Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Third World is Not a Collective

Written by johnleemk on 4:17:34 am Mar 15, 2007.

While debating globalisation with some friends recently, it suddenly came to me that perhaps the reason we were at loggerheads about the third world (also known as the developing world) was not a fundamental disagreement about the solutions, but a fundamental disagreement about the problems. More specifically, we could have been arguing with two totally different conceptions of the "third world" in mind.

The media often refers to the "third world" or "developing world" as if it were a collective; as if the issues faced by all developing countries are the same. To a certain extent, they are — corruption, inadequate institutions, an undeveloped rule of law, and the occasional military coup or popular uprising are all features characteristic of most developing countries.

But in many other respects, it is ridiculous to equate all developing countries with one another. The fundamental variables affecting each country's equation often don't have the same values. In other words, what may be a major problem in one country is a minor nuisance in another, while what is a pesky annoyance can be a crushing disaster for two different countries.

It seems to me that instead of referring to the third world as a collective, we should distinguish developing countries from one another. Although not always relevant to political issues, geographical boundaries seem to be a good method of drawing the line here, so to speak.

After all, consider Asia, South America and Africa — the three developing continents of the world. How much do the countries of these continents have in common with the other countries on their continent, and how much do they have in common with other countries from a different developing continent?

What can be good for one developing country can also be bad for another. Just to give one example, I know not why this is so, but sweatshops and multinationals have a tremendous track record of success in Asian developing countries (India, China, South Korea, Vietnam, you name it). Yet the same companies have probably helped run the economies of many South American countries into the ground.

Meanwhile, how relevant are the experiences of the African nations to developing countries in Asia or South America? Not much, if at all. African countries are plagued by levels of corruption that only a few Asian countries can aspire to, and are also far more prone to violent civil wars than the typical Asian or South American country. (And let's not forget all the vehement plagues and voracious droughts that Asia and South America — but not Africa — have mercifully been spared from.)

Why is there such a neat correlation between geography and development stages? It's a good question, and one that's not too easy to answer without stirring a few bees' nests.

Buckingham Fuller once proposed that the reason tropical and equatorial countries are laggards in development is because their climates engendered a more easygoing culture, whereas those at the extreme latitudes either worked or froze. It's a controversial theory, but not one that should be dismissed out of hand, I think.

Certainly, I think it's possible culture plays a role. There is something to that "Asian values" claim, I think. Anecdotal evidence overwhelmingly indicates that Asians are overachievers wherever they are, and tend to be more hardworking, probably because of culture. But the main determinant, I think, may turn out to be historical background rather than culture.

From a historical vantage point, many Asian countries were not seriously colonised (by which I mean totally stripped of their land and resources by a brutal invading gang of marauders who didn't care one whit for the interests of the locals). China and Japan, for instance, have always been independent (although several Western countries did gain footholds in a weak Imperial China at the turn of the 20th century). Thus, their institutions and legal systems were relatively well-developed compared to the countries who had their old orders smashed apart by colonialist powers.

Other countries that were colonised often had the benefit of being colonised by the British, who took a greater interest in establishing institutions and the rule of law than other colonialists. The difference is clear when you consider that the countries who were colonised by the Dutch, French or Portuguese are all seriously troubled backwaters (Indonesia, Cambodia, Timor Leste) while the "Asian Tigers" were almost completely former British colonies (Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, etc.).

In South America, which was completely colonised by the Spanish and Portuguese, the only Hispanic-dominated country which has experienced a modicum of major economic development is Chile. All other former Spanish colonies haven't seen much in the way of progress. One of the few Asian backwaters, the Philippines, has more in common with South American countries than Asian countries, an indicator that history may be more important than geography.

A similar thing can be said for Africa. The only truly successful African country (indeed, it is sometimes counted among the ranks of developed countries) is South Africa, a former British colony. The rest of Africa, which had the misfortune of being colonised by (variously) the French, Germans, Belgians, etc., has had a much more sordid fate, being totally unprepared for independence.

Still, putting history aside, the chasm between African, South American and Asian developing countries remains wide. There are a lot of differences in cultures, traditions and people that can't be ignored, and it is very inaccurate to lump these varying peoples and societies under the collective label of "third world".

If we want to categorise the peoples of the developing world, it would be a far better representation of the problems to categorise them according to historical or geographical background. Simply describing them all as "third world" obscures their true status, and leads to pointless debates like the one described earlier.

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