usefulness and relevance of dividing the world into ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries today has been called into question by numerous ‘big players’.
In 2014 Bill Gates, in his foundation’s annual letter, declared that “the terms ‘developing countries’ and ‘developed countries’ have outlived their usefulness”. In 2015 the newly developed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), set targets that call all countries to action, no matter how ‘developed’. This was in contrast to the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which only applied to those countries deemed to be “developing”. In 2016 the World Bank decided to no longer distinguish between developing countries and developed countries in the presentation of its World Development Indicators data publication. The conclusion was that it is becoming less relevant, and with the focus of the SDGs on goals for the whole world, we should start phasing out the term “developing”.
Although we’ve seen a drop in the use of these terms, it hasn’t disappeared completely. Most likely because it is often the most convenient label to use – being well understood and pretty much everyone has an idea of what it means (the concept at least).
– Global South & Global North
An attempt to use terms that are less political and less about a prescriptive idea of what ‘developed’ is, has involved the division of the world into ‘north’ and ‘south’. These terms are the bread and butter of the development world and seem to be the preferred terms within the sector currently.
Popularised, I think, in large part by the UN using the term ‘Global South’ in particular.
The use of the term “South” to refer to developing countries collectively has been part of the shorthand of international relations since the 1970s. It rests on the fact that most of the affluent, industrially ‘developed’ countries are in the northern part of the globe, including Japan, the USA, Canada and those in Europe; and most low-income ‘developing’ countries are south of them, including those in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific.
It is argued by proponents that the term does not imply that all developing countries are similar and can be lumped together in one category, but highlights that they all share a set of vulnerabilities and challenges. They say that using these terms emphasise that both North and South are, together, drawn into global processes and structures rather than existing as separate parts of the world.
Conditions in the Global South are only understandable when they are set against those in the Global North and are increasingly integrated. On the surface, the terms appear to be a less political or hierarchical than the other two, as it is simply a general north-south divide.
But of course, it is political, as only one hemisphere colonised the other…
In 1978, the United Nations established a unit to promote ‘South–South’ trade and collaboration, in an attempt to shift the international balance of power. Based on the understanding that the wealth of the North is built on strong networks of cooperation and that countries of the ‘South’ could learn from others tackling ‘shared vulnerabilities and challenges’.
In the 1980s, the Brandt Line was developed as a way of showing how the world was geographically split into relatively richer and poorer nations. As seen in the image below, the Brandt line seems to divide the world in half… But, it dips south to include Australia and New Zealand in the affluent ‘north’, despite being geographically south.
While Australia and New Zealand are located in the southern hemisphere, they are – and have always been – considered part of the ‘north’, which makes the terms somewhat confusing and more complicated.
My understanding has always been that the addition of the word “global” to North and South is supposed to account for the fact that it is not a strict geographical categorisation of the world, but one based on inequalities which happened to have some sort of geographical relationship. But the idea of a simple geographic North-South divide does not correspond to the realities of development…
The world today is much more complex than the Brandt Line depicts.
It’s definitely not as simple as ‘Geographically South – except Australia and New Zealand’… But ‘Global South’ is the currently preferred term within the UN, by academics and within the development sector.
So if geography isn’t the deciding factor in the categorisation of the “Global North” and ‘Global South’, what is?
The terms have no exact definitions or indicators and the Global South tends to be used to mean anything from poor and less-developed, to oppressed and powerless… And the Global North the rich, more developed, oppressors with power.
Some people have also started using the terms to refer to richer or poorer communities both within and between countries, and so areas incorporated under the label Global South can be found in the geographical North, and vice versa.
But, it’s not exactly a household term that everyone understands…
In the Instagram stories poll (> 100 people) 32% of respondents had heard of Global North and Global South, compared to 68% who hadn’t. 14 people admitted using the term, but most respondents said that they didn’t because they either hadn’t heard of them or that when they do, it isn’t understood by others. 31% of respondents felt that the terms are understood, compared to 69% who said they weren’t.
North and South have meanings to us in a very real sense, they indicate geography. So the fact that it’s not necessarily based on geography, that the terms don’t have definitive definitions and there are no clear indicators or agreements of what it means to be ‘Global South’, brings into question whether it is actually useful to apply the term in the first place.
Are we still holding onto it because we don’t yet have an alternative and it’s considered the best of a bad bunch?
The language is definitely less offensive, but it’s either too simplistic and inaccurate or too complex to be useful in many contexts. To be honest, I can’t see it catching on outside of the sector except as a ‘woke’ way of saying ‘poor country’.
– Majority & Minority World
The term ‘Majority Word’ was coined by Shahidul Alam a Bangladeshi photojournalist, teacher and social activist. He began advocating for the uptake of this new term in the early 1990s as an alternative to ‘Third World’ or ‘Developing’. The term was created in recognition that the majority of the world’s population do not live in the ‘Global North’, or have white skin, but live in the colonised and exploited lands of the ‘Global South’.
