Good-bye to the ‘Third World’

Good-bye to the ‘Third World’

At a conference, I kept hearing the term “emerging countries.” After awhile I leaned over and asked my neighbor, Noel Ramírez, then president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank, if Nicaragua was an emerging country. He whispered back, “submerging.”

Noel was being funny, but he was also being honest. Nicaragua has stagnated, even fallen backward, for the last quarter of a century. “Emerging countries” is a hopeful expression, but it is far from an accurate description of what is going on in every poor country of the world. Another upbeat, optimistic term is “developing countries.” The most evocative term, though, is “Third World.” It is used to refer collectively to all the poorer countries of the world. While it suggests poverty, it also evokes countries “on the move”—politically and economically—and, above all, in solidarity with one another, pursuing a common political agenda, one that demands attention—and resources—from the rich countries of the world. This conception, however, is especially misleading. It is dated and has lost all of its conceptual usefulness. But what should replace it? Where are we today? What shorthand notation can we use to refer to the poorer countries of the world? How can we conceptualize their place vis-à-vis each other and the more prosperous countries of the world?

These questions are daunting and answers to them are elusive. However, a useful place to start is by an intellectual trek to Harvard University. But the answers are not forthcoming from the Department of Government (lost in a fog of formal modeling) or Samuel Huntington’s former kingdom, the Center for International Affairs, or that nursing home for the casualties of politics, the Kennedy School. No, it is across the Charles River, at the Harvard Business School, where intellectual guidance can be found. Professor Michael Porter has tirelessly studied and promoted “economic competitiveness.” Although he commands staggering consulting fees, he is not a household name. But he best captures how governing elites in poor countries—and everywhere else for that matter—behave: in an atomistic, self-interested way, almost like firms, competing for profitable niches in the international economy. It is the reign of “the business model.” Yes, there are rich countries and there are poor countries. But there is no first, second, or third world. There are just markets and market shares. And if you are not in the market, you might as well disappear, even if you have a seat and a microphone at the United Nations.

We often forget just how “new” most poor countries are. For example, Jordan and Syria—as independent nation-states—were created in 1946. Libya was established in 1951, Tunisia in 1956. India became independent in 1947, Indonesia in 1949. Malaysia was established in 1963. The “birth” of Ghana came in 1957. Senegal and Nigeria were established in 1960. Kenya gained independence in 196...