Origins and Evolution of the Concept “Third World”
The term Third World ( tiers etat) was coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, to describe the poor, marginalized, and powerless class of prerevolutionary France. Its meaning expanded rapidly to denote areas of the world that were distinct from the industrialized capitalist countries, the First World, and from communist bloc nations that formed the Second World. This new way of talking about disenfranchised peoples of the world caught on rapidly and was used by social scientists at the 1955 Conference of Afro-Asian Countries in Brandung, Indonesia. A new journal, Le Tiers Monde, launched in 1956, provided a forum to explore the conditions of impoverished peoples of the tiers monde—Africa, Asia, Oceania, and Latin America—who, much like the commoners of the French third estate, le tiers etat, lived under conditions of oppression while their labor supported the more affluent social classes.
Discussions about the state of the Third World amplified and quickly moved from a focus on economic and social issues to reflect the political tensions that characterized the Cold War era and pitted capitalist nations (Western Europe, the United States, Canada, Australia, and Japan) against their communist antagonists (Russia and other communist countries that formed the USSR). Some Third World countries, wishing to remain outside the sphere of influence of these “superpowers,” came together as the Non-Aligned Nations, thus formalizing the division of the world into three distinct political arenas. The term nonaligned, used to indicate the political neutrality of these nations, was at best an ideal. Capitalist and communist countries vying for control of Third World politics and economies and looking to expand their sphere of influence formed often shifting alliances with poor countries in return for economic support. These rivalries continued until the collapse of the Soviet Union that began with glasnost and perestroika in 1986 and ended in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall.
However, the First World/Third World distinctions and dynamics survived these changes and still influence contemporary geopolitical patterns.
Patterns That Characterize Third World Countries
Third World nations share some broad characteristics. Most were at one time European colonies and share a postcolonial legacy of political instability and repressive governments. They fall within a wide spectrum. While some of these countries are now stable, others are burgeoning democracies. A large number of Third World countries still struggle under dictatorial governments and lack well-organized political structures. Civil wars and ethnic conflicts are yet other legacies of both colonization and the arbitrary repartition of traditional lands. Weak political infrastructures are often associated with less engaged civil societies and a lack of national identity—pitting predatory states against exploited and voiceless masses. Most people in the Third World still do not have access to appropriate sanitation, clean water and electricity, good roads, and communication. They have experienced rapid shifts toward export production at the expense of production for local consumption and traditional methods that used to ensure sustainability. These changes inevitably lead to marginal economies characterized by high unemployment rates, low per capita income, and loss of productive potential. Furthermore, most people in Third World countries experience dire poverty and have little hope of improving their socioeconomic status; wealth and valuable resources are in the hands of small elites that also control politics, government, and trade. This uneven distribution of resources leads to social imbalance and a system reminiscent of colonialism.
Compared to Western countries, Third World countries tend to have high population density. Family planning methods to curb birth rates are not easily accepted in areas where large families are still preferred. Problems associated with the shift away from traditional patterns of production toward industrialization and export production also lead to demographic shifts from rural areas toward urban centers. As peasant farmers find it increasingly more difficult to support their families, they are drawn to cities and export zones in search of jobs in the manufacturing industries and assembly plants controlled by multinational corporations. Export-free manufacturing zones dot the landscape of many Third World countries. They employ predominantly low-skilled, poorly educated female workers at minimal wages under generally unhealthy working conditions. Workers are not protected by labor laws and are strongly discouraged from forming bargaining units. In other words, multinational companies exploit a vulnerable labor force, and national governments offer little or no support to the workers. It is estimated that in Haiti, for example, close to 80% of the population are unemployed or marginally employed and live on less than $1 a day. These conditions set Third World countries at the margins of the world economy with little hope of improvement without outside aid.
