The Sciences

Third World means nothing now

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanAug 17, 2010 11:43 AM


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I recently had an exchange on twitter about the term "Third World" (starting from a tweet pointing to the idea of "Third World America"). Here's Wikipedia on the origins of the term:

The term 'Third World' arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned or not moving at all with either capitalism and NATO (which along with its allies represented the First World) or communism and the Soviet Union (which along with its allies represented the Second World). This definition provided a way of broadly categorizing the nations of the Earth into three groups based on social, political, and economic divisions. Although the term continues to be used colloquially to describe the poorest countries in the world, this usage is widely discouraged since the term no longer holds any verifiable meaning after the fall of the Soviet Union deprecated the terms First World and Second World. A term increasingly being used to replace "Third World" is "Majority World", which is gaining popularity in the global south. The term was introduced in the early nineties by the Bangladeshi photographer and activist, Shahidul Alam.

I don't think the term "Third World" has much utility, but I think it's not useful to replace it with another dichotomous categorization which simply falls into the trap of a human cognitive bias. The bias seems universal, and doesn't brook ideology. Racial nationalists and multiculturalist liberals both accept the dichotomy between "people of color" and whites. I believe most white liberals today would agree with the framework that white nationalist Lothrop Stoddard outlined in The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy; they would simply invert the moral valence, looking positively upon developments which Stoddard viewed with concern. Many racial minorities in the West also buy into the white vs. non-white dichotomy for purposes of cooperation between different groups. Though it has tactical utility in white majority societies it's frankly ignorant to presume that there's any fundamental solidarity between "people of color." I assume that dark-skinned South Asians and Africans who have lived in East Asia, or even the Gulf states, can confirm that racism is not necessarily conditional on the existence of white people.* But there is also the problem that there's a wide range of economic and social outcomes outside of the developed world. To give you a sense, here's a chart from Google Data Explorer: I wanted to show a two-dimensional chart to indicate that issues of development shouldn't always be viewed in a scalar context. Many Asian nations do not have the political instability or issues with disease that African nations have, but, they're far closer to the Malthusian limit. So in general Africans are actually relatively well fed, but that's in part probably due to the high mortality in those regions. NGOs and relative political stability have resulted in a floor of the quality of life in very poor nations like Bangladesh (so that mass starvation is no longer a concern), but that floor is very low indeed. Low enough that South Asia is the world epicenter of nutritionally induced mental retardation in raw numbers. And then you have nations such as Mexico or Brazil, which suffer from "contrast effect." Mexico is next to the United States, and so it can not perceive itself as a rich nation. Brazil has long been the "Land of the Future," and is gifted with a surplus of land, so its relative underperformance next to the USA grates. But on a world wide scale they're both rather affluent. Mexico is the second-fattest nation after the United States. 1 in 10 Brazilians is obese. Obesity is not positive, but it is an indication that populations have moved above bare subsistence and large swaths now have a surfeit of calories. Here's a bar plot of malnutrition prevalence under the age of 5, with color-coding by region: * Sometimes I feel that in terms of the model of how the universe works, white nationalists and non-white racial activists in the West can agree on the facts. Whites are supernatural creatures, the former simply view them as gods, the latter as demons. But any model which does not include whites is no model at all, for they are the Nephilim of our age. When I talk to people versed in post-colonial theory about history a history without whites does not compute. They say that love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

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