Sunday, September 13, 2015

Why I Don´t Say “Third-World”: Some Notes on Language

Global North in blue, Global South in red
This month, Mount McKinley, the United States´ highest mountain, officially became Mount Denali, a name native Alaskans have been using for centuries.

Many U.S. Americans likely registered this news with little more than a blink. “Mount McKinly,” named in 1917 for the the Ohioan president who was killed in office, was a good enough name for those of us who had little connection with the mountain or the state. But to the people who knew and loved the monument as “Denali,” who saw the renaming as another example of erasing indigenous culture, the change mattered a great deal.

This illustrates a point – the names we use to describe our world matter tremendously, especially when we are using names that we have invented. Terminology that seems innocuous to us may be deeply insensitive to the very people we are trying to describe.

Another example – I am currently living in a country that others would call a “Third-World” or even an “underdeveloped” country”. People use these terms freely and interchangeably as a short-hand for countries that generally have less infrastructure, lower incomes, and lower standards of living. They do not use them maliciously. However, offense need not be intended to be felt.  

The words we use reflect values regardless of whether or not we realize it. In a search not just for dignity but also for accuracy, I want to briefly describe some of the most common terms for countries like the one I am from and the one I currently live in.

First-World / Third-World Country

Where it comes from:

During the Cold War, “Third World” referred to countries who were unaligned with either North American and European countries (the “First World”) or the Soviet Union and allies such as China (the “Second World”). Because non-aligned countries tended to be ones with less political clout and fewer material resources, the term “Third World” soon became synonymous with poverty, especially as new aid and development programs adopted the term.

Why people don´t use it:

In short – this term is meaningless. Social, cultural, and political realms have changed such that any distinction based on a country´s alliances in the mid-20th century is an arbitrary and nonsensical distinction today. Technically, wealthy nations such as Finland, Brazil, or Saudi Arabia that stayed neutral during the Cold War ear are “Third-World,” while countries like Cuba fall under the little-used term “Second World.”

The second reason to drop the term is semantic. Today, “Third-World” doesn´t summon up ideas of political alliances, but it does recall terms like “third-class,” “third place,” or “third-rate.” This type of terminology makes it sound as if countries have been placed into a ranking system that the United States and Europe (“First-World”, “first place”) already dominates.

Developed / Underdeveloped Country

Where it comes from:

While a marked improvement from “backward,” colonialists previous term for countries unlike their own, “underdeveloped” nonetheless reflects the same perceptions that certain benchmarks of development (e.g. free markets, infrastructure) could not only be measured, but could be prescribed. Quite simply, countries that met these benchmarks were "developed," while countries that did not, remained underdeveloped.

Why people don´t use it:

This term divided countries into two categories based on whether or not they had achieved sufficient benchmarks crucial to “development,” yet both those benchmarks and the overall vision of development was defined by Europeans and U.S. Americans.

Not only is the distinction ethnocentric (based on the idea of one particular culture as superior to others), but the term itself is condescending. It describes nations by their deficits and defines them by what they lack. Neither is the term specific. With no concrete cut-offs, “Developed Nations” easily becomes code for “European and European-heritage nations,” a code that perpetuates the myth that power, culture, and advancement comes in only one style.

Developed / Developing Country

Where it comes from:

This slight change from “Developed/Underdeveloped” attempts to describe states as actors rather than by a static state. Instead of viewing nations as falling into one of two categories, it instead sees them along a continuum where some are simply farther along.

Why people don´t use it:

This is a common term even today. However, it still does not solve the problematic idea that all nations are following the same trajectory towards the same inevitable, and preferred, end. The term also makes “developed nations” sound as if they have already arrived at this ideal, something anyone working against poverty and injustice in the U.S. can attest against.

Majority World / Minority World

Where it comes from:

Two-thirds of the world´s population lives in poverty. The term “Majority World,” (also called the “two-thirds world” as a response to the term “Third-World”) attempts to flip the focus of development from the wealthy few to the struggling majority.

Why people don´t use it:

While I´ve noticed this term is popular among smaller NGOs and nonprofits, it has not caught on officially. Because the term is somewhat vague and not yet well-known, people seem to have avoided it in political and scholarly contexts.

Global North / Global South

Where it comes from:

These terms, which are the current default among scholars and professionals, are based on nothing more than the observation that most countries north of the equator have relatively high incomes and standards of living, while many countries south of the equator have lower incomes and standards of living.

Why people don´t use it:

Of all the terms, this is least likely to be understood by someone outside the international development field. Also, the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, with geographically-southern countries like Australia forming part of the Global North and geographically-northern countries like Kazakhstan or Mongolia forming part of the Global South.


There are more terms I didn´t write about (Core/Periphery, Resource Poor/Rich, Lower/Middle Income, etc.) and they have their own faults and merits.

Personally, “Third-World” and “underdeveloped” make me cringe, though “developing” seems a common descriptor even for people describing their own countries. While I acknowledge the jargonyness of Global North and Global South, after four years of reading and writing papers on international development, they´re the terms that I am probably most comfortable with.

But I´ve also been encouraged to examine my statements and see if I really mean to place two-thirds of the world under a single signifier. If I really mean countries with low GDP per capita, I may use that distinguisher explicitly. If I am talking, instead, about legal infrastructure that creates meaningful rule of law, being explicit about that will describe an entirely different collection of countries.

Whatever terms I use, I use carefully. I am aware how much value and meaning rests in a single word or term, and I want my language to be as honoring as it is precise.

(Sometimes once you´ve finished writing something you find something eerily similar! If you´re interested in an NPR blog on the same topic, I´d recommend this one.)

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