The past 40 years have also witnessed the rapid, uncontrolled, and unplanned growth of several cities such as Mexico City, Calcutta, Lagos, and Cairo. Unemployment and underemployment as well as severe overcrowding in these hyperurbanized areas lead to social problems such as violence, ecological degradation, delinquency, and civil unrest. Poverty, hopelessness, and a search for a brighter future also contribute to migration toward more industrialized and developed areas of the world, where workers perceive that their chances at upward mobility, education, and freedom are much higher.
People of the Third World have limited access to Western medicine, and preventable diseases such as malaria and parasitic diseases, which have disappeared in industrialized nations, contribute to high mortality and short life expectancy. In some parts of the Third World, the majority of pregnant women do not receive prenatal care and give birth at home with the help of traditional birth attendants. In these areas, infant and maternal mortality rates are high when compared to those in industrialized nations. Other poor health indices mainly associated with poverty, ecological degradation, and poor infrastructures include high rates of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, STIs, tuberculosis, cholera, and malnutrition. Treatment and medicines available in Western countries are far beyond the budgets of most poor nations, further pushing them at the periphery of the world system. Women in general suffer more from the consequences of these conditions than men and are also more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. In most of the Third World, women carry the brunt of child care while also responsible for production and household chores. They tend to suffer more from malnutrition than men, earn less than men, and have fewer rights than men.
While it is relatively simple to identify First World countries—they are few in number and most are located in Europe and the northern hemisphere, the Third World is more heterogeneous and diverse. Some of the countries that fall under this rubric are indeed very poor—Haiti, Tanzania, and Bolivia, for example—while some Gulf States nations are quite wealthy; some Third World countries are overpopulated and have high birth rates and others are small nations with low population densities.
By contrast, wealthier, industrialized nations such as the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and Japan are known as the First World. Nations in this group are considered established democracies, have stable economies, are industrialized, and have well-developed infrastructures. Medical care is available to the majority of people, and health prevention measures such as prenatal care and immunization against childhood and some contagious diseases contribute to higher life expectancy and low maternal and infant mortality rates. Unemployment in these areas is lower than in the Third World, and literacy rates are much higher.
The Second World dissolved with the fall of communism at the end of the 1980s, and the 1990s saw a realignment of strategic parts of the world. Allegiances to socialist principles as well as political and economic interests that united Soviet bloc countries and provided cohesion to this group were challenged. Former members of this group gradually claimed their independence from Russian domination and joined the ranks of democratizing countries. While some former Soviet nations with stronger economies are in transition toward First World status, many, especially in the autonomous regions of Asia and Eastern Europe, joined the ranks of Third World countries. Other communist countries like China and Cuba and some African countries that had strong ties to Russia chose to retain Marxist ideologies and socialist economies.
Some problems are becoming global and cut across the division between rich and poor nations. A 1999 report published by the International Forum on Globalization Studies shows that global consumption of water is doubling every 20 years, at more than twice the rate of human population growth. According to the United Nations, more than 1 billion people on Earth already lack access to fresh drinking water. At the current rate of use, it is estimated that by 2025 the demand for fresh water will rise by 56%. Regardless of their status, all the countries of the world are vulnerable to the predicted water shortage. It is a far more serious threat to the world’s health, agriculture, and industrial production than the current world dependency on oil. In Third World countries, people already spend a significant share of available resources to purchase drinking water or spend a great deal of time fetching water. As the water crisis intensifies, governments around the world—under pressure from multinational corporations—are advocating a radical solution: the commercialization and mass transport of water. This could have devastating impacts on already precarious small economies and on the health of poor people. Already, in the maquiladora zones of Mexico, water is so scarce that babies and children drink Coca-Cola and Pepsi instead. Already, more than 5 million people, most of them children, die every year from illnesses caused by drinking poor-quality water. Already, water shortages and the diversion of water from agriculture to industrial production threaten grain production in China.
The hegemonic influence of the First World is illustrated in the changes that are happening throughout Third World countries as traditional cultures and modes of production are abandoned in exchange for more valued Western practices. Westernization and globalization are changing the face of traditional cultures. The encroachment of Western cultural patterns and technology influence how Third World people view themselves and their cultures. They continue to adopt Western goods, technologies, and attitudes to the detriment of local customs. Trade and industrialization alter traditional forms of production, and small economies are forced into the world system, albeit at the margins of this system.
