First World/Third World and Other Binaries: How We Talk About the World Matters

Michael Jennings

AFP Photo: Rodger Bosch

For anyone living in ancient China’s Zhou empire in the first millennium BCE, understanding the world was simple: they were in the “Zhongguo,” or Middle Kingdom, and everything outside was barbaric. Understanding the world at the height of European imperialism also was easy. On maps, vast swaths of territory were colored in hues denoting each empire. Human nature strives for simplicity, and today we have come up with a multitude of descriptions for the world’s regions. But terms such as North/South and First World/Third World have flattened diversity and complexity through a simplistic binary gaze.

It isn’t just a problem of simplicity, though. All too often,these terms have played into wider prejudices about places that reflect and are fed by the values ascribed to each. We can see this on social media, where the rise of intemperate comments and put downs against others can often be based on the implied superiority of where one lives or comes from. Social media weaponizes and reinforces prejudices and racism that come from a facile understanding of the world. More than ever before, in an age of parity between the informed and the less-so, we must be careful of the words we use to describe each other.

Trying to analyze and explain the world has always required some generalization. We lump together countries or regions that share some similarities and gloss over details and important differences. But describing the world is not just about looking for objective points of commonality or difference. It involves recognizing different world views, assumptions and values. The problems come when one side of that binary division of the world gets to decide what is the norm, reflecting the realities of global power and ongoing colonial legacies.

Since the end of empires, two dominant ways of dividing up the world have emerged. The first reflected the Cold War, seeing the world through the prism of an existential conflict between the democratic-capitalist West and the communist East, comprised of the Soviet Union and China. The “rest” – which related closely to maps of former colonial territories – were the regions in Africa, Asia and Latin America that together comprised the arena for this battle of ideas and influence.

The second way took a more economic perspective, categorizing regions through their GDP or level of “development,” and allocated various terms to describe those differences. Some – such as the terms “low-,” “middle-” (or “emerging-”) or “high-income countries” – are unapologetically economic in their focus, based on levels of GDP that still conceal great diversity within populations. These remain widely in use but at least have the virtue of being a label one can escape: Tanzania and Benin recently moved into middle-income status, while Mauritius has now joined the group of high-income countries.

But other terms have attained wider reach within popular and analytical vernacular. The terms “North” and “South” were always less about geographical location than about distinguishing between the rich and globally powerful regions and the poorer, less powerful ones. “Developed” and “un-/under-developed” have similarly focused on poverty.

The term I grew up with, the “Third World,” was originally coined in the 1950s by the French demographer, Alfred Sauvy, to describe those nations that were part of neither the Western nor Eastern blocs. By the 1960s it had become firmly linked to poverty, under-development and poor governance. In a world that still contained third-class train carriages, in which “third” was inevitably less good than “first,” the term was applied to those parts of the world where the majority of citizens were people of color – and which, coincidentally, had been under imperial rule. The racism and patronizing undertones of the term were readily noted and understood by those on the receiving end.

What underpins all these ways of compartmentalizing the world is the assumption that the European and North American models of development, with the same governance and other values, are the end-goal for all global regions. The closer you resemble these two, the more you can claim entry to the North, the First World and to “developed” status. These terms assume that emulating Europe and North America makes a country better, so it’s what every other nation should aspire to.

Yet rich Middle East states like the UAE or Asian nations like Singapore have no desire to replicate Western norms. In the 1990s, Malaysia’s then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, sought to articulate the “Asian Values” that marked a departure from a Western paradigm that twins development with liberalism.

Clearly, the binaries and indexes we are left with are not objective or scientifically indisputable. They are based on what counts most to a minority (albeit powerful) portion of the world. Is a nation’s GDP the sine qua non of being “developed”? What about Costa Rica and Cuba? Both are significantly poorer than the (very much “developed”) US, yet both enjoy better health and quality of life across a number of different indexes than their First World neighbor. As the past year has shown, rich countries contain enormous pockets of inequality and poverty – residents of a poor housing estate in Manchester might share more with those from a working-class area of Hong Kong than they care to admit.

Over the past couple of decades, the terms “Global North” and “Global South” have emerged in reference to global regions. While there is still some overlap with old terms, they do attempt to acknowledge how important discrepancies in power are in shaping relations and opportunities. They are at least an attempt to do away with disparaging terms for particular regions.

I use those terms myself, but with significant reservations. Do they really avoid the division of the world according to colonial legacies? While that might make sense from the perspective of the Global North, would someone in India, for example, see themselves as more aligned with, say, Kenya, than with Thailand or even South Korea? It all depends, of course, on what you’re comparing with and on what the context is. It solves some problems, but not all – and it certainly does not distance you from a perspective and values that are far from universal.

Perhaps it’s time for voices from outside Europe and North America to come up with new terms and for politicians, academics and journalists within Europe and North America to listen. There is much talk these days of decolonizing education, development aid and global health, among other things. So how about decolonizing our perspective on the world?


Michael Jennings is reader in international development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS University of London, where he works on issues related to global health and the politics and history of global development.