At what point did the term “third world” become a cultural slur? Rising anxiety surrounding this nomenclature seems to have coincided with a number of events in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the U.S. assault on Panama; the beginning of a long period of jobless growth in the U.S.; the fall of the Soviet Union (“the Second World”). With the collapse of the ostensible global hierarchy, and a rising necessity for the U.S. to maintain relationships with nascent, burgeoning nations to sustain jobless growth, the terminology seems to have been quickly replaced with more strategic ‘phrases du jour’: developing countries, emerging economies, etc. But Vijay Prashad argues that this liberal nominalism missed the entire significance of the Third World, the ideals it originally represented, and how it was assassinated.
Last week I attended a lecture given by Prashad, Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, genre-busting political and social historian, and prolific author. In his most recent work, The Darker Nations: A Peope’s History of the Third World, Prashad explores the notion of the Third World rather as a intentional ‘project’, originating with the first sparks of anti-colonialist rebellion in the 1920s and dying in the embers of the global debt crisis of the early 1980s. The objectives of this project, which was hoisted to global significance by post-colonial intellectuals and leaders such as Nehru of India, Castro of Cuba, Nkrumah of Ghana, Mandela of South Africa, was to develop a universal platform for newly emancipated nations to come to the table, in the United Nations and elsewhere, with the countries to which they had for too long been subordinate. These leaders held strong to their beliefs that a new world order would require peace (disarmament), economic and trade reform, and justice (gender and racial equality).
But the project eventually failed, according to Prashad, assassinated by encroaching globalization, rapid industrialization, and the vastly different approaches of these leaders to the global debt crisis, which were somewhat mangled in their own dizzying ascents to leadership in their respective countries. Every country fell on a different point in the right-left spectrum, and the Third World project was thusly abandoned, its banner reduced merely to politically-incorrect cultural epithet.
So, where do we go from here?
Prashad outlined three debates that we all need to engage in to address how to resurrect the universal agenda of the global south and spur efficient and product economic and political development:
1. How do we recognize the importance of national sovereignty to development in the face of neo-imperialism? (ex, Iraq)
2. What is the role of the state in asserting power and what is the most responsible way to wield that power? (Compare and contrast: Chavez, Mugabe and W. Bush)
3. Is there another road to development that circumvents traditional industrialization? Are there alternative methods to encourage capital investment, create employment opportunities to catalyze long-term development?
Prashad concluded with a call to action: We desperately need a new ‘project’ to create the good of the future that doesn’t currently exist.
I believe that social enterprises are beginning to address some of these concerns but there is a long way to go, mainly in addressing one of the white elephants in the room: politicized economies and more specifically, agriculture and international trade policies. I will attempt to elucidate this in Part Two.