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1. Deﬁning The Third World
The Third World has become a convenient catch phrase that refers collectively to the large number of heterogeneous societies, cultures, and civilizations of the non-Western world most of which lie in the tropics, have experienced colonial rule, whose economies are less industrialized or not completely modernized and a majority of whose population has the lowest standards of living or are considered or consider themselves poor relative to those of the First and Second Worlds. The Third World includes all countries of Africa (except South Africa), Asia (except Japan), and Latin America and the Caribbean, and some states and territories of Oceania.
2. The Origin Of The Term, And Its Varied Meanings
The term ‘Third World’ (le Tiers Monde) is of French origin. It was ﬁrst used in France in the early 1950s by a number of French writers like Alfred Sauvy (politician, economist, who is credited with coining the term in 1952) and Claude Bourdel, in the context of apparently increasing polarization of the international system into rival blocs. The term conveys a conscious echo of the older concept of ‘le tiers etat’ that is, ‘the third estate’ (the common people, the poor and underprivileged) of the prerevolutionary ancien regime. Some claim that it was Frantz Fanon, Martiniquan writer and psychiatrist (author of The Wretched of the Earth 1963), who ﬁrst used the term to refer to the poor decolonized societies of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The term has been used in several related senses, substituting for or succeeding other terms used by Europeans to refer to non-European peoples and cultures: ‘aboriginal,’ ‘indigenous,’ ‘savage,’ ‘barbarous,’ ‘traditional,’ ‘native,’ ‘primitive,’ ‘tribal,’ ‘oriental,’ ‘Arab,’ ‘Negro,’ ‘Indian,’ ‘Mohammedan,’ ‘pagan,’ ‘precapitalist,’ ‘pre-industrial,’ ‘non-Western,’ ‘non- White,’ ‘premodern.’ Such terms have been used sometimes with deliberate contempt and condescension, with pejorative connotations, or even racist overtones. These terms have also been adopted by the educated, more privileged urban-dwellers in the Third World itself.
‘Third World’ has also been employed as a short- hand euphemism for the social condition or plight of the very poor or powerless or underdeveloped society anywhere in the world, including the First and Second Worlds, even though a vast majority of the people ﬁtting the description live in the Third World. In this sense, the phrase ‘America’s Third World’ refers to America’s rural and urban poor: the black underclass, native Americans, and rural white Appalachians. In a similar usage, the former Soviet Union was once described by the Times of London as having a ‘Third World’ economy with First World weapons. South Africa is described as a First World society in which the Third World is ever present.
The term ‘Third World’ has also been extended to the poorer Eastern European countries whose economies were subjected to the needs of and exploited by Northern Europe in the early modern period. In everyday use, the term has thus acquired loose, but frequently negative, social, cultural, political, economic, ideological, and ‘racial’ meanings, often with a ﬁne disregard for geography. From 1945 to 1989 a capitalist block (First World) led by the United States and a communist one (Second World) led by the Soviet Union fought a cold war which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In the Cold War context the Third World consisted mostly of newly decolonized, uncommitted countries not aligned diplomatically with either the capitalist world or the communist world. But the two dominant historic models of development, capitalism and socialism, especially the former, continued to broadly shape the rate and direction of change in the Third World.
3. Third World As An Analytical Concept
Since World War II and the invention of the term, the conditions of Third World, and the relationship among the First, Second, and Third Worlds, have been the focus of theory, intensive research, and extensive documentation, aimed at understanding the origin and nature of poverty in the Third World, and of policy concerned with strategies for development and poverty alleviation. The leading theories of Third World development include ‘modernization theory,’ ‘dependency theory,’ and ‘world-system theory.’ Some Marxist scholars have rejected the term ‘Third World’ as a false concept, masking the contradictions of capitalist development in the former colonies. Third World countries often see themselves as old societies ‘lagging behind’ economically and even politically and thus trying to ‘catch up’ with the more advanced industrialized countries of the First and Second Worlds.
