thoughts"Third World" vs. "Developing Nation"

The term "Third World country" has gone ever so slightly out of fashion. It is considered, by many, to be politically incorrect and insensitive, trampling on the aspirations of the less fortunate nations by segregating them into their own "world".

The popular term, these days, is "developing nation". Much more hopeful-sounding, isn't it? But, as always, the different term carries with it a surprising subtext, indeed, an entire implicit political Weltanschauung.

There is some contention over the original coinage, but most people cite French economist Alfred Sauvy as the first person to refer to the "Tiers Monde". In a 1952 article in the magazine L'Observateur, Monsieur Sauvy divided the nations of the Earth into three worlds. The first was the capitalist countries (especially the United States), the second was the communist countries (especially the Soviet Union), and the third was those countries in which an economic model really does not matter, because there is no money.

Now, those of you who, like me, took French in high school are scratching your collective heads because you could have sworn that the French word for "third" is "troisième". Don't worry, it is. "Tiers" is an archaic term. Our buddy Alfred was making an allusion to the French Revolution.

Y'see, back in 1789, France was regarded as split into three "states". The first was the royalty (Marie Antoinette and her ilk), the second was the clergy (The Roman Catholic Church), and the third was the peasants. As heads were rolling, a popular rallying cry was "Tiers état", indicating that the revolution was both by and for the proletariat.

The implication is that (in the 'fifties) the capitalists and communists were wrestling for control, caught up in their own concerns, crushing the poor underfoot, not realizing the risk of uprising and rebellion. (I'd like to take a moment to recommend the book "The Mouse That Roared" by Leonard Wibberley, which deals with this scenario in a humorous way. It's quite good.)

So, then, perhaps we are being told that the term "Third World" is politically incorrect not because of the sensitive self-esteems of the impoverished, but because the linguistic powers-that-be are uncomfortable with the idea of such a revolution. On the other hand, perhaps it is because the powers-that-be recognize that such a revolution would be impossible given the current state of affairs. Besides, the USSR no longer exists to fill the second slot, and the U.S. is rather cozy with China, the only significant pinko left on the map.

So, instead of a group of three, we have a dichotomy: developed vs developing. And, on the surface of things, this makes sense. Developed countries are rich. You can get an internet connection and there's no horse dung on the sidewalk. Developing countries are poor. Their population is mostly made up of orphans with distended bellies who you can help for the price of a cup of coffee. Rich vs Poor.

But the implications behind those two words are perhaps even more disturbing than Sauvy's metaphor. First of all, there is the finality of the word "developed". Things like photographs or condominiums get "developed", and when they're done, there's really nothing to do but look at them or live in them. "Developed" implies that we've finished, that we've reached the apex of our species' history, and there's nowhere to go but down.

Also, there is the dogmatic nature of it. It implies that the rich countries are the model which the poorer countries should try to emulate-- not only in being rich and not propagating leprosy, but also in culture, religion, and economic model. It says, egocentrically, that because the developed nations have money, what they have done and continue to do is right and normal. India could be as prosperous as the United States if only they would start eating Big Macs and listening to talk radio.

And that cultural monomania, I think, is the main reason that we're being encouraged to switch terms. We don't want to think of ourselves as one culture out of three, we want to think of ourselves as the culture, and everyone else as uncultured. We want to place the blame for poverty upon the shoulders of the poor, who are clearly wallowing in filth because of their lack of development, their refusal to accept modern values. Note the similarity to evolutionary language. Homo Sapiens are developed, and drive cars. Australopithicenes are (or rather, were) developing, and sit in the dirt scratching themselves, doomed for extinction.


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