Theories of Underdevelopment
Why are some countries stable and wealthy while others are so poor? Perceptions of the Third World and explanations for its slower pace of development are strongly influenced by Western scholars, and not much attention is given to the voice and perspectives of Third World intellectuals. Anthropologists offer different interpretations of the dynamics between Western and non-Western countries, rich and poor nations. The language used to describe these dynamics is at best awkward and often creates more problems than it solves. Each set of terms used to characterize this dialectic reflects a particular discourse and a way of seeing the world. Each set of opposites is therefore value laden and biased. The term Third World stresses the hegemonic nature of the relationship between rich and poor countries and is often contested by people in Third World countries. However, alternative terms such as underdeveloped and developed, developing and industrialized, or countries at the center and countries at the periphery of the world system also highlight the hierarchical nature of First and Third World relationships. Anthropologists writing from the periphery of the world system have used a North-South opposition to critique the effects of postcolonial dynamics that perpetuate inequities and exploitation. In this scheme, countries of the North tend to be former colonial powers and have well-developed economies and geopolitical interests. Countries of the South are mostly former colonies, tend to have weak economies, and are more apt to rely on former colonial powers and Western countries for trade and financial assistance.
Rather than ranking societies according to how rich or poor they are, the nature of their political ideologies, or who their allies are, some anthropologists suggest discussing instead how the twin processes of colonization and industrialization differentially affect the ability of some countries to build the kinds of infrastructures that distinguish poor nations from rich ones. Others have noted the limitations of definitions that compare and rate countries in terms of economic indices and level of technological development; they note that such typologies tend to devalue culture and the human experience.
Since the end of World War II, relations between industrialized nations and Third World countries have been influenced and mediated by the discourse and practice of “development.” Development is often associated with industrialization and modernity. Some current in anthropology sees development as “improvement in human well-being” and its counterpart, underdevelopment, as a state of mind. They question why some countries develop while others lag behind and suggest that specific cultural patterns and historical processes often determine, or at least influence, the economic success of Western societies. This kind of reasoning tends to imply an inability by poorer countries to measure up to some standards of excellence based on hegemonic perceptions of the relationship between developed and underdeveloped, between powerful and powerless, and between First and Third World people. Hobart notes that in this way of thinking, “being underdeveloped often implies, if not actually iniquity, at least stupidity, failure and sloth.” These perceived deficiencies are paradoxically articulated in rhetoric of altruistic concern for the less fortunate and then translated into development initiatives.
Anthropologists and other social scientists try to understand why poverty and underdevelopment continue to define life experiences and choices for most people in the world. Three main currents of thought dominate these discussions. The dominant school of thought, also known as modernization theory, stresses the deficiencies of poor countries, such as their inability to form democratic governments, their low level of education, and the absence of well-formed civil societies as the root of their under-development. They gloss over the responsibilities of rich countries in the perpetuation of these problems and see Westernization as the only solution to the disparity.
The Marxist theory of underdevelopment proposes an analysis that highlights how mechanisms of exploitation and class struggle in Third World countries work to maintain patterns of inequality. They note that, through control of capital and production, the dominant classes continue to exploit the poor and build wealth and power.
Another school of thought, which subscribes to dependency theory, suggests that the industrialized world’s quest for increased wealth creates poverty and underdevelopment. In this view, poverty in the Third World can only be understood within the larger context of the world economic system and the wealth of capitalist countries as dependant on the exploitation of poorer countries. This perspective is strongly supported by Third World social scientists.
Development is usually equated with Westernization instead of empowerment.
Even though some point to the dependency of the Third World on wealthier countries for trade and manufacturing jobs, others argue that dependency also goes the other way—that rich nations rely on the cheap labor force of Third World countries and also need to sell their products in Third World markets.
