Discovering the Third World

The 'Third World' was conceived in the middle of the twentieth century, an idea shaped from a tumultuous period of international reorganization .

As old empires dissolved in the afternmath of the Second World War, the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic rose to power as the dominant forces in global relations. During this period of transition, countries with capitalist aspirations aligned with the United States while the countries with Communist affinities aligned with the U.S.S.R. In the discourse of international relations, the capitalist bloc came to be known as the 'First World' while the Communist bloc was labeled the 'Second World'.

Meanwhile, the remaining three-quarters of the world's population -- the peoples of the Middle East, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Oceania, and most of South, Southeast, and East Asia -- were confronting similar problems resulting from scarce resources and post-colonial development. These countries 'united' politically and ideologically as a non-aligned 'Third World'.

Half a century after its beginnings, the Third World has attended the birth of the United Nations, survived the end of the Cold War, and now grapples with the new war terrorism and the behemoth powers of globalization. Our maps of the world have changed, however, the geography of the Third World is still identified by marginalized communities that have banded together to challenge historical patterns of political, economic, and cultural domination. Of course, the idea of the 'Third World' is one fraught with contention and complexity.

The absence of polarized capitalist/communist relations has created a vacuous tension in the space once occupied by the Second World. Economic relations between the First and Third Worlds have been conflated. The possible paths of development once open to the non-aligned countries have been restricted and re-defined.

As a result of these changes, some countries in the Third World have undergone periods of rapid capitalist expansion and modernization. Development in other Third World countries has stagnated emphatically. The newly-industrializing nations of the Third World -- Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and arguably, Indonesia -- were adopted by the First World and re-named the 'Second World'. The interests of the non-aligned movement diverged, splintering the once-unified Third World. The newly-defined 'Third World' was re-mapped as a realm of destruction and disorder.

The feverish idealism of anti-imperialism and liberation in the 1960s and 1970s popularized a 'unified' Third World as a realm of revolutionary alternativity. But by the 1980s and 1990s, the Third World had come to be known as the unkempt backyard of the First World, home to peoples invariably affected by the conditions of suffering, poverty, inequality, violence, and social, political, and economic marginalization. Even depressed communities in the First World, experiencing the same patterns of underdevelopment, underwent a 'Thirdworldization'.

The ongoing and irrefutable problems of underdevelopment persisting in countries and communities around the world re-affirm the need for a realm of revolutionary alternativity, an ideological space in which solutions to these problems can be explored and applied.

The existence of a politicized Third World is thus re-invested with meaning and importance. Surviving and evolving models of alternative development and sustainable social, political, economic, and cultural growth will be kept alive in the commited struggles of Third World peoples working to realize visions of social change.