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Stop saying "third-world" country

  • What is it like to visit a third-world country?

Is this phrase something you've heard from your friends or family when you visit Mexico, Colombia, or any other country in Latin- America? Whenever I hear someone saying this, I cringe. I cringe because this term is outdated and even pejorative.

And I'm not talking only about foreigners who come to Mexico and use this term. I'm talking about my fellow Mexicans as well! They love using this phrase in such a derogative way about themselves or their other fellow Mexicans. Keep reading to find out why this term is so outdated and perjudicial.

Where does the term "third world" comes from?

The term "third world" was originally used during the Cold War to refer to countries that were not aligned with either the capitalist First World or the communist Second World. A lot of these countries which stayed out of the big capitalism-communism debate were in the global south and, as a result, tended to be less wealthy and developed than the “1st” and “2nd” worlds.

So the original meaning of the phrase doesn’t actually happen to have anything to do with being rich or poor at all. A curious fact which may interest you is that the country that I am in now, Colombia, officially became a NATO partner in 2017, making it a first-world country by the original definition of the phrase. Cuba, where the average monthly wage is $159, is a 2nd world country.

I think you can all agree that, in the modern sense of the word, “First World” is a positive thing and “Third World” is associated with all sorts of negative things. We might think about the economic situation but it is also associated with violence, desperation and being kind of backwards and maybe even uncivilised. It seems a bit unfair to describe countries of millions of people in this kind of way.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should ignore the obvious inequalities and differences that exist between different countries. If a country is poor, call it a poor country by all means. Saying a country is poor is stating a fact, without inferring all of the other negative connotations.

This term is so offensive!

The term "third world" is not only inaccurate, it's also pejorative. It implies that these countries are inferior or less advanced, which is not true. Many of these countries have rich cultures and histories and are making significant progress in areas like education, healthcare, and technology.

When I hear someone using this term, I feel like they are saying: - We are better than those people living in those countries! - We are different!

The problem is that in Latin-America, we use this term to offend ourselves too!

In Mexico at least, to use the term “tercermundista”, which means “Like a third world country”. Latin Americans often refer to themselves as being “Third Worlders” and I think that this is also very problematic. We can find all sorts of memes online from many countries in Latin America which make reference to this.

Whenever people describe something as “tercermundista”, it’s always describing society or institutions in a negative way. If people want to criticise something “tercermundista” is the go-to phrase to say that things are backwards or stupid or inferior.

But the implication of this is that everything in the “primer mundo” works very well all of the time. The people are more civilised and we could only hope to be more like them.

it’s not just foreigners who use these terms in a negative way. We also use them all the time to criticise ourselves and to make ourselves seem inferior.

The world is complicated and simplistic terms like First World and Third World are not just unhelpful and outdated, they show a kind of childish view of the world, which just doesn’t reflect reality at all.

What should we say instead?

There's no one-size-fits-all answer, as each country has its own unique situation. Some people use terms like "developing countries" or "emerging economies" to describe these nations.

Watch the video here:

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1 Comment

David Lucas
David Lucas
Apr 12, 2023

You simply cannot compare the overall standard and or quality of life in the United States and Canada and other more industrialized nations with Mexico and Latin America. Take it from me I know. Safe travels

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