The rise and spread of capitalism globally were intimately linked to the growth of large powerful oppressive and exploitative European colonial empires, inspired by the prevailing mercantilist philosophy of the early modern period dedicated to the unbridled pursuit of economic power and wealth of states.
Because of its vast natural resources, which were largely untapped, its considerable potential commercial value, and the importance of some areas to White settlement and occupation, the Third World has been for over ﬁve centuries a principal focus of European territorial ambition and rivalry. Most of the states and territories of the Third World took their present form in the nineteenth and early twentieth century when large parts of Asia and Africa were colonized by European imperial powers. By the 1880s the world had been carved up among a handful of European industrial powers. By 1914 European economic and political control covered most of the global land surface, claiming nearly the entire non-European world. Japan successfully resisted European colonization, and China was never formally colonized but for the highly lucrative treaty ports along the coasts, e.g. Hong Kong following the Opium Wars of the 1830s. Latin America, conquered, colonized, and settled by the Portuguese and Spanish crowns three centuries before Asian and African colonization, was transformed into independent republics, along with formerly French Haiti in the Caribbean, in early nineteenth century, after long, bloody and bitter nationalist struggles. Likewise, anticolonial protests and revolts, often violent and bloody, led to the decolonization of Asian, African, Caribbean, and Paciﬁc countries in the late 1940s and after. But in both cases political freedom did not end foreign—mostly European—economic control and ownership, or bring about rapid industrialization and better living standards for most of the new states.
The European metropolitan powers made colonies a principal source of raw materials destined for European industries and consumer markets while suppressing the development of manufacturing industries in the colonies to avoid competition as they provided markets for European manufactured goods. Arguably the aﬄuence of industrial Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.
Colonialism which followed the transatlantic slave trade in Africa, during which an estimated 10 million or more Africans were exported to provide unpaid labor for European plantations and mines of the Americas, did incalculable damage to black Africa, notwithstanding some lasting beneﬁcial by-products: Christianity, schools, hospitals, and the start of modern administration. The colonial borders which were drawn across Africa divided African peoples and cultures, and along with the authoritarian and repressive colonial political tradition are largely responsible for much of the chronic poverty, cultural identity crisis, and political instability of independent African countries. Despite wide diﬀerences in local cultures, historical traditions, and responses to colonialism, colonies came to share several common features: political control from Europe; unchecked economic exploitation; and particularly in the black world, the construction and reproduction of a racist social order of which apartheid of South Africa was the most notorious recent example.
One enduring legacy of European colonial empires is a global economic order with an asymmetrical North–South division between a rich industrial North of mostly former imperial powers and poor, less industrialized South of former colonies. The North– South divide is exacerbated by neocolonialist attempts to inﬂuence or exercise de facto control over the policies of the South through formal and informal alliances and agreements calculated to ensure the perpetuation of the hegemonic economic power of the North.
4. The UN And The Rise Of The Third World
The United Nations charter endorsed the principle of self-determination and sovereign equality of all nations. After the late 1940s, the large ex-colonies like India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Indonesia, supported by Latin American countries, used the UN as a forum to press for an end to colonialism and rapid development of former colonies. The term ‘Third World’ received formal endorsement following the Bandung conference of Asian and African states in Indonesia in April 1955, which aﬃrmed the solidarity of the Third World, and prepared for the birth of the nonaligned movement (NAM). At the conference, China declared herself a ‘Third World’ country. The term was also adopted in the UN classiﬁcation system to distinguish between the developed and underdeveloped countries.
The conferences of the NAM, the ﬁrst one held in Belgrade (former Yugoslavia) in 1961, and the founding in June 1964 of the UN Group of 77, at the conclusion of the ﬁrst UN conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which was convened at the initiative of Third World countries, marked the growth of the Third World as a potent force in world aﬀairs.