Yet the world’s economy and media are dominated by a handful of comparable countries, who have the power to form the perceptions and narrative about the majority of the world.
Using the term ‘Majority World’ when referring to countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Pacific, and ‘Minority World’ when referring to Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, require you to recognise this reality and be confronted with the unequal global power dynamics that exist.
The ‘Minority World’ is home to only ¼ of the world population and controls 4/5th of the income earned anywhere in the world. The ‘Majority World’, on the other hand, is home to ¾ of the world population, but has access to only 1/5th of world income.
It also happens to be made up of countries that have been colonised – and continue to be colonised – through globalised forms of control.
For me, using Majority World and Minority World reflects better than other existing determinations, this idea that power is distributed unequally, and that there are existing power dynamics that do exist and need to be dismantled.
The term ‘Majority’ is also without negative connotations like ‘third’, nor is it value-laden like ‘developing’ towards a certain idea of ‘developed’, or confusingly inaccurate like ‘Global South’. It is defined more by have than have not, the greater number of people, which is a potential strength on which to draw.
But – and there’s always a but – these terms are not well recognised or understood, even less so than ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’. Within my Instagram stories survey, 23% had heard of the terms, compared to 77% who hadn’t.
I was surprised that the percentage was that high – because these terms haven’t caught on and are not even being regularly used within the development sector itself. I’d even be willing to bet that many people within the sector may not have heard of these terms either.
In the survey, only four people admitted to using the terms and 100% of people felt that they are not well understood. There are also certainly no conclusive agreements or indicators about which country falls into which category, or whether they can move between one to the other.
So, if you choose to use these terms you need to be prepared for a lot of blank stares and providing an explanation of what they mean. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing... It could be a great way to start a conversation about unequal power distribution and address some of the issues with other terms discussed in this post!
It may be a personal preference that lingers from the use of it in ‘third world’, but I have tended to steer clear of terms that suggest more than one world. However, perhaps it is necessary to be able to talk of these concepts and look at how the minority VS majority power imbalance plays out at these different levels – the nuances of which would be lost by adding ‘country’ or ‘nation’.
SO, WHAT IS THE BEST TERM TO USE?
This was a question that was asked by one of the respondents to the Instagram survey, and one which I don’t think I can provide a definitive answer to – despite being the purpose of this post!
As we’ve explored, every term has issues and comes with baggage – whether political, historical, the fact that it’s outright offensive or simply not well understood, hence not providing you with the ease of use a term should provide.
The use of any term has the potential to create an ‘us’ and ‘them’ and put countries into simplistic boxes – the idea of grouping together a large variety of countries and regions into one category implies similarity across all the countries that are meant to comprise this group, one which simply does not exist economically, socially or politically…
This is probably why there is no perfect term – the countries of the world are too diverse, both within and between, to fit into two boxes.
So the answer?
Instead of using a generalised term like ‘developing/developed’, ‘Global South/ Global North’, ‘Majority World/ Minority World’… Try to be specific!
Whenever you can, name the specific country you are talking about – did you travel to Kenya and notice something there that was different from your home country of New Zealand? Then use those specific countries! If you want to talk about more than Kenya and New Zealand – perhaps you can use a more regional term – always using the lowest common denominator eg. East Africa before Africa etc.
If it’s not about the location, try to drill down on what exactly you are trying to talk about – are you talking about the countries with the smallest economies vs the countries with the biggest economies, the countries that were the colonisers and those that they colonised or democracies versus authoritarian regimes?
But, let’s be realistic… The fact that these terms exist at all is because people feel a need for them, and saying that we should use specifics isn’t going to change that. I know that although I generally refer to specific countries or regions when I’m talking about something, there are times when we need language that allows us to say things that are generalised, and I fall back on a term on these occasions.
In this case, whichever term you choose might depend on your audience and that’s OK – as long as the terms aren’t ‘First World’ and ‘Third World’ and we:
1. Consciously check our biases and the value judgments that may exist within the language we choose.
2. Hold ourselves to account and correct ourselves when we do make a mistake or cause offence.
3. Politely question and help others to understand, reflect and change terminology that is offensive or inaccurate.
What do you think? Do you have a preference? Have your perceptions about some of these terms changed? Have I missed something? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
This is a guest post by Natasha Holland
Natasha (@lifeinminiaturepictures) works in International Development and has spent her working life supporting education, health, livelihoods, participation and gender equality projects and programs in West Africa, Southern Africa, South Asia and the Pacific.
She currently works for an NGO as an International Program Manager, supporting Pacific women who are leading programs that tackle Gender Inequality and Violence against women and girls in the Pacific.