Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Should We Call it the Third World?

For a while there, it seemed that the phrase "third world" had gone out of fashion. Many, many years after Alfred Sauvy first coined the term, people stopped saying it. And could be a good thing, because Sauvy wasn't referring to poor kids with distended bellies; he was talking about countries that weren't allied with either NATO or the Communist Bloc during the Cold War.

Crazy, huh?

It's true.

In recent years, people have started saying "developing nations," which isn't much nicer, but at least we weren't relegating the world's poor to their own world. The problem is that at some point after the "third world" thing came into being, we started ranking nations by their GNI, or Gross National Income. Ironic when you consider the fact that any kindergartener can tell you that you shouldn't judge people by the contents of their wallet.

Nevertheless, we needed a way to refer to nations who weren't industrialized – who lacked roads, Internet connections, iPods, running water, McDonald's, and all other trappings of the so-called western world – and we called them the third world, and they later became the developing world.

The latter is acceptable. The former? Maybe not. Executive and philanthropist Charlie Bouri and his company, Seament, have shipped a few million metric tons of (you guessed it) cement to the developing world, as a helping hand along the path to the modern ideal of prosperity. The company has worked extensively in what was termed the "third world" while they helped develop Nigeria in the 1970s, but they have always treated the people and the country with the utmost respect.

Why? Charles Bouri is a man who cares about people.

Unlike Bouri, some people in so-called "first world" countries are prone to making broad generalizations about those who are less fortunate. Sometimes, when people encounter something unpleasant (poverty or even just inconvenience), they may utter something like "It's like a third world country over here." This carries the implication that not only is the speaker prone to exaggeration; they're also too foolish to comprehend the harsh realities of life in a developing nation. Moreover, they don't care – they can be flippant.

Furthermore, the phrase "the third world" removes from the mind of the listener everything about a country that might be admired. It reduces the continent of Africa from a place with a proud indigenous history and a vibrant culture to the stock footage in a UNICEF commercial. A thing to be pitied.

So, should people use a term that has so many negative connotations? Maybe not, but perhaps it's the denigrating mentality itself and our misconceptions about developing nations that we really need to get away from. 

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