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If You Shouldn't Call It The Third World, What Should You Call It?

The question of what to call  "the developing world" is a developing debate.
Jing Wei for NPR
The question of what to call "the developing world" is a developing debate.

Our blog was born in 2014, and I'll let you in on a little secret: We had a really hard time coming up with our name. (See: "Why Goats? Why Soda?")

But that naming struggle was nothing compared with figuring out what to call the parts of the world we cover. Third World? Developing world? Global south? Low- and middle-income countries?

Every label has its problems — and, as it turns out, an interesting back story. Here's what I learned from talking to many, many experts.

More than half a century ago, the Cold War was just starting. It was Western capitalism versus Soviet socialism. But there was another group of countries. Many of them were former colonies. None of them were squarely in either the Western or the Soviet camp. Thinking of these three factions, French demographer Alfred Sauvy wrote of "Three worlds, one planet" in an article published in L'Observateur in 1952.

The First World consisted of the U.S., Western Europe and their allies. The Second World was the so-called Communist Bloc: the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and friends. The remaining nations, which aligned with neither group, were assigned to the Third World.

The Third World has always had blurred lines. "Although the phrase was widely used, it was never clear whether it was a clear category of analysis, or simply a convenient and rather vague label for an imprecise collection of states in the second half of the 20th century and some of the common problems that they faced," writes historian B.R. Tomlinson in the essay "What was the Third World," published in 2003 in the Journal of Contemporary History.

Because many countries in the Third World were impoverished, the term came to be used to refer to the poor world.

"This 1-2-3 classification is now out-of-date, insulting and confusing."

This 1-2-3 classification is now out of date, insulting and confusing. Who is to say which part of the world is "first"? And how can an affluent country like Saudi Arabia, neither Western nor communist, be part of the Third World? Plus, the Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore.

And it's not like the First World is the best world in every way. It has pockets of deep urban and rural poverty, says Paul Farmer, co-founder of the nonprofit Partners in Health and a professor at Harvard Medical School. "That's the Fourth World," Farmer says, referring to parts of the United States and other wealthy nations where health problems loom large.

So we decided we would not use First World or Third World, unless there is reason to do so — referring to past ways of thinking or quoting somebody.

"Developing countries" sounds like it might be a better choice. On the surface, it seems accurate. We're writing about countries that need to develop better health care systems, better schools, better ways to bring water and electricity to people.

Some people in these so-called developing countries are fine with the term. "We're definitely not out of the developing, under-underdeveloped category," says Dipa Sinha, an economist and researcher at the Center for Equity Studies in New Delhi, which works on issues of social and economic inequalities. "If you look at any human development indicators, such as child and maternal health, nutrition, sanitation, we're worse than Bangladesh."

Vaibhav Bojh also doesn't mind the term. A credit manager at Punjab National Bank, he says, "Being called a developing country gives me a chance to improve." He hopes that one day India will go "a few steps beyond what developed countries have achieved."

It's such a convenient label to use. Everybody knows what you're talking about. It's what The Associated Press style guide suggests using, and that's the style that NPR follows. According to AP: "Developing nations is more appropriate [than Third World] when referring to economically developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Do not confuse with 'nonaligned,' which is a political term." And mostly a historical term now.

So "developing world" seemed to be a good solution. Then I encountered the "developing" haters.

"I dislike the term 'developing world' because it assumes a hierarchy between countries."

One of them is Shose Kessi, a social psychologist at the University of Cape Town. In an email exchange, she took aim and fired: "I dislike the term 'developing world' because it assumes a hierarchy between countries. It paints a picture of Western societies as ideal but there are many social problems in these societies as well. It also perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from the so-called developing world as backward, lazy, ignorant, irresponsible."

In short, there's nothing about the term developing world that works for her. "In my view, the developed-developing relationship in many ways replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. The idea of development is a way for rich countries to control and exploit the poor. You can see this through the development industry where billions of dollars are spent but very little gets achieved. Come to think of it, actually, I hate the term!"

And when you think about it, "developing countries" are quite developed in some respects. In countries where government safety nets are practically nonexistent, people step forward to help out, says Mead Over, who studies the economics of health interventions at the Center for Global Development. "People donate money at a funeral to help the bereaved family, or people receive gifts from a neighbor to pay the doctor in a time of family emergency." We in the West, he says, often neglect social networks "and they wither away."

So what are the alternatives?

I asked some Masai tribesmen from Kenya their thoughts. They said the phrase "developing country" in Swahili would be stated as "countries that are growing."

It's a lovely phrase. But one Masai added, a bit apologetically, "It's a long phrase."

Another solution is to go for geographic labeling. The majority of poor countries are in the Southern Hemisphere, aka the "global south." Then again, impoverished Haiti is in the global north. And many rich countries are in the south: Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, to name a few.

Plus, the "global south" is "tinged with politics" in a world where there are tensions between the West and the other countries, says Leo Horn-Phathanothai, director for international cooperation at the World Resources Institute.

Maybe the solution is to come up with a classification that is based on data. That's how the World Health Organization categorizes countries. It uses the term "low- and lower-middle-income countries," or LMIC for short. This acronym is sometimes split in two: LICs and MICs, pronounced "licks and micks" and sounding like an old-fashioned kind of candy. The LMIC category is based on World Bank statistics that divide up countries by gross domestic product: There are low income, lower middle income, middle income and high income.

At first glance, numbers seem to offer an objective way to divvy up the world. But collecting the statistics "can present a challenge because not every country does a good job of estimating GDP," says Neil Fantom, who leads the World Bank's Open Data initiative. And let's face it: No one outside the world of global health and development agencies talks about LMICs.

"Some people use the term 'Majority World' – a reminder to those of us in the West that we are but a very small minority on the globe."

Some people use the term "Majority World" — a reminder to those of us in the West that we are but a very small minority on the globe. According to World Bank statistics, 80 percent of humanity lives on $10 or less a day.

So I ran the term "Majority World" past some experts who hadn't heard of it — and they liked it! "It's relatively new, it has little baggage, it's thought-provoking and it's accurate," says Horn-Phathanothai from WRI.

But Majority World doesn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue.

"Fat" and "lean" are the adjectives that the Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade likes.

"Fat" and "lean" are the adjectives that the Nigerian-American journalist Dayo Olopade likes. The term "lean" is used in the tech sector, where a startup may not have a lot of resources but can still innovate. "If necessity is the mother of invention," Olopade wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "lean economies have a distinct advantage."

As for fat, "That's my way of being provocative," she tells me with a chuckle. "For people to think of [the U.S.] as a fat economy isn't too hard to imagine."

Both Olopade and Farmer recognize that labels almost always have problems. So they both recommend being specific whenever possible. If you're writing about the difference in health care in Senegal and Switzerland, they told me, then say so.

In this blog's first year of life, we've tried our best to use the right terms for the right stories. Sometimes we use "developing world" because, well, it just seems to work best — it's short, it's convenient and readers know what it means. But yes, it does have problems. So as a rule we aim for specificity: naming the country in question or saying low-income countries, for example.

In the new year, we'll try our best. Inevitably we'll mess up. We hope you'll let us know (politely, if possible).

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 6, 2015 at 12:00 AM EST
Our geography was off in the original version of this post. We stated that Singapore and the United Arab Emirates were in the Southern Hemisphere; in fact, they are in the Northern Hemisphere.
Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.