“First world problems”. Have you ever said that to your friends as you complained about your slow internet, or when your sushi joint had sold out of your favourite salmon roll? I’ve done that plenty of times in the past. But I stopped doing it a few years ago. Why?
Because we are using it to compare Australia to other countries, who we deem to be the ‘third world’. And the term ‘third world’ is outdated, condescending and amplifies a power imbalance.
The terms first and third world were actually never originally intended to refer to the economic status of countries. During the Cold War, the terms first, second and third world were used to categorise countries by their political divisions, that is, whether they aligned with NATO or the Communist Bloc. And along the way, because many of the countries classified as the ‘third world’ were also of low economic status, the term ‘third world’ became a way to refer to ‘impoverished’ countries.
But the thing is, there isn’t a first world. Or a third world. We are one world. We are global citizens. We should be working in unity to solve the big problems of the world. Not classifying some countries as helpless or irrelevant. By using the outdated term ‘third world’ to refer to countries like Ethiopia and Afghanistan, you are painting a picture. An ugly picture. One that puts your own country, should it be considered ‘first world’ on a pedestal, and creates a hierarchy.
So, what should we call countries with low gross national incomes? Until last year I used the term ‘developing countries’, which even appears in my book, ‘It’s Not About Me’. But, as I am constantly learning and willing to change my opinions, I thought of the term differently when I saw this quote from Shose Kessi, a social psychologist at the University of Cape. “I dislike the term ‘developing world’ because it assumes a hierarchy between countries. It paints a picture of Western societies as ideal but there are many social problems in these societies as well. It also perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from the so-called developing world as backward, lazy, ignorant, irresponsible.”
The World Bank actually classifies the world’s economies into four income groups — high, upper-middle, lower-middle, and low. Of course, this system does have its complaints, because even high-income countries have a lot of inequalities and poverty. But, for now, this is what I use to refer to countries with low gross national incomes. Because ‘low income country’ doesn’t have the same negative connotations as ‘third world’. It doesn’t paint an ugly picture that shows the people living in those countries as incapable. In my opinion, the income of a country has nothing to do with the abilities of those people. I often say, if an apocalypse were to happen, it would most likely be people living on lower incomes that survive, as they tend to be innovative, resourceful and resilient. They are survivors on a daily basis.
There are already so many inequalities in the world. Let’s not perpetuate this by the use of an outdated term. Let’s try to change our habits and think about the way that we refer to our brothers and sisters in other countries. Because we are one world. And we all deserve respect and opportunities.