What Does “Third World” Mean?

When thinking about the global community we throw around terms like “third world” or “developing world.” Coming from the first world, I’ve often heard those terms with an undertone of pity. The terms have a distributive property and rather than just being used to categorize a political territory they are used to describe people. And when these terms are distributed to people they usually mean: unhappy, uneducated, dirty, and disadvantaged.

It’s taken me almost 9 months in Paraguay to wrap my head around what “third world” actually means, because the first thing I noticed when coming to Paraguay is that Paraguayans aren’t unhappy, uneducated, and dirty. Actually, Paraguayans are almost annoyingly happy most of the time. The Paraguayan approach is simple: bad things happen, life goes on. It takes only a little time in Asunción to meet several trilingual Paraguayans and it takes no more searching than it does among the regular US population to find a Paraguayan who can have an intellectual conversation about politics, religion, sex, and health. Americans are ragamuffins compared to Paraguayans—unless you iron your underwear and know how to wear every accessory that exists in all the same color at the same time and make it look good, you ain’t got nothing on the average Paraguayan woman.

That leaves disadvantaged. Can people be disadvantaged or is it the system that limits them? My conclusion: “third world” is actually a term to describe a country’s systems and infrastructure. It cannot be used to describe people. Inefficient systems or poor infrastructure do limit opportunities and make life harder. However, people from third world countries are NOT an inferior people—that is to say that if the same person was born in the US rather than Paraguay they are just as well equipped to make a good life there as an American born in America.

So, third world can be used to describe systems and infrastructure. What does that mean in Paraguay? That means that there are communities without running water or there are families that use holes in the ground as toilets. It means that even if a community has running water, the water is liable to not work for a couple hours many days. It means that the power goes out all the time—usually for only a couple of moments or hours. It goes out when it rains. It goes out when the janky wires break or the breaker boxes explode (figuratively) because they weren’t designed to take the voltage they are handling. It goes out when too many people use electricity—like when it’s hell-hot and time for bed.

It means dirt roads are the norm and drainage systems are nonexistent, so when it rains not going to school is a safety precaution. It means that political bosses give jobs and bribes keep people out of the justice system. It means time in school is more loosely associated with learning than perhaps it should be. It means that there are laws and then there are those things that get a person in trouble—the latter is far scarcer than the former. It means that dirt bikes are all over because, well, they’re the only vehicles that can travel on all the roads. It means that people throw or burn their trash because most communities don’t have trash collection. It means that people wait for government handouts because the average person has no access to credit…or even a savings account. It means that even though healthcare is public in Paraguay local clinics don’t have all the medications or specialists the community needs. Some people simply go without because they don’t have the money for bus fare to travel to a medical facility that has what they need.

Third world does not mean helpless people who need to be saved. It means countries whose systems are underequipped to fulfill the needs of their population and because of this the people in those countries don’t benefit from all the modern conveniences our era has to offer. It is not a permanent description. Countries that are third world today are working to shake that status, and they are making progress. The fact that I can complain about my running water not working and that I don’t get Internet in my house means that process has been made in Paraguay. If I had lived in my community not so many years ago, I would have complained about hauling water from a well and not dreamed of Internet.