21st century: What Makes A Country ‘Third World’?
21st century: What Makes A Country ‘Third World’?
By Tayo Oke
21st century: What Makes A Country ‘Third World’?
Ask whether Nigeria is a ‘Third World’ country, an average Nigerian would probably say yes, of course! It is a label many people grew up with, and accept as reality. To them, the term equates poverty, corruption, unemployment, kidnapping, wonton murder, mismanagement, electoral fraud, nepotism, graft, etc. All of these are axiomatic of their belief in its substance. It has become so commonplace that, I am sure, some readers would even be wondering what the fuss is all about. Well, it is being made into an issue because it is not only a redundant term, it has also never had any objective (rational) foundation. I was at a conference discussing development and globalisation recently when, during the tea break, I asked a bunch of young, highly educated participants, whether they thought Nigeria was a ‘Third World’ country. Instantly, and simultaneously, they yelled; “Yeah we are, yes!”  Really? I interjected, completely taken aback. Their voices grew even louder; “Yes, we are, yes, we are…” following which I challenged them to explain what that entails in substance. The answer, this time, astounded me beyond belief: “We are inferior to the advanced countries”; “Oh yes, we are”, they kept blurting out. Inferior? I asked, grimfaced. They repeated the same line over and over, with conviction. What is even more alarming was the fact that their team leader, a university lecturer in political science in this country, compounded my frustration by saying: “Honestly, I really don’t understand your position. Economically, politically and technologically, are you saying Nigeria, for example, is not inferior to Western advanced countries?”

If a political scientist, in charge of training Nigeria’s future leaders, can be this warped in his thinking, then, God help the rest of the country. More so, this particular academic got his training from a top Nigerian university, which he is presumably passing onto his own students, who will also pass the same logic onto their friends, relatives, co-workers, and perhaps, their own future students as well. And, if this is shared across social science faculties in the country, you can imagine what a big dilemma that poses. Imagine hundreds, if not thousands of university graduates leaving the campus believing they are, in fact, “inferior” to “Western advanced countries”? I once taught in Europe and the USA myself, and I remember the fierce debate scholars of all hues engaged in over the academic validity of any undergraduate course with ‘Third World’ in its title. It was not only thought to be an anachronism, it was widely accepted that it lacked academic merit. It was gradually, and quietly withdrawn from the curricula. That was more than 25 years ago. Similarly, the study of literature in the university curriculum in this country used to assume that only English literature was worth studying, until the academia got wise. Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo also have literature worth studying hence, the re-designation of the relevant department from ‘English Literature’ to Literature in English, marking a clear acknowledgment of the fact. Today, in 2021, the National Universities Commission is still sanctioning “Third World Study” as a significant building block of knowledge. How embarrassing.

The term ‘Third World’ was first used in an obscure text written by the French demographer, Alfred Sauvy, in a newspaper article in 1952. He did not intend it to be used in the way it subsequently developed. He used it to describe a bi-polar Cold War, where most nations found themselves to be either in the Soviet camp, or the Western camp. What about the rest of the (non-aligned) world? It was precisely for this anomaly that he referenced ‘Third World’ in his write-up. It has since taken a whole new meaning by those desirous of finding a convenient label for the group of countries in Africa, South Asia and Latin America, who were outside the Cold War geopolitical division. Given that much of these countries were former colonial outlets of the European powers, and given that they were also in the first stage of the Industrial Revolution and, above all, given that they supplied the resources for the Western industrial advancement, and are broadly non-white, ‘Third World’ seemed a convenient epitaph to categorise them all. Western intellectuals were subsequently quick to discover a new area of scholarship for study. This, in a nutshell, is the origin of the term. It appealed to Western governments mainly because it stopped them having to study the disparate countries and continents individually, and in their own rights. Also, because it played to the conception of racial superiority harboured by many of them. ‘Third World’ study became entrenched in Western education which also found its way onto the curricula in Africa, Asia and Latin America. It has since been debunked, discredited and largely discontinued. Except, apparently, in Nigerian universities.

Many of the countries formerly lumped together as ‘Third World’ have been shown to possess differing levels of economic and technological advancement. For instance, ‘Third World’ India, Singapore, Malaysia, Brazil etc, are industrial and technological giants rivalling any in the world. ‘Third World’ Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world; it is so rich the state does not even collect income tax. ‘First World’ Greece is one of the poorest in Europe. The country had to be bailed out of its unsustainable debts a couple of years ago. ‘Third’ or ‘Second’ world China is about to overtake the USA as the largest economy in the world. ‘First World’ USA is the murder capital of the world. It harbours one quarter of the world’s prison population, racial hatred, sporadic shooting and killing by lunatics is an everyday affair. Drug addiction and homelessness are rampant, even electoral fraud has become commonplace. You see the contradictions?

Aside from the above, if there was any such thing as first, second, or third world, then, Africa would be first. It is the cradle of humanity. The first human emerged from African soil before curiosity and survival instincts drove the rest to different parts of the earth for settlements. This is a universally accepted scientific fact. So, in terms of geography and archaeological history, the term makes no sense. My interlocutor, the university lecturer mentioned earlier, who casually based his concept of Nigerian inferiority in the “economic, political, and technological” fields clearly needs re-education. The economies of African states have been so inter-woven with those of the West for a century. Development of one perpetuates the underdevelopment of the other. This has nothing to do with “superiority” or “inferiority”; it is the logic of international capitalism. On the terrain of politics, Western powers expended so much resources throughout the Cold War period to destabilise Africa, and Latin American countries, fomenting internecine wars, military coups and regime change in order to prevent ‘communist infiltration’ of the African continent; the source of their raw materials. Yes, African countries are playing catch up on the technological front, but the gap between them and the West on this and other indices is not owed to some notion of “inferiority”. It is wrong to assume (let alone teach) such baloney. Africa, Asia, and Latin America are palpably different in their socio-economic-political outlook from Western societies, but certainly NOT inferior. Inferiority is a state of mind. A university lecturer ought to know better although, less so a bunch of highly impressionable youngsters, who are still learning the ropes. ‘Third World’ as an academic title has long been jettisoned in the elite universities in the West. Even the international financial institutions would only reference “highly indebted”, “developing”, “less developed”, “lower income” “middle income” or “emerging” economies in lieu of the meaningless ‘Third World’. Why then would any African, Asian or Latin American insist on the puny label? Answer, please, to the editor.

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