“You can call my name” – A poll on labels that divide us

By | July 23, 2019

Hand curating an Africa specific economy, innovation, and enterprise timeline on Twitter means that I come across a plethora of labels to describe the rest of the world outside of the mainstream. And, in the global mainstream media, this tends to mean the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Given the recent spate of headlines on stereotypes and racism in the English language internet, I was moved to run this poll among an audience that is primarily from the African continent, and diaspora, along with a sprinkle of others interested in the informal economy and the mobile internet. After all, we only get to read about these things, and nobody has ever asked us what we want to be called, they simply label us as lumpen masses to be commiserated with. I promised to write up this post, and to see if I could find the background and history for these labels that we despise.

The Third World

Cold War alliances circa 1975. Green is non aligned or neutral.

The term Third World has its origins in post World War 2 era geopolitics of the previous century. Strictly speaking, “Third World” was a political, rather than an economic, grouping per Wikipedia. As you can see in the map above, Finland and Sweden are as green as India and Indonesia. These were the Non aligned nations – the NAM is worth reading about if you have not come across the concept before, I grew up with it as an Indian citizen – or, like Sweden and Finland, they were neutral in the Cold War that raged for decades between the United States – the bloc in blue; and the USSR – the bloc in red.

So… one wonders, when and how did “Third World” come to mean the poor and the dispossessed?

To become as despised as the poll makes it out to be, and to evolve from a strictly geopolitical grouping to a socio-economic one. Some would say its an ethnic stereotype, given that the phrase is commonly used as a slur when infrastructure or institutions are not performing up to expectations of the ‘rich world’.

And, though Wikipedia entry calls it an obsolete term, I find that the first result in the world’s most popular search engine still harks back to the days of old. A matter of concern, to be honest, if the names by which we are called are not respected by the ubiquitous controller of the world’s knowledge, thus perpetuating the stereotypes and slurs of a previous century.  Investopedia goes a step further and defines Third World with no caveats that it might not be a preferred label:

Third World countries are typically poor with underdeveloped economies. In these countries, low levels of education, poor infrastructure, improper sanitation, and limited access to health care mean living conditions are inferior to those in the world’s more developed nations. There is no agreed-upon definition of “developing nation.” The terms Third World country and developing nation have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades.

And, do we have any say in the way the phrase continues to be contemporarily defined and used by well meaning websites seeking to uplift and empower us?

Today’s meaning refers to countries that are in financial trouble and need help from other countries to keep their economy sustainable, at least for a short time.

Is it any wonder then that my audience for the Prepaid Economy twitter account hates the label? It diminishes us and undermines our achievements, making helpless beggars out of us at a moment in history when we’re off to the South Pole of the moon?

Global South

Starting again with Wikipedia, we learn that Global South…

…is an emerging term which refers to countries seen as low and middle income in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean by the World Bank. These nations are often described as newly industrialized or in the process of industrializing. Global South does not necessarily refer to geographical south (many Global South countries are in the geographical north). The term started to develop as using “Third World” to describe these countries was seen inferior compared to “First World”. “Developing countries”, “less developed countries” and “less developed regions” are also seen inappropriate to refer to Global South

While it irks me that everyone else gets to decide what to label me, I note that my audience is not as irked by the label “Global South”, deeming it the least offensive in the poll results.

Person of Colour (PoC)

This label brought forth some turbulence in the timeline during the poll. For a while there it was neck to neck with the Third World as the most hated description, until, over the course of the 24 hours as time zones moved away from North America where it has its origins to Africa and Europe, with the final result slashing the votes in almost half.

Vik Sohonie was moved enough to speak out strongly, almost as soon as the poll went live.

Looking up its provenance informs me why the response was so strongly negative. Its origins lie in the use of the word Coloured and many of its use cases are entangled with the issue of slavery – the half castes and the vari coloured labels used to describe the permutations and combinations of grandparents and parents and their level of melanin.

I wish now that I’d never promised to write up this poll or look up the background of the innocuous words bandied about to Otherize and label us. I’m not a very politically inclined person in my writing and this Pandora’s box of naming and categorizing and labeling has had me feeling rather like the Whistler’s Mother.

I will also never use the words Person of Color or PoC or WoC to refer to myself in the American websites I frequent because my heritage and ancestry has never been distinguished by the colour of its skin. Caste, however, is an entirely different matter, as is class.

Less Developed

The final remaining phrase in the poll is Less Developed, or LDC to shorten the term Less Developed Country. Its the World Bank’s classification of nations to qualify them for various perks and benefits. In fact, as countries tend to move up towards “lower middle income” status, many argue and jostle to remain Less Developed since the benefits outweigh the status. Still, given that the majority of the LDCs are on the African continent, its not surprising it garnered as many votes as it did. Who wants to feel that they’re not as evolved as a country whose only qualification might be a higher per capita share of GDP – again, no indicator of actual incomes given the disproportionate inequalities in our world today.

What do you want to call me? Why?

My big take away from running this poll was that I was not alone in feeling irked by the labels. Nor was I alone in wanting to be seen as the human being that I am rather than a member of the teeming masses of the Third World or a person you deem to be coloured.

Generalizations and the ability to lump billions of people under a neat label can indeed be attractive to many, particularly those who need to separate and classify, such as the Bretton Woods institutions or the international development aid complex.

On the other hand, contemporary politics on both sides of the Atlantic are infusing the English language internet and media with a divisive sense of Othering and rejection, and perhaps then, it behooves those who need to categorize and label to pause and think why they’re doing so, and whether its necessary at all.

For a while, phraseology might be clumsy, but there’s new ways emerging by which to see the world. One that might describe a preference for a payment plan rather than diminishing an achievement or undermining agency, based simply on ethnicity or access to electricity.

For me, I’ve learnt a lot today with the searches and the reading on these labels. Henceforward, however neologistic the phrase, I think I’ll prefer to use the Blue or The prepaid economy or even, GSMA world, to describe the Global South if I must needs to in my blogging. As for future academic papers, I’ll have to jump hoops but it should be possible to characterise operating environments without the need to lumpenly generalize or otherize.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.