Jing Wei for NPR
When an armed mob stormed the U.S. Capitol and took over the building on Wednesday, many Americans said that’s what happens in “third world” countries. TV journalists and pundits said it. As did people on social media.
Everyone knows what they meant — countries that are poor, where health care systems are weak, where democracy may not be exactly flourishing.
But the very term “third world” is a problem.
“I feel like it connotes this superiority and inferiority,” says Ngozi Erondu, senior scholar at the O’Neill Institute at Georgetown University, who identifies as Nigerian American and says half her family lives in Nigeria. When she heard the label growing up, she says it struck her as making “this assumption about people outside of the ‘first world’ — that they lived really different lives, the assumption they were poor, they should be happy to eat every day. As if we don’t have the same value as humans.”
She concludes: “I think it’s a very antiquated and offensive term.”
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Dr. Abraar Karan adds his objections. “There is no ‘third world.’ There were the oppressed and the oppressors,” says Karan, who was born in India, grew up in Los Angeles and is now on staff at Harvard Medical School.
The oppressors, he says, often took resources from the countries they colonized — a reason that he’s not a fan of the term “low resource” to describe countries that lack the wealth of Western nations.
Yet as Wednesday’s events made clear, “third world” is often the first term that pops into Westerners’ minds when they try to characterize less well-off, troubled countries.
So where did this term come from?
The idea of a world divided into three domains dates back to the 1950s, when the Cold War was just starting. It was Western capitalism versus Soviet socialism. But there was another group of countries. Many were former colonies. None of them were squarely in either the Western or the Soviet camp. Thinking of these…
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