Why is it wrong to call developing countries Third World countries?

A geographically imprecise terminology based on prejudice.

In geography, we learn that every concept and attempt to portrait the world through graphics, maps, or illustrations transmit an ideological background. That is why when adopting a point of view is vital to be careful not to reproduce ideals that are incorrect or disrespectful.

An example is the prevalent use of the nomination First, Second, and Third World countries, up to this date. So here are a few reasons and explanations why using this terminology is no longer correct and what the use of it may imply in our society.

  • USSR extinction

Now you must be asking what does the Soviet Union has to do with this?

Well, it is quite simple actually. The denomination First, Second, and Third World countries was a vocabulary used during the period between the end of World War Two in 1945 till the end of the Cold War in 1991.

So by rankings, the First World countries were those aligned with the economic and political beliefs of the United States of America, predominantly related to the capitalist system, which included Canada and most countries in the western region of Europe.

On the opposite spectrum, the Second World countries were aligned with the ideals of Russia and later composed a confederation, the USSR, that in 1922 with the help of the Red Army implanted a government based on socialism.

The rest of the world, majorly composed of developing countries that didn’t directly support either the USA or the USSR, were grouped in one big block called the Third World countries. India, for example, was the textbook definition of this denomination once they weren’t aligned with the potencies. The Indian community had just achieved its independence from the UK in 1947 and refused to join their block to be an area of influence again. But India also had no interest in aligning with the USSR since socialism defended social equality, something that contradicted India’s traditional caste system.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, along with the extinction of the USSR, marks the end of the Cold War, which represents the concrete dissolution of the division between Communist and Capitalist areas of influence. Photograph: Peter Horvath/REX/Shutterstock

This nomenclature, even being highly biased, was used extensively throughout the Cold War in an attempt to simplify the global dispute for power and influence. However, due to an economic crisis, conflicts within the Communist Party, and the self-determination of the nations to leave the USSR, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was extinct in 1991.

Considering that with the end of the USSR, the Cold War also ended, from 1991 on, it became imprecise to divide the new political and global geographic scenario between First and Third World countries once there were no longer Second World countries. So by definition, in our modern geographic organization, we shouldn’t call any nation a Third World country since they technically no longer exist.

  • Inaccurate definition

Even during the Cold War, the terminology First, Second, and Third World countries weren’t accurate and could have different meanings depending on the context. For example, Switzerland is a capitalistic country known worldly for its numerous banks, which means it belonged under the category of First World country. However, during the Cold War, they stayed a neutral ground to receive investments from both the USA and the USSR. But since Switzerland is a wealthy and developed country, it also didn’t fit into the category of Third World countries, so basically, it became the exception within the First World countries.

The reverse logic applies to Brazil, a developing country that was classified as a Third World country, even when we were aligned with the USA. So, by not being neutral but being “poor”, we became one of the many exceptions within the Third World country block.

Nowadays, the terminology First and Third World countries acquired a different meaning, being used by many people as a synonym for developed and developing countries, respectively, which once again implies an inaccuracy that is seen as both wrong and offensive.

  • Prejudicial ideology

The other reason why people shouldn’t call developing countries such as Brazil, India, Mexico, Argentina, Bangladesh, and so many others Third World countries is that the idea behind a hierarchy implies that there is a conception of whichever is the best and worse, the higher and the lowest, and so on.

Considering that most of our history is told from a northern European and American perspective, the bases for this ranking structure are biases. Therefore, it tends to value economic, social, cultural, and political ideologies that are more predominant in those specific places.

Even though this is an abstract concept that might seem harmless, it shapes how we perceive other nations and their culture. For example, most people think Brazil is a “poor” country because we are not globally put under the category of developed countries. That is not accurate once Brazil has the 9th highest GDP in the world in 2019, according to the World Bank.

In the early 1900s, Joaquín Torres García sketched a map of South America from a perspective that valued its global position and orientation, in an attempt to break with the northern and European bias visions about southern countries.

The problem with oversimplifying a significant number of characteristics from a nation and try to definite it under a handful of concepts is that often we do it in an imprecise way. Once this inaccuracy is made, we develop this subjective, prejudicial, and judgemental vision based on a ranking that ignores singularities that also determine the reality of that place.

Soon enough, we internalize this hierarchy to draw a line between developed and developing countries, between them and us. And that is a process that occurs not only to this terminology been discussed here. It is also associated with the use or not of expressions such as “things are going South” to imply things are going badly. Or when calling African and Native American civilizations tribes to diminish the social value of their organizations when compared to other western communities. All these things created by misconceptions reinforce a secular prejudicial point of view.

So if you are wondering how you can approach this topic with more geographic and historical accuracy, you can abandon the Third World country expression. Instead, you can adopt the terminology “newly industrialized countries” since the majority of these countries started to build their industrial parks around the 3rd Industrial Revolution.

Brazilian. First-year medical student. Love arts and social sciences.

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