Monday, August 06, 2012

Is there still a Third World? Was there ever one?

The term Third World originally signified those states that were neither part of the Soviet led socialist bloc or the US led alliance of NATO and Japan. It was meant to categorize the political position of states such as Ghana, India, Indonesia, Egypt, and Yugoslavia that led the Nonaligned Movement. Later on this became quite fuzzy as Soviet allies such as Cuba and Vietnam joined the Nonaligned Movement. The term Third World itself came to mean any country with a lower level of economic development than the US or USSR regardless of its political orientation in the Cold War. Thus countries as radically different as Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Angola, Pakistan, and Indonesia all became classified as Third World.

From 1989 through 1991 the Second World collapsed and ceased to exist. Making the term Third World even more of an anachronism. Presumably the richer European states of the former Second World like the Czech Republic and Hungary became First World and the poorer Asian ones such as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan became Third World. Although this reclassification hardly seems satisfactory. Is Russia really a First World country at the same level of development as Belgium? The tripartite division which was really only useful for a brief time as a political not an economic classification during the 1950s and 1960s appears to have outlived all of its usefulness. Yet, Third World still remains the favorite term by US commentators to describe the entire planet outside of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.


Anonymous said...

I live in Eastern Europe. A young woman working at the coffee shop where I go every day told me that she works from 10 to 21, 5 days/week, no breaks (she has to order her lunch to be delivered), all for about 400 euro/month. And that's about what I pay (rent+utilities) for a small one-bedroom flat here.

Doesn't strike me as the first-world standard of living, exactly.

She said, a lot of people are paid less. I asked her: shouldn't you try to get some education or something? She said that after an 11-hour working day it's not really possible. True that.

J. Otto Pohl said...

When I worked in a coffee shop in California at the turn of the century my wages were only about $800 a month. My rent was $400 a month. The per capita GDP of the US today according to the IMF is $48,387 versus $19,591 for Hungary, $27,062 for the Czech Republic, $20,380 for Poland, $18,856 for Lithuania, and $16,736 for Russia.

In contrast Kyrgyzstan is only $2,372 and Ghana $3,083. Altogether it looks like Central East Europe is about half Western Europe. But, they are lot higher over all than Central Asia and Africa.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I'm not sure the concept of 'GDP' is all that meaningful for places like Kyrgyzstan. I traveled across central Asia in a car 2 years ago, and in Kazakhstan a farmer told me that he build a tractor entirely from pieces he found in a junkyard. Is that a part of the GDP? He said that he, with the family, live on equivalent of $50/month. By the western understanding of an 'economy' it's simply not possible, they all should be dead.

Similarly, here, if you move away from the city, I'm sure they, for example, make their own palinka (local vodka), instead of buying it for $20 a bottle. I've seen furniture in locals' flats that looked about 70 years old.

It's just a different economic system; and that's why it doesn't exactly fit the 'first-world' description, IMO. Just like, say, an Amish village in PA doesn't fit, even though it's physically located in the US.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Kazakhstan is rich at about $13,000 a head compared to Kyrgyzstan. The numbers don't tell a lot, but for comparative purposes they seem to show a general ranking. People in Ghana on average are richer than those in Kyrgyzstan. People in Kazakhstan are richer than in Ghana. People in Russia are richer than in Kazakhstan. People in Estonia are richer than in Russia and so on.

Anonymous said...

It's occurred to me that the Soviets had slightly a different model: the 'socialist camp', the 'capitalist camp', and the 'third world' - those who are yet to choose their path. Cuba under Castro wasn't a part of the 'third world'.

In that sense, most of everybody is now in the 'capitalist camp' (even China, I suppose), and there is no 'third world' to speak of.

And if the western concept of the 'first' and 'second' worlds is supposed to convey something similar, and I suspect it is, then the conclusion has to be the same: everybody is in the 'first world' now, including Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstan is like a grotesque capitalist society: big night clubs in city centers, huge neon lights, beautiful prostitutes, expensive cars, fancy restaurants. And 10 kilometers outside - dust, slums, starving peasants.

J. Otto Pohl said...

What you describe for Kazakhstan has long existed in the "Third World" in various African, Asian, and Latin American states. But, the point that politically there is no more socialist bloc and hence no more nonaligned bloc as well is true. Everybody is now officially part of the capitalist camp except for a few hold outs like North Korea. The question is how much reality did the "Third World" ever have?

Anonymous said...

Well, they were up for grabs, as recently as 1980s. Communists and various national liberation movements supported by the Soviets had a good run in Latin America and Africa.