November 7, 2023

LIVSHITS | The United States is Not a Third-World Country

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The rise of globalization has inevitably revitalized fields of comparison for state economic success, including measures of Gross Domestic Product, Purchasing Power Parity, Corruption Perceptions Index and inflation rate. For most people, assuming they were born after World War I, these economic measures for the standard of living have dominated the perception of wealthy and impoverished countries. And for the United States, which has the world’s largest economy with $26.85 trillion in nominal GDP, this measure has bolstered its global power and respect.

With this comparative wealth, American exceptionalism was easily born. The term denoted features of American self-understanding as distinctive, unique or exemplary when compared to other modern societies, providing justification for colonizing “savage” and “backward” peoples. 

This combination of colonialism and imperialism — both by the United States and by European nations — created underdeveloped countries. Colonialism was inherently oppressive, with the United States as the domineering power, subjugating other nations and exercising control over their territories and their governments. 

Modern poverty is the fruit of those centuries of slavery, exploitation and imperialism; it is not a choice made by those colonized. 

Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa uniquely exposes this interconnectedness of contemporary economic imbalance with imperialism as he “delves into the past only because otherwise it would be impossible to understand how the present came into being and what the trends are for the near future. In the search for an understanding of what is now called ‘underdevelopment’ in Africa, the limits of enquiry have had to be fixed as far apart as the fifteenth century, on the one hand and the end of the colonial period, on the other hand.” His evaluation of history addresses the cause of underdevelopment: Africa developed Europe at the same rate that Europe underdeveloped Africa. “In the first place,” Rodney writes, “the wealth created by African labour and from African resources was grabbed by capitalist countries of Europe; and in the second place, restrictions were placed upon African capacity to make maximum use of economic potential — which is what development is all about.”

A similar exposé of inequality via naming, however, falls short. 

The term “Third World” was originally coined during the Cold War to distinguish those nations that are neither aligned with the West (NATO) nor with the East (Communist bloc). In recent years, however, it has evolved to describe nations characterized by significant poverty, economic instability and a lack of fundamental human necessities, such as clean water, adequate shelter or sufficient food for their populations. These countries are frequently considered underdeveloped and, in addition to pervasive poverty, also grapple with elevated mortality rates.

The language for many poorer countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Australia/Oceania has changed — Third World countries, underdeveloped countries and developing countries — while their systems of oppression persist. The battle over semantics may best be voiced by Dr. Abraar Karan, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, in an interview with NPR: “There is no ‘Third World.’ There were the oppressed and the oppressors.” 

But how is changing the acceptable term from “Third World” to “developing country” addressing inequality when it still obscures the history of Western nations not only benefiting their own empires, but also actively hindering economic and social progress in Africa, Asia and Latin America? The phrase “Developing country” — just like “Third World country” — hides the international trade practices developed under imperialism (yet still used today) whereby certain countries export raw materials for cheap in exchange for expensive, finished products from the West. Language becomes the final link in accepting imperialism.

Upon viewing colonization as war, Thucydides comes to mind. As he chronicled the collapse of civil society during the Peloponnesian War, language became the first casualty: 

To fit with the change of events, words, too, had to change their usual meanings. What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future and wait was merely another way of saying one was a coward; any idea of moderation was just an attempt to disguise one’s unmanly character; ability to understand a question from all sides meant that one was totally unfitted for action. (3:82; translation by Rex Warner from the Penguin Classics edition of History of the Peloponnesian War)

The changing of names is not changing the reality (or history) of countries. Naming often becomes a sign of obstruction, not exposure. The term is blurred until America begins to be called a Third-World country. The oppressor is categorized as oppressed. 

This notion of the United States as a Third World country has gained prominence in recent years. Former President Donald Trump branded the U.S. a “third-world hell-hole” run by “pervert criminals and thugs” in one of his campaign speeches. News titles similarly read “USA: Most Citizens in 3rd World Conditions” (Housing and Land Rights Network), “America *Is* A Third World Country” (Medium), and “US is becoming a ‘developing country’ on global rankings that measure democracy, inequality” (The Conversation). Many reference Peter Temin’s, Professor Emeritus of Economics at MIT, book “The Vanishing Middle Class: Prejudice and Power in a Dual Economy” and the United Nations Office of Sustainable Development ranking the U.S. as 39th worldwide.

The implication of the United States as a developing country aside, discontentment with the condition of the country is a prevailing issue, and it’s not without reason. The U.S. is experiencing record-high levels of homelessness at 400,000 people, substance abuse at 19.7 million people and poverty at 11.5%. However, labeling America as “developing” turns a blind eye to true developing countries that face these issues at much higher rates and find even less governmental support.

Pakistan, for example, which was part of the British Indian Empire until 1947, bears the effects of colonization almost a century later. To play the comparison game, the United States has approximately 17.5 homeless individuals for every 10,000 people in the population, while Pakistan has a staggering 943. America’s insufficient funding for homeless shelters contrasts available shelters in Pakistan relying solely on nonprofit organizations for support. The floods in rural Pakistan last September left many people drinking salt-tinged water from a hand pump that was previously only used for washing clothes and dishes, causing an outbreak of malaria and typhoid fever. In the United States, during the Flint Water Crisis, people turned to bottled water.

Liberia, which was colonized by the United States in 1821, has 52.3% of its population living in poverty, compared to the United States’ 11.5%. The lack of piped water and heavy rains from May to October in parts of Liberia make it a breeding ground for mosquitoes and malaria. While flooding is nearly a daily occurrence throughout the U.S., flood deaths average at 114 annually. The levels of corruption and government conflict in Liberia are unparalleled in the United States.

While the United States faces its own challenges, its flaws should be discussed without comparing it to something it is not — a developing country. In acknowledging the severity of issues that plague developing countries, we need to question how the United States fits into a system of colonization and exploitation. The oppressor cannot be painted as the oppressed.

Ilana Livshits is a first year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column Live Laugh Livshits focuses on politics, social issues and culture at Cornell. She can be reached at [email protected].

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