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What Do You Call A Third World Country

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What do you call a third world country

I typed the phrase “third world country” in a previous entry on this travelogue.

I looked at what I wrote. I remembered an obtuse lesson in political correctness that I received in my college days:

“There is no such thing as a third world country, there is only one world. To differentiate between first and third world countries, we say northern and southern.”

I just nodded my head in agreement with the college activists who was speaking in front of a group of unquestioning youth:

“Yup, yup, there really is only one world, there is no such thing as a third world country, yup, yup. We are the good guys, yup, yup, we use polite words, they are the bad guys yup, yup, they say third world.”

The pursuit of understanding can often turn a man stupid, to read words literally is to blind yourself to their meaning. How else could I explain away the fact that I nodded my head in unison with a group of 20 something robots who cared more about self-righteous political correctness than concrete matters of physical geography? For how else could I attest to the fact that Australia is one of the most southern inhabited continents on the globe, while at the same time being one of the highest developed? Or that South Africa is the most southern country of the African continent but is also the most economically advanced? Not to mention Argentina or New Zealand?

But when humans think and act in groups matters of obvious fact are often reduced to mere trifles, as it is the collectively believed myth that takes precedence over all logic or cartographic proof. We boasted of our valor for unraveling the falsity behind the term “Third World” while ignoring the falsities that we were creating. We were directed that we should call first world countries “northern” and third world countries “southern,” and this is what we did.

We also used the term “Western” rather than First World to indicate countries of high economic development — which seemed very much at odds with the fact that Japan and Taiwan appeared to be positioned pretty far to the east on my maps.

Nearly a decade has past since the days I related to above, but the use of this directional terminology for referring to economic development keep rising up in politically correct conversation — even though it is in no way more correct than using the conventional standards of dividing the planet into developmental categories with the terms first and third worlds.

We are all one world . . . But Australia is definitely not Northern and Japan is definitely not Western

So I return to my original question:

What do you call a Third World country?

I often hear the phrase “developing nation” to indicate what the countries that came to fall under the “Third World” tag, but I must request someone to show me a country that is not developing? All countries, places, regions are constantly in the flux of development. It has always been like this — there are only gradient scales of development, and most countries have “developed” and “undeveloped” sectors that stand and drastic odds with each other. Therefore, I see no point at which a country can claim to be developed:

“Whoo, glad that we are done with that developing nonsense. We have now past puberty and can put a halt to all of this growing and changing bullshit, we are an adult country now, fully developed.”

No, all countries are developing in some capacity, this term, too, does not make any sense.

So I am back to using a First World/ Third World dichotomy to describe my world in bulk. In their abstraction, they are at least not complete geographical misnomers.

Where did the term third world country come from?

The divisions between first, second, and third world countries arose during the height of the Cold War. The term “First World” was used to indicate the United States, NATO, and its allies, “Second World” was used for the Soviet Union and Communist countries, and the only thing that the term “Third World” was initially meant to signify was that a country was left out of the Cold War.

But then the Soviet Union crumbled — making the First, Second, Third World designations that once divided the world nonsense — and this designation took on new meaning. It was perhaps noticed that certain other patterns besides political affiliation held First and Third World countries together as rough entities, and the nomenclature stuck — perhaps for the lack of another term.

The terms “First World” and “Third World” are now basically general terms to address a country’s economic and social development — the poor, mostly tropical countries of the planet are the Third World, the wealthier, more developed countries are known as the “First World.” This is what we know these terms to mean today — they have grown beyond their molds and found themselves filling a terminological hole left otherwise empty.

In point, there are marked similarities in material wealth, education, and the economies of First World countries — and the need for a blanket term to describe them altogether exists. As different as the USA and Japan are culturally, there is still a common thread that binds them as being part of the “First World.” This designation could begin with an analysis of economic and educational facts and figures but would soon fall down to the street, and similarities such as the availability and efficiency of municipal services, lack of garbage in the streets, better maintained roads, safer drinking water, etc would quickly rise to the surface.

By the same token, there are also similarities that bind together Third World countries that go far beyond their non-committal position in the Cold War. Many of the Third World countries are radically different from each other culturally and spatially, but there is an approach to living and an economic structure that is similar. Many of these countries also claim to be developing economically, they say that they are modernizing, globalizing . . . But the only continuous thread that holds all Third World countries together is that they request — and receive — economic aid from wealthier, First World, Northern, Western countries.

The defining characteristics of a Third World country are put forth below by Gerard Chaliand:

The underdevelopment of the third world is marked by a number of common traits; distorted and highly dependent economies devoted to producing primary products for the developed world and to provide markets for their finished goods; traditional, rural social structures; high population growth; and widespread poverty. –Definition of Third World Country

As the world further binds together economically and politically there arose a need for such overly general terms to denote economic and social development — such as First and Third World — terms that quickly describe, categorize, and organize together huge sects of the countries on the planet. Communication begs for the use of such broad terms, and although they may not prove to be literally correct, their need is attested to by how often they are called for in both written and spoken interaction.

All too often I find people pausing before using blanket terms such as Third World, Developing country, and Western — or at least they should pause, as there is not a good option that is understandable, correct, and makes sense. It is difficult to bundle together all of the countries of the world into neat packages, placing broad rules upon a world that refuses to be completely classifiable — but there are observable patterns and similarities that begs for generalized terms.

But the fact of the matter is that terminology does not need to make sense, it does not need to meet the standards of political correctness, or even stand up to the test of fact: terminology just needs to be understood within the groups that they are used.

I could very well call developed countries “peanut butter,” and Third World countries “jelly” if you would understand what I was talking about. The fact of the matter is that when I write the blanket term “Third World Country,” I am understood. Words are merely symbols with little inherent meaning, as a symbol only means something when a group of people agree on what it indicates.

In this pursuit of understanding I began questioning the meaning of words, I began demanding that terms make literal sense, and I undermined the very principles of human communication:

Words, terms, are just verbal symbols, they do not need sense to work.

So what do you call a Third World Country?

Third World, developing, southern, poor, tropical — in the end, they all work the same.

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Filed under: Economics, Geography, Language, Politics

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3053 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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