With approximately two-thirds of the total UN membership, the 1960s and 1970s witnessed the rapid rise in the power and sense of purpose of the Third World. The G-77 spearheaded the UN call for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) to reform the economic relations between the North and the South and to rectify the inequality evident in the relative access of the rich and poor countries to markets, to supplies, to science and technology, and to credit, which implied a redistribution of wealth in favor of the South. The issue of North–South relations was made the subject of an international commission which met from 1977 to 1979 under the chairmanship of Willy Brandt.
By the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of bipolar politics, NAM and the G-77 which have a joint coordinating committee shifted their focus to problems of underdevelopment, the Third World debt burden, trade liberalization, and aid.
The G-77, whose membership increased to 130 with the admission of post-apartheid South Africa, believes that global shared prosperity through North–South cooperation on a fair and equitable basis is the only long-term remedy for Third World poverty and human misery.
5. Diversity, Division, And Integration
Depending on the deﬁnition and context, diﬀerent countries or populations will make up the Third World. Accordingly, the ‘Third World’ may be further divided into those states that have access to rich natural resources, faster growth rates or better development potential and those which do not. While the latter are sometimes described as the ‘Fourth World,’ that term is probably more frequently used to refer to marginalized indigenous or tribal peoples. Despite internal divisions and diﬀerences, Third World countries share some common features as well as problems.
Most of the peoples of the Third World still suﬀer from hunger, disease, ignorance, lack of shelter, potable water, and opportunities (especially for women) to realize their potential as human beings. Third World countries are faced with crippling external debt burdens, poor social and physical infrastructure, and inadequate technology, making it diﬃcult or impossible to recover from or respond eﬀectively (without massive external help mostly from the First World) to natural disasters and civil conﬂicts to which many are prone. Because of the chronic and deepening poverty in the midst of burgeoning populations, diminishing natural resources, and increasingly degraded environments, these countries have also become major producers of massive illegal political and economic migrations to the more prosperous industrial capitalist North, and of economic and political refugees and internally-displaced persons within the Third World itself.
6. The Third World And The Post-Cold War International System
The ‘Third World’ as an ideological concept has been undermined by the end of the Cold War, the collapse of Soviet-style communism, and the increasing cooperation between the leading industrial capitalist nations—the G-77—and Russia. Its economic meaning has also been challenged by the fundamental changes in the world economy, brought about by the forces of globalization. The transition of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc countries and some Third World nations to pluralist democracy and market economies has made it increasingly diﬃcult to distinguish between some First and Second World countries, and in some cases between Third World and Second World countries.
Given the wide range in the levels of economic development and standards of living within and between Third World countries, placing prosperous Hong Kong and impoverished Haiti, or industrializing Brazil and hunger prone Bangladesh, in the same category is clearly questionable.
Again, by the end of the twentieth century, new economic groupings made up of selected countries of the First, Second, and Third Worlds, some of them regional (e.g., NAFTA), were formed to promote regional prosperity; and others, cross-regional (e.g., Group of 20), emerged to foster dialogue if not unity of action between the rich industrial countries and countries of the emerging markets. The growing convergence of national and transnational economic and political interests has added a new challenge to the usefulness of the Third World as an economic or ideological category.
In the new strategic global environment, the NAM also seems increasingly anachronistic. But the overall objectives of the NAM which include the pursuit of world peace, the elimination of disease, hunger, and ignorance; the conduct of international relations on the basis of respect for and understanding of other cultures, systems, and values; and the elimination of all forms of neo-colonialism and racism, make it still relevant.
Despite the new redeﬁnition regrouping of economies, and the cross-cutting interests reﬂecting the progress of globalization, the industrial countries, mostly European—the First and Second Worlds—still have between them most of the world’s economic power and military might. Of the estimated global population of six billion, only about 20 percent live in the rich North; the overwhelming majority (80 percent) live in the impoverished South. Yet 86 percent of global output of goods and services is produced and consumed by the developed countries. Key measures of human well-being and survival such as gross-national product per capita (GNP), per capita energy consumption, life expectancy, infant mortality rates, and literacy levels, attest to the unacceptably wide and growing gap between the world’s richest and poorest (Third World) countries.
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