In this piece, Ifeoluwa Adedeji traces the evolution of terms used to divide regions of the world into “developing” and “developed,” and highlights the complexity that uncritical understandings of such divisions might miss.

Rarely is the term “third world” used in popular media and texts today. It is possible that that market is not completely wiped out, but it has reduced significantly in scale and frequency. “Third world peoples.” “Third world problems.” “Third world women.” “The (under)development of the third world.” Anyone not familiar with political science or development studies or allied disciplines may ask, what is the third world?

Originally the term “third world” was used to refer to the group of countries who, during the Cold War, desired no part in the tussle between the United States and her non-communist allies (the first world) and the soviet bloc (the second world). These countries, mostly colonized, chose non-alignment. They were neither here nor there; in other words, like President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria, they “belonged to everyone and they belonged to no one.” After the Cold War, the term became more than a category of non-aligned countries: it developed as a category for identifying and characterizing impoverished countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia that have a shared history of colonization and a shared predicament or condition of extreme poverty.

This tradition of setting markers, of categorizing by location, and now by ‘conditions’, is well established in the historiography of world relations. Gayatri Spivak confronts this tradition when she says “we must now confront the following question: on the other side of the international division of labor from socialized capital, inside and outside the circuit of the epistemic violence of imperialist law and education supplementing an earlier economic text, can the subaltern speak? For Edward Said, the Orient “is not merely there, just as the Occident itself is not just there either…as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given reality and presence in and for the West.” Notions of the “Other,” “Primitive,” “Tribal,” “Vernacular” (Elsewhere, I mentioned the colonial displacement of indigenous languages through violence) were deeply entrenched. There is nothing hidden in these notions, for they speak of a different people, maybe an aberration, that need to be helped (read: exploited), fed, tutored, directed, represented.

Considerably, there has been a shift toward benign descriptions like “Global South” and “Global North,” “developed” and “developing.” In a post on NPR titled “If You Shouldn’t Call It the Third World, What Should You Call It,” I have read that “the question of what to call the “developing world” is a developing debate.” The preference is for “developing countries” since the focus is on what these countries lack compared to their ‘Western Others’ (I use ‘Other’ to refer to the West along the lines of Oyeronke Oyewumi’s note in Alice in Wonderland: Reading Alice Walker on Africa and Screening the Color “Black” that “in the United States, projecting “black” as a marginalized category of otherness in relation to “whiteness,” which is taken as the norm may be unavoidable. In most parts of Africa, black is the norm, white is the mark of otherness.”) In the NPR article, the author says it seems accurate, on the surface, to use the term “developing”: “We’re writing about countries that need to develop better health care systems, better schools, better ways to bring water and electricity to people.” Consider the words of, in the words of the author (pun intended), a “developing” hater, a social psychologist at the University of Cape Town: “I dislike the term ‘developing world’ because it assumes a hierarchy between countries. It paints a picture of Western societies as ideal but there are many social problems in these societies as well. It also perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from the so-called developing world as backward, lazy, ignorant, irresponsible.” Let me re-echo here Oyeronke Oyewumi’s argument about the once dominant image of the African woman as “beast of burden” that “the belabored image of the overworked African woman complements the image of African men as lazy and indolent in traditional Africanist discourse.” The “developing” hater continued, “In my view, the developed-developing relationship in many ways replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. The idea of development is a way for the rich countries to control and exploit the poor.” In that post, the debate over whether one can rightfully claim that “developing” nations are underdeveloped (for this is the implicit meaning) compared to the West is fairly stretched out.

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Along the “developing-developed” fashion came terms like “Africa Rising,” “Emerging Africa,” “The Last Frontier.” Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu’s 2013 book “Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s ‘Last Frontier’ Can Prosper and Matter” mentions that Africa lacks a worldview and it is this absence that explains why Africa is poor, and according to Greg Mills, why African leaders have made this choice.

A careful tracing of the development of these terms reveals a postmodern transformation. The language today is not so much of primitive, barbaric peoples that overtly colored earlier efforts and discourses, rather it is of a sense of collaboration and brotherhood of the nations, of an authorizing signature of the Western ideological and political project of humanism: an attempt to grab the economic potentials of vast areas of land waiting for an investment boom. Africa wants to develop along the lines of the path mapped out by foreign financial institutions, aid donors, and modernization voices; trade, industry and investment is the ground of the twenty-first century scramble for Africa.

Indeed, great caution should be taken in joining the debate over what terms or categories should be used in identifying countries and regions of the world along similarities and differences. In Washington, Nigeria’s Finance Minister, Kemi Adeosun accused western powers of being a stumbling block to Nigeria’s plan to improve power. According to a Vanguard Nigeria piece, she said “We want to build a coal power plant because we are a country blessed with coal, yet we have power problem. So it doesn’t take a genius to work out that it will make sense to build a coal power plant. However, we are being blocked from doing so, because it is not green. This is not fair because they have an entire western industrialization that was built on coal fired energy.” One may wonder, why not go ahead and do what you need to do to grow? It is not as simple as that. There are consequences for going against the super powers and against ‘common interests’ that they have rallied support for. The message here is subtle and easy to miss. One may oneself be an environmentalist, but that is not the cogent point. Africa is trapped in a dependency relationship and this has happened over a long time by design.

To be clear, development in Africa will not be without sacrifices. After all, the West developed using that route. To avoid that route will mean a search for alternative development paths. To continue to hold on will mean a continuous, arduous confrontation with the hypocrisy and agenda of the ‘development experts’.

If we believe that African leaders are no less intelligent than their counterparts from other parts of the world, that – according to Nigeria’s Finance Minister – it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what should be done, why then have African leaders made the choice of poverty? This may be a better way to make sense of Greg Mills’ contribution that “the main reasons why Africa’s people are poor is because their leaders have made this choice” – in the hope that deeper thought will be given to the positionality of agency in the development discourse, beyond taking ‘choice’ for granted.

This article was first published here as part of a ‘New Voices’ series.

Ifeoluwa Adedeji is a MA Candidate in African Studies at Ohio University, and an alumnus of the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He tweets at @TheIfeAdedeji and blogs at ifeadedeji

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of Africa@OHIO or the African Studies Program of Ohio University.