Development assistance was expected to alleviate poverty and narrow the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries. It has worked for some countries and for some people in places like New Zealand and Australia and some Latin American countries. Overall, however, the promises of development have not been fulfilled, and we see an increased dependency of poor countries on rich countries for economic support and trade at the same time that the gap between rich and poor countries is increasing. Structural adjustment measures and other fiscal policies required by international financial institutions as a condition for granting assistance stymie efforts of Third World countries to escape from the grip of poverty.
The interplay between development and power relations cannot he ignored. In Reversed Realities, Kabeer clarifies how these relationships work by suggesting that those involved in development assistance should pay close attention to the dynamics between “key” and “unofficial” actors. She suggests that abstract and highly formal modes of theorizing, which tend to silence or devalue the viewpoints of unofficial actors in development, have helped to generate top-down approaches that have become the hallmark of much of mainstream development policy. She notes that “key” actors are those in positions of authority and thus influence development discourse and initiatives, while “unofficial” actors, as subordinates, are those supposedly in need of development.
Jeffrey Sachs suggests that rich countries and inter-national institutions have the capacity and the power to end poverty, if they really wanted to, and that it can be done relatively cheaply. He notes that the majority of the diseases that kill the poor such as malaria and diarrhea are easily preventable, that the extreme poverty that has become so prevalent in most of the Third World is avoidable if the powerful were to spread resources more evenly. In a 2005 address to the World Bank, Sachs noted that as long as wealthy nations and multinational corporations persist in selling things to people who have no money, poverty will continue and Third World debt will increase. He challenged the World Bank, and by extension Western countries and development practitioners, to step up to the plate and meet the challenge of the Millennium Development Goal to reduce global poverty in half by 2015 and “be done with poverty that kills” by 2025. To meet these challenges, the rich would have to put the needs of the poor ahead of increasing profits and controlling the powerless. It is important, however, to keep in mind that development is a big business for wealthy nations.
Anthropology and Development
How does development happen? What is the development encounter like? Who are the various players in this game? A look at these questions will shed light on the complexities of “doing development” and why it is difficult to measure the outcome of development initiatives.
Applied anthropologists generally agree that development projects fall into two broad categories: top-down initiatives and bottom-up ones. Top-down development projects are usually designed outside the area of intervention. Critics of this form of development point out that such initiatives reflect Western ideas of how things should be done and offer Western solutions for Third World problems. They are usually designed by experts associated with multilateral organizations—aid organizations composed of several member or donor countries like the United Nations, the World Health Organization, or the World Bank. These organizations have large bureaucracies, are well funded, and finance projects through large grants and loans. They undertake projects with a broad scope, target problems that affect large numbers of people, and can become engaged in building infrastructures.
Like multilateral organizations, bilateral or govern-mental organizations (GOs) are also engaged in large-scale development projects. They are the international assistance arms of individual donor countries and have well-defined political agendas in addition to their humanitarian mission. Among the largest and most powerful GOs are the USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) and the CIDA (Canadian International Development Agency).
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) refers to a number of private, nonprofit organizations working in developing countries. Contrary to larger development organizations, NGOs use a bottom-up approach to development that stresses empowerment as well as sharing of power and responsibilities. NGOs can be international or grassroots organizations located in Third World countries. Local NGOs can be village cooperatives, community-based groups, peasant organizations, or women’s groups, while missionary groups and nonprofit or volunteer organizations fall under the label of international NGOs.
The relationship between donor/development organization and recipient/local communities is complex. Several issues need to be addressed, such as, Who sets the agenda? What type of organization is best suited to undertake specific projects? Who is responsible to make development “go,” foreign agencies or local beneficiaries? Who are the beneficiaries of development assistance? How is community defined?
