This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

May-June 2009

The privileged Westerner’s guide to talking about the rest of the world

Anna Bowen

When you’re talking international development, words matter

There’s nothing like an all-purpose label to bring comfort and order to an otherwise overwhelming world. But what’s comforting to one person can be downright offensive to another. When it comes to the language used to label the “non-Western” world, quotation marks just won’t cut it anymore. What’s really behind the terms we use and which ones should we be avoiding?

Third World

ORIGINS: Attributed to French economist Alfred Sauvy in the 1950s, it originally referred to countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia that were not aligned with either the capitalist (First World) or Communist (Second World) blocs.
STATUS: It’s dated—avoid using it. According to Shahidul Alam (see below), who coined the term “Majority World,” when used by the so-called West this phrase is hierarchical and reinforces “the stereotypes about poor communities and represents them as icons of poverty. It hides their histories of oppression and continued exploitation.”

Developing World

ORIGINS: The notion of “areas needing development” was introduced by U.S. President Harry Truman in his 1949 inaugural address. Originally a measure of income and wealth, the World Bank now defines developing in terms of quality of life, which includes economic growth and basic social services.
STATUS: Use with caution—the term has built-in problems. “Developing opens up a huge can of worms,” points out New Internationalist co-editor Dinyar Godrej. “Are we talking purely economic development or cultural development, and if the latter, isn’t such terminology blatantly prejudicial?”

Global South

ORIGINS: Credited to West German chancellor Willy Brandt, whose 1980 report, North-South: A Programme for Survival, divided the world into economic hemispheres: North and South, with exceptions like Australia and New Zealand. The term was taken up in academia in the 90s.
The UN and other NGOs love this term and so can you. It “refers to those poorer nations that are not left out of development, but whose labor and lives pay for the affluence of the North,” writes Vijay Prashad, author of The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World. However, use it carefully. Matthew J.O. Scott, former head of World Vision International’s UN Office in New York, prefers it, but cautions, “It doesn’t describe the global poor who technically live north of the equator.” And, points out Sumita Dixit, a senior advisor with Canada’s department of foreign affairs, “While Global South has some resonance, this term ignores the incredible diversity among countries.”

Majority World

ORIGINS: Coined by writer and photographer Shahidul Alam in the early ’90s.
While it’s a lesser-known phrase, feel free to get ahead of the trend and use it, because, says Alam, the term “highlights the fact that we are indeed the majority of humankind. It also brings to sharp attention the anomaly that the G8 countries—whose decisions affect the majority of the world’s peoples—represent a tiny fraction of humankind.”

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