I am a product of the imaginary realm called the third world. I am one of the ‘lucky’ ones who escaped cholera and crippling poverty and went on to play the protagonist in the orientalist novel someone with a dubiously foreign sounding name produced as a way to explain our collective struggle. Our stories, after all, are homogenous.
We all know what the third world is. It’s the place that only worth visiting on vacation; its definitely not somewhere you want to live. After all, who wants to reside in dirty, crime-ridden streets, where you can’t even get service on your iPhone 7 at the tin shack where you get your manicure?
Third world is like third place: it’s clearly the loser in the race. But who makes the rules? Who decides what makes it third place?
I had this argument with my sister about a year ago, but believe it or not, I was actually on the other side of the debate. Sure, I never liked the term third world, but I felt that there did need to be some way to distinguish what kind of access to resources you had when talking about a country. I wanted context for countries I knew nothing else about, and I gave into my predilection for label and categories.
Obviously, I didn’t do my research first.
Thanks to fracking, oil spills, and a myriad of other environmental disasters, the quality of water in the United States, the crème de la crème of the first world, is dubious at best and highly toxic in most cases. Between cholera and cancerous water, I don’t think either ‘world’ is winning.
Crime rates in America aren’t even that low when you compare them to the international community. Our intentional homicide rates are pretty average. And with the amount of police brutality flooding the news, America isn’t all much safer or less corrupt than any of the proverbial third world.
Just walking into the subway under Port Authority this weekend, I was overwhelmed by the smell of jackfruit and piss. If New York City smells like Bangladesh in the summer, how can you even distinguish between first and third world with a straight face?
The term third world doesn’t actually mean poor, either. It just means that the nation is outside the sphere of overt western influence. Coined in the Cold War era, the terms first, second, and third world were created as geopolitical terms used to distinguish between democratic industrial countries (the First World), communist-socialist states (the Second World), and everything else (the Third World). Therefore, Qatar, the richest country in the world, would be considered to be a part of the third world just because it has a monarchy. In today’s world, this terminology makes no sense.
So what does the term third world even tell us? It gives us an arbitrary idea of the type of development that has occurred in a country’s economy and political system. It is completely useless, but somehow it remains ubiquitous.
It’s time to get rid of the ‘third world’ rhetoric and move on.