Third World, Underdeveloped, or...?

Added on by PS Cat02.

Tonight we received a thoughtful e-mail I'd like to share with you.

Dear Pinky Show,
I want to first commend your production. I think what you guys are doing is revolutionary. I can tell the Pinky Show will be huge in the near future.
However, I just wanted to make one small request. I feel that "3rd world" is a very derogatory term for underdeveloped countries. During my years at GSU, which is one of the most diverse universities in America (over 100 different countries from all over the world give or take), I've learned that these terms — 1st, 2nd, and 3rd world — psychologically changes the actual perception of political and financial status of a country. It doesn't portray that the country is simply not as industrialized or technologically equipped to handle present day fast-paced society. It portrays that the country is of a different origin, as if it doesn't belong. It's hierarchical. According to my anthropology professor (unnamed for privacy purposes) who is an expert in his field, these terms were created to clearly exhibit the country into an impenetrable negative connotation. Example: Africa 's countries are considered 3rd world but we forget that Africa contains Dubai City, one of the richest cities. How can it be 3rd world if it has such a place as Dubai? However, one cannot debate the fact Africa itself is underdeveloped, always in constant turmoil. Not to mention many don't even use the terms 2nd or 1st world for any other country, let alone know what a 2nd world country is. Yet, why do we still continue using 3rd world??
Do you understand what I'm trying to convey? I know I may not be explaining it as well as my professor but I know my email is quite long already. Therefore, I shall conclude that we should strike out these derogatory and demeaning hierarchical labeling and merely describe a country as underdeveloped or not as developed as so and so.
Thank you for you time and consideration.
Georgia State University

I really like it that people are willing to sit down and write these kinds of e-mails to us. We learn a lot by reading them. In this case we (Bunny, Daisy, and I) have talked about "Third World" vs. "underdeveloped" vs. X, Y, and Z, but maybe it is time to revisit the question. For the time being though, I thought it might be good if I wrote a quick reply to Lisa's e-mail.

Hi Lisa. I agree with you that the term "Third World" is derogatory. I think the term is unpleasant because it will always be tied to a world view in which some people and places are considered worthy of subjugation and exploitation by other people and places. That kind of logic is hurtful at its core. I do agree with you that how we use language is always a political act, and I would like to use a term that doesn't encourage people to think of places like Nicaragua, Haiti, or Cameroon as backwards, inferior, or lesser.
On the other hand, I would like to challenge the use of words like "underdeveloped." Personally I find this word equally offensive and maybe even more insidious. The logic of development begins with the assumption of absence. In the eyes of the developed, the underdeveloped have nothing of value - not even an understanding of their own situation. The remedy for this inferiority is often an infusion of outsider cash, contracts, and projects. All of these things come with many strings attached, although self-determination isn't one of them.
A lot of questions pop into mind when I start thinking about development: Is industrialization really progress? What are the unspoken assumptions and values of 'development'? Why is it that there always seems to be more development work going on in regions that promise future material benefits to the developers and aid-givers? What would happen if underdeveloped countries were able to participate in the global economy on their own terms, rather than terms set by the dominant players?
I also don't believe that a country can be "simply not as industrialized", or not "technologically equipped to handle present day fast-paced society". Underdeveloped countries are the way they are on purpose - I'm willing to bet that they'd probably all have radically different social and economic realities if there weren't certain powerful entities sitting (or is it shitting?) on them. So "development" is not a matter of random, historical happenstance. (I'm not saying this is what you meant, but I just wanted to point to the apparent lack of active, oppressive agents in your choice of wording...)
In some ways I prefer the more old-fashioned languages of description/oppression. They are so blatant. The new ways of speaking are so slippery by comparison - they're often successful in avoiding the unpleasant connotations, but in actuality they continue to refer to the same, sturdy systems of oppression. To me it seems like language is shifting quite rapidly toward fairness, but not surprisingly the more savage aspects of lived reality remain intact.
Actually, I can think of many examples in which the use of nicer, more enlightened language is actually instrumental in cultivating and maintaining inequity. For example, I think there must be several million people running around out there who would never allow themselves to condone the concept or practices of colonialism. Yet those same people are willing to uncritically accept globalization, including the most predatory aspects of it. Which reminds me of the old saying, "Old wine, new bottle."

That's all I wrote so far. I'll have to sit down with the others (Bunny, Mimi, Kim, Daisy, etc.) and ask them what they'd like to do with the term "Third World." Maybe we can come up with something better. In the past, when we've worked with people from "the Third World" (see? I have to put it in quotes now!) they've introduced us to a few possible replacement terms - Global South, The South, Two-thirds World, etc. But really there's no uncontested term that everyone seems to like. The only thing that we can all agree on is that things are not fair and we'll keep throwing stones at the machine until we can no longer throw stones.

~ pinky


[ note from Bunny: Oh great, I can just imagine all the hate mail (or just confused mail) this entry is going to generate: "Hey Pinky, Why do you hate poor people? Do you think not having any clean drinking water or healthy food to eat is cool???" Stuff like that. ]


[ Pinky: If development was only about guaranteeing clean drinking water, healthy food, peace, and freedom for everybody, nobody would have a problem with it. ]


[ Bunny: Not true. There are certain classes of people in this world that definitely profit from starvation & endless conflict. ]


[ Kim: How about from now on we all agree to call third world countries "Awesome Number One" instead? ]


[ Bunny: lol to Kim. ]


[ Daisy: The term "development" generally passes uncontested because most people who use it don't see anything wrong with the dominant values it represents or the specific kind of development-work it enables. Obviously the word defines a certain set of countries as needing to 'get developed'. This is called "Development as The Solution". Predictably, the nature of the so-called solution doesn't ever need to be interrogated. And why should it? Because doesn't development always come from the superior side of civilization? This is the arrogance and racism inherent to mainstream development-thinking. And should these assumptions ever be questioned, one can easily invoke the logic that development is the natural opposite to starvation, disease, and shorter life-expectancy. In this way anyone who questions development logically wishes a short, miserable life on the undeveloped. Case closed. ]


[ Pinky: I think Lisa raised something really good to talk about. Wouldn't it be nice if we could all sit down together and do something like a round table... Maybe we could invite her professor? We could add it to the Conversations area. What do you guys think? ]


[ Bunny: Do we not have enough projects underway already? ]