The Third World
I have always considered the term third world to be a rather condescending and patronising description of countries we deem to be less economically developed than ourselves or having developing rather than developed economies. Swathes of Africa, Asia and Central and Latin America languish under this sobriquet. But I had never really considered how this description had come about or, while I am thinking about it, what or is the Second World.
In tracing the origin of this phrase we start with a political pamphlet, written in January 1789 by Abbe Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, entitled Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état?, translated as what is the third estate? This pamphlet, which went some way to stoke up the flames that led to the French Revolution later that year, sought to show that the common people of France, the third Estate, were a complete nation in their own right and did not need the dead weight represented by the first and second estates, the clergy and nobility, thank you very much. Sieyes posed three hypothetical questions; what is the third estate? Answer, everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Answer, nothing. What does it desire to be? Answer, something. The rest is history, as they say.
We now fast forward, still in la belle France, to 14th August 1952 and an article published in L’Observateur in which the demographer, Alfred Sauvy, wrote, “Ce Tiers-Monde, ignore, exploite, meprise comme le Tiers-Etat.” By Tiers-Monde Sauvy meant those poor countries, particularly in Africa, Asia and Latin America, which were neither within the capitalist nor the communist blocs but were oppressed, downtrodden and exploited like the sans-culottes. Perhaps their time would come?
In the early 1960s Sauvy’s rather handy descriptor was taken up by economists and politicians in Britain and the United States. This, of course, prompted the question as to whether there was a need for the corresponding terms of First and Second Worlds. The first world duly appeared in 1967 to describe those countries which were based on the capitalist model of high-income market economies such as Britain and the United States. The second world came along a tad later, 1974 to be precise, to describe those relatively wealthy Communist states or countries which had ventrally planned economies. Neither term seems to be as popular and enduring as Sauvy’s Third World.
In Britain, of course, we like to be a bit different and have four, if not five, estates. God, according to John Wyclif in his Works of 1380, ordained that there be three estates – the clergy, the barons and knights and, finally, the commoners. John Aylmer, Bishop of London, transferred the holy estates to those which were necessary to enforce legislation, in other words the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Thomas Carlyle, in On Heroes and Hero Worship, attributed the description of a Fourth Estate, the press, to Edmund Burke in 1787. He reports, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.” The Fifth Estate, according to the eponymous film of 2013, refers to the online media. So there we have it.