Tuesday, December 6, 2016

How the "Third World" became the "Global South"


This is adapted from an entry, written by me, called The North and South, which was published in 2007 in the International Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences (Editor: A. Hedblad) New York, USA: MacMillan Reference USA, Vol 5 (pages 42-44).

The origins of the Third World

In the 19th century the world was largely divided into several empires, each of which possessed a “civilized” center and peripheries that were more or less considered primitive or even “barbaric.” It is unlikely that the citizens of what is now often called the "Global North" ("developed" or high-income countries) would have given much thought to the inhabitants of what was to become known as the Third World, and now, the Global South, also called "developing" or low-income countries. When they did, most would have considered these peoples to be inferior in some way, by virtue of being non-white, less educated, or even “primitive.”

This began to change, including through the work of Colin Clark (the PhD supervisor of the late Max Neutze AO, one of my own PhD supervisors) who in 1940 published “Conditions of Economic Progress,” which showed the world to be, as one reviewer commented, “a wretchedly poor place.”

The term "the Third World" was coined in 1952 by the French demographer, anthropologist, and economic historian Alfred Sauvy, who compared it with the Third Estate, a concept that emerged in the context of the French Revolution. (First Estate refers to the clergy and the monarch, Second Estate to the nobility, and Third Estate to the balance of the eighteenth-century French population—as much as 98 percent.) The Third World, as a phrase, also achieved acceptance because it usefully contrasted the poor countries to the First World (the non-Communist, high-income, “developed” countries) and the Second World (Communist countries, which though not as wealthy as those of the First World, were then characterized by greater order, higher incomes, and longer life expectancies.)

Most people in the Third World, though ruled by European colonies, lived far from the global sources of economic, political, and military power. Until very recently, most were subjugated, most illiterate, and few would have been aware that, even then, they formed a majority of the world population. But such awareness was growing among leaders within these poor countries, many of whom had been educated, at least partly, in Europe or America. This awareness and exposure to Western culture raised expectations and hopes, and inspired many Third World leaders to try to improve colonial living conditions and win political independence. 

Opposition to domination by the First World (colonization) also grew through increasing migration and travel, including that stimulated by the two World Wars. Many troops who had participated in these wars, particularly on the allied side, were from what was soon to be called the Third World. In addition, many Europeans served in Asia, and their exposure to conditions in the colonies may have helped to erode the resolve of the colonial powers to keep their empires unbroken.

As the twentieth century progressed, the global decolonization movement strengthened, empowered by successive nations that achieved independence. More and more countries in the Third World developed a national identity. The newly formed United Nations, born in the period of comparative hope and idealism that briefly flowered following World War II (1939–1945), also provided a forum for developing countries to share ideas and to argue their position before a wider audience.
The decades that followed saw many attempts to form coalitions of Third World countries, to counter the vastly superior power of the “developed” First World countries. With hindsight, it is clear that these were only partly successful. In 1955 Egypt, Indonesia, Burma, and the three powers of the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) organized the Asian-African Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia. Twenty-nine countries, representing over half the world’s population, sent delegates—including the charismatic Chinese premier, Zhou Enlai—to Bandung. At this meeting, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru explicitly rejected both sides in the ongoing cold war between the United States and the USSR, expanding on the principles of non-alignment, a term he is credited with coining and first using in 1954.

The meeting led to the development of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which held its first formal meeting in 1961. Five charismatic Third World leaders—Nehru, Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah—are credited with its establishment. China, despite its Communist ideology, has also been a member of the NAM at times.

In 1960, parallel to these developments, five other developing countries (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela) founded the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), at the Baghdad Conference. Soon after, OPEC was enlarged to include Nigeria and several smaller and poorer African states. Indonesia, the only NAM founder with substantial oil reserves, also joined OPEC.

In 1964 another coalition of developing nations was formed, called the Group of 77. India was instrumental in the formation of this group, which was also joined by Brazil, the most populous and economically powerful South American country and never part of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Group of 77 now has over 130 members. Although the People’s Republic of China has never been a formal member, it has been loosely affiliated since the 1970s.

The emergence of the South 

The 1970s was a period of foment in the developing countries. Many improvements in living standards and life expectancy rates had been achieved in the 1950s, but by the 1970s these advances were stalling. Impatience in the Third World was growing. In 1973 OPEC substantially raised the price of oil, triggering the first global oil crisis. This had a major adverse economic effect upon the non-oil-exporting countries of the Third World, and revealed a lack of solidarity within the Third World overall. Parallel to this, the developed countries (prior to the discovery and development of the North Sea oil fields) were becoming increasingly dependent on the Third World for energy, due to the decline of U.S. oil reserves. 

These factors increased the economic power of part of the Third World. In 1974 the first UN-hosted population mega-conference was held in Bucharest. At this meeting the Group of 77 refused to accept responsibility for their poverty, instead blaming colonialism and ongoing Western exploitation. Famously, the Indian delegation, represented by Karan Singh, called development “the best contraceptive.” This rebellious spirit was also reflected in calls from the Third World for a New International Economic Order (NIEO).

It is unlikely to be coincidental that the terms the South and the North were first widely used around this time. These terms appear to have entered common usage as an alternative to the long-standing geographical and cultural partition of the world into West and East. The new names avoided the stigma associated with the term the Third World, and created the hope that a new world order—one in which the North would be fairer to the South—was underway.


In recent years (since my encyclopaedia entry was published) the South is now generally called the "Global South", to reduce confusion with the South of the US, a confusion which I noticed with some of the editorial staff of the Encyclopaedia in which a version of this was originally published.

That entry concludes with a section called "The persisting disadvantage of the South" - which I  will also probably adapt for this blog.

Selected bibliography 

Arnold, Guy. 1993. The End of the Third World. London and New York: St Martin’s Press.
 
Clark, Colin. 1940. Conditions of Economic Progress. London: Macmillan.
 

Fanon, Frantz. 1963. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Constance Farrington. New York: Grove Press.
 

Finkle, Jason L., and Barbara B. Crane. 1975. The Politics of Bucharest: Population, Development, and the New International Order. Population and Development Review 1 (1): 87–114.
 

Hosle, Vittorio. 1992. The Third World as a Philosophical Problem. Social Research 59 (2): 227–262.
 

Kahin, George McTurnan. 1956. The Asian-African Conference. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
 

Rothbarth, Erwin. 1941. Review of The Conditions of Economic Progress, by Colin Clark. Economic Journal 51 (201): 120–124.
 

Sinding, Steven W. 2000. The Great Population Debates: How Relevant Are They for the 21st Century? American Journal of Public Health 90 (12): 1841–1845.