Pedantry and history time!
‘Third World’ is a curious phrase. I was originally told that they had been numbered in the order of Western discovery – the First World (Europe), the New World (the Americas) and the Third World (everywhere else). This is of course historically inaccurate for all sorts of reasons, but I was very young and had not yet learned that otherwise-reliable people still sometimes make stuff up when they don’t know the answer.
When used over the last few decades, it has of course been the go-to phrase for poor, low-tech countries full of dark-skinned people in desperate need of our rich western charity and aid. (To quote Joey Comeau, “I’m so generous and Caucasian!”) This term has fallen out of favour among those who really work with such issues – we have phrases like ‘less-developed country’, or ‘underdeveloped country’ (if you want to be a bit subversive and imply that they have been kept down by outside forces), and Global South if you just want to talk about those vast portions of the world that we Up Norph tend to ignore.
The actual etymology of ‘Third World’ goes back to the Cold War. The First World was the capitalist democratic West standing for truth, justice, and Superman; the Second World was the USSR and allies standing for total equality, varying degrees of dictatorship, and murdering a hell of a lot of your own people to stay in power. The Third World was unaligned with either of the other two; they didn’t have the infrastructure to be a serious independent player on the world stage. The Third World was the battleground where capitalists and communists vied for supremacy and allegiance. The Third World was where the Cold War happened.
It’s still pretty common verbiage to talk about a country ‘becoming’ Third World, by which the person generally means that there will be total economic collapse and we’ll all be eating raw crickets* next week unless we implement their personal political ideology immediately. ‘First World’ still means the best economic status, thus that new and much-needed dismissal, ‘First World problems’, the hip way of telling someone to stop complaining that their iPhone/iPad/Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a slow connection today. We seem to have ditched ‘Second World’ entirely.
So, since this is mostly just pedantry, I will try tying it all together into something a little more ideological: Canada could suffer a substantial economic regression, leaving us desperately sucking the last maple syrup directly out of moose necks**, and we would still be ‘First World’ as long as we were still allies of the other capitalist countries like the US and western Europe. ‘First World’ doesn’t mean ‘rich’. And, equally importantly, ‘rich’ does not have to mean ‘First World’. Similarly, a Third World country that refuses western support/conditions/ideology is not necessarily doomed to poverty, especially since some of our big capitalist proselytisers like the IMF have such a horrendous track record***.
Additionally, it bothers me a little to hear ‘we’re going to become a Third World country’, because I feel like it’s based in some way on the conviction that there are and must be both First (rich) and Third (poor) Worlds, and it is right and just that we be on top. Anything else would be topsy-turvy madness. I don’t agree. I think we can work out a world where everyone has enough, and I think part of that solution is going to come from people who have ideas that couldn’t appear in my culture. If foreign aid/investment is really such a great thing, if First World answers solve Third World problems, then maybe some Third World answers could help with First World problems.
*Are crickets better when cooked? Is there cricket sashimi? I want to know, but I don’t want to find out.
**Where did you think it came from?
***In the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, Malaysia was the only country that repelled all IMF
interference help. They recovered faster than any other country and have maintained a record as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia.