February 01

First World Problems

Like a lot of people, I thought that the first world was an economic classification. First being the most developed, therefore richest, and so on down the scale to the third world. Nope – it turns out that compiling the guest list for a world party is more complicated than that.

There’s a surprising absence of official agreement about the meanings of these terms, but we can at least shed some light on their origins, etymologically speaking.

The general consensus is that the terminology first came into use at the United Nations, following WWII. Apparently, the categories had little to do with economic status, but everything to do with ideology. So the first world related to the capitalist, liberal democracies of the US, UK and Europe (NATO countries, basically). Meanwhile, the second world was the Communist bloc: the Soviet Union, China and allies. So it’s more of a bloc party than a world party.

The third world was a bit more complex. According to the formula above, third world could be descriptive of every country not affiliated with either the Eastern or Western blocs. Again, there’s some debate, but it seems the most popular origin story for the term is from the 1950s, when an article in L’Observateur magazine compared the third world with the third estate. (This in itself was a reference to Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate? – which became a manifesto for the French Revolution. In case you were wondering [spoiler alert] the third estate was the commoners.)

As these terms took hold outside the sphere of international-relations jargon, they became a convenient way to describe the East, the West and the rest, as they stood at the time. A fourth world classification developed in the 1970s, having been coined in the field of ethnogeography and referring to indigenous peoples whose boundaries had very little to do with those drawn by nations across the land they’d occupied for millenia.

But things have changed. Language is a fluid thing at the best of times, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union made the terminology redundant.

Nowadays, the first world roughly corresponds to those countries with high ratings on the UN’s Human Development index. This is a more complicated set of criteria than a list of map coordinates and GDP rankings, with statistics like life expectancy and education levels also factored in. The second world is a bit trickier because, effectively, it doesn’t exist any more. But don’t take my word for it, feel free to consult the Economist’s style guide, which states that ‘the communist second world has disappeared’ (but it’s still in lower case). Elsewhere, the third world can be classified by various human development indices, although it’s often used as an umbrella term for emerging and frontier markets. Which isn’t really satisfactory, because by that standard the third world includes countries as wealthy as Saudi Arabia and as poor as Eritrea, and democratic countries like Malawi with those as ideologically inflexible as North Korea.

Perhaps it’s best to keep things as general as possible and stick to developed or developing countries where possible. Or, if you want to get into specifics, you could always memorise the constituents of the MSCI Emerging and Frontier Markets indices as a party piece. Assuming the parties you attend are rubbish.

Duncan Black, 1 February 2014