An unwanted world

C GOPINATH | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on January 21, 2018

The US has a third-world problem

The US was in quite a flutter last week on the alleged use of a derogatory term by the President (which he denied) during a closed door meeting to refer to countries who are sending unwanted immigrants. He should stick to ‘Third World’ to refer to unwanted countries. Especially since he fears becoming one.

Trump, speaking in New York on August 15, 2017, had likened the crumbling infrastructure in the US to that of a third world country and said he would upgrade it to world class status. Joe Biden, Vice-President under President Obama, felt the same in 2014 when he said, if taken blindfolded to La Guardia Airport in New York, one would say, ‘I must be in a third world country.’ The deterioration of inter-state highways, bridges, and airports in the US has been at the top of the vocal priorities of US politicians for a long time but has escaped their budgets.

The problem is beyond infrastructure. Recently an official in the University of Utah’s drug information services said about administering medications using syringes due to a shortage of saline IV bags in US hospitals, ‘It might as well be a third world country.’

The term was reportedly coined in 1952 by Albert Sauvy, French demographer, to refer to the group of nations who were neither aligned with NATO (or western democracies), nor with the Warsaw Pact (or communist) countries. These were generally former colonies and very poor. The ‘poor country’ meaning stuck and expanded to include other related features, including inefficiency, corruption, and weak governance.

The epithet, along with others to refer to poor countries like ‘less developed country’ gradually fell into disfavour because it seemed demeaning, and ‘emerging economies’ or even the World Bank’s stoic ‘Low income’ and ‘Middle income’ became widespread. Yet, ‘third world’ remains a choice curse word that one can use to shock.

In US officials, clearly, the term evokes fear. Let’s review. Third world countries generally suffer from high income inequality and the US today exhibits wider disparities between the rich and poor than any other major developed nation. Third world countries have a reputation for brutal police tactics. In the US, police officers’ penchant to shoot and kill in the line of duty has often led to street riots and tense situations in inner cities. More than 2.2 million people are in prisons, the highest in the world and the rate of incarceration is said to be at least 5 times that of major western democracies.

The third world drags its feet when it comes to fixing problems. But so does Puerto Rico, a US colony, 40 per cent of whose people still have no power four months after a hurricane. Minorities get the short shrift in third world countries. Minorities are a disproportionate number of the US penal population. Levels of higher education, life expectancy, and so on among US minorities make it comparable to many third world countries.

Third world countries have fractious politicians with their own selfish agendas. They don’t compromise on national priorities for the country’s progress and work hard to obstruct the other. The Democrats and Republicans in the US have taken partisan politics to a fine art, often threatening to shut down the government and taking months for important bills to pass.

Ariana Huffington, a political commentator, published a book in 2010 titled Third World America highlighting issues such as the shrinking middle class, and growing economic inequality. Few countries have been able to emulate Singapore’s escape, narrated by Lee Kuan Yew in his 2010 book From Third World to First: The Singapore Story. So to those countries who are stuck squarely in the third world, I say, ‘Open your arms and welcome America!’ They feel they are qualified to join.

The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston

Published on January 21, 2018

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