Some anthropologists suggest that development agencies and aid workers are often too concerned with short-term changes and lack the flexibility, the time, and the patience to become familiar with the local context and to really listen to what the poor need, and they end up designing development initiatives that do not address the real needs or desires of the intended beneficiaries. These anthropologists ask whether top-down approaches and cookie cutter solutions that are supposed to end poverty have delivered on their promises. The answer is not easy to sort out. While international and bilateral organizations can mobilize significant economic and technical resources, they are not well suited to support long-term interventions because they are burdened by top-heavy administrations and are too concerned with quick results. As development practitioners know, development that works takes time. Grassroots organizations, on the other hand, have the opportunity to develop a better understanding of local issues and form long-term working relationships in the communities where they work. They are limited, however, by their inability to mobilize enough resources and influence policymakers. It is important to keep in mind that while grassroots changes and collaborative approaches are critical in the struggle to alleviate poverty, infrastructures and nation-building efforts are also necessary. Thus, each type of organization plays a specific role in the process of development and can complement each other. The best results are achieved when large organizations and NGOs team up to address specific problems.
It is equally important to clarify who the intended beneficiaries of development projects are and have a clear idea about the area of intervention. While selecting a narrow focus and a small area of intervention may have advantages, it is also likely that restricting the scope of an intervention too tightly may limit the potential for change and for replication. When carefully planned, development initiatives can play a vital role in strengthening civil society and can serve as catalysts in encouraging nationalism. What is needed, and most difficult to achieve, is to establish respectful and collaborative relationships with all parties in the development process. While foreign organizations are critical players in development, their role is to assist local communities solve their own problems.
Ideas about the meaning of economic development have changed from an emphasis on GDP and creation of wealth to a focus on poverty and basic human needs, that is, human development. While theoretically we are moving in the right direction, the application of these notions is difficult, slow, and not always along the lines of the ideologies. We experience difficulties linking practice to theory. Often, practice is just experimentation and the stakes are high. Or ideologies that make sense on paper are difficult to realize for a number of reasons.
Most people agree that development should be about improving human potential and not Westernizing Third World countries. Investment in human development calls for a focus on quality of life and, therefore, on improvements in education and health care, as well as on the social and political climate. Critiques of this type of development suggest that rather than safeguarding the interests of workers, human development could be construed as protection of the worker as a form of capital.
A variety of approaches inform the work of development practitioners and their choice of methods. Each approach reflects a particular construction of the relationship between donor and recipient, of the expectations of donor organizations and their perceptions of recipients of development assistance. In participatory development, project management and authority are shared between all parties. A participatory approach requires time and energy as well as accountability, respect of local values as guiding principles, and privileging local expertise over foreign ideas.
A great deal of attention is also given to sustainable development. In 1992, the World Bank outlined the salient aspects of sustainable development such as environmental preservation, reduction of population growth, attention to local problems, cost efficiency, and clear short-term and long-term goals. However, sustainability is often invoked to limit access to life-saving medicines and technologies. Some anthropologists, like Farmer, suggest that pragmatic solidarity is a more humane way of solving poverty. Pragmatic solidarity implies more than delivery of services; it addresses the broader goals of equality and justice for the poor. An example of this approach is demonstrated in the findings of the Global Anti-Poverty Summit held in Haiti in 2004. Participants in the summit concluded that in order for the extremely poor—those who live under $1 a day—to make good use of microcredit programs, they need other kinds of infrastructure and social investment such as education, access to health care, food, and security to prepare them to succeed. Multilateral organizations and financial institutions are too often reluctant to invest in such programs, which they find too costly and not sustainable. Grassroots organizations are more willing to undertake projects that address the needs of the very poor and to use a community development approach. This approach is a holistic approach and incorporates education and training as well as economic support for grassroots projects.
The participation of anthropologists in development work has been strongly contested among those in the discipline. Some critiques point to previous associations of anthropologists with colonialism and warn that development could be construed as a form of neocolonization. Others note that anthropologists’ focus on culture, their research methods, and the approaches used in the discipline do position anthropologists to work well in Third World societies and especially with grassroots organizations. While academic anthropologists have been reluctant to do development work—engage power structures and step into the arena of policymaking—applied anthropologists have adapted theories and methods of their discipline to solve real-life problems and to advocate for the poor and marginalized.
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