Terminology and the “Developing World”

The question of ‘what to call’ the over-exploited world should not even be a question in the first place.

Martin Barakov
Dec 1, 2020 · 6 min read

As socialists, the question of what to call the developing world has been one that has been given much prominence over the course of history, especially following the end of World War II (WWII). The world that is depicted as colonial (and ‘post-colonial’) has been referenced in countless ways, ranging from ‘dependent states’ to the ‘over-exploited world’. This article will examine the majority of the terms used, as well as why it does not necessarily matter, outside of particular contexts.

The following terms are, arguably, the most common ways of describing the portions of the world that have had their peoples historically subjugated, resources stolen, markets overtaken, and colonized:

  • Global South
  • Developing world
  • Third World
  • Undeveloped world
  • Underdeveloped world
  • Over-exploited world
  • Low-income countries
  • Dependent world

All of these terms share the aforementioned broad conceptions, but differ depending on the point in history they are utilized in, as well as specific regions that may or may not be included within these descriptive terms.

Some have argued that using the term ‘Third World’ is now outdated, given its historical legacy and relevance to the politics of the Cold War. The Third World most often sought to include members of the Non-Aligned Movement, or countries that were neither part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), nor the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. These blocs were referred to as the First World and Second World respectively.

Generally speaking, Third World as a term has been phased out of Western academia. It still holds value in some areas around the world however, and this is a point that will need to be examined later. The term that took its place on a broad scale is the concept of the ‘developing world’, as these countries are now not revolutionary post-colonial states, but instead ‘liberalizing’ ones in a world rooted in the dominance of neoliberal globalization.

More specific terms, primarily those featuring the concept of dependency and a perpetual state of a lack of development are rooted in more modern understandings in the study of imperialism and post-colonial politics. For instance, the terms arose as a form of a backlash against what is typically deemed ‘modernization theory’, a concept that has its roots in American exceptionalism and the promotion of capitalism to newly independent post-colonial states.

On Modernization Theory:

Walt W. Rostow, American economist and National Security Advisor to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson between 1966 and 1969, devised a form of development that was designed to impose the Western model of ‘growth’ to the newly independent states across Latin America, Africa, and Asia. His most notorious work, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, sought to rid the post-colonial world of its perceived ‘backwardness’ and prevent the rise of socialist and communist ideas within these newly-independent territories.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of the work is rooted in a framework that seeks to continue the dominance of Western colonial powers, as it advocates for further ‘integration’ with the Western world, often meaning the continuation of the resource extraction, the control over internal markets, and exploitation of local labour power by Western governments and corporations. The following are the 5 primary ‘stages’ that Rostow put forth in his book:

  1. The Traditional Society
  2. The Preconditions for Take-off
  3. The Take-off
  4. The Drive to Maturity
  5. The Age of High Mass-Consumption

The stages largely rest on the replication of the way in which industrial societies developed beforehand, including but not limited to countries like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. However, it blatantly fails to take into account the fact that these post-colonial states are not colonial powers themselves and are faced with the struggle against the imperialist domination of their former colonial overlords.

As a force against modernization theory, a more modern (pun unintended) interpretation and adaptation of anti-imperialism took form, particularly in Latin America. This theoretical foundation is known as dependency theory and rests on the principle that these over-exploited states are still dependent on the colonial and imperialist powers. It is with this development and theorists such as Andre Gunder Frank that the understanding of ‘underdevelopment’ arises, alongside terms like ‘undeveloped’.

Question of Phrasing:

The primary concern here should not be which term to use, nor should it be to determine which countries belong to the developed and the developing nations. The reality remains that regardless of the terminology used, these states and the vast majority of the global proletariat are still under a state of ruthless imperialism and neocolonial conquest. It makes little to no difference if one is to use the term ‘Third World’ and another is to use the term ‘developing country’.

The most important concept to be analyzed and understood is the fact that these countries, decades — even centuries — after obtaining independence and fighting against imperialist forces, still remain relatively poor, despite having intensely high amounts of valuable natural resources. They still are stuck in a state of dependence on the imperialist powers — purposefully, mind you — and are unable to fully develop their own national economies and have a sustained working class that is in control of state and economic apparatuses.

  1. First, they were called backward colonial subjects.
  2. Then they were referred to as part of the ‘Third World’, given the Cold War.
  3. After this, they were depicted as ‘developing’ their economies.
  4. Later on, the concept of ‘liberalization’ and ‘democratization’ came to be.
  5. Now, they are seen as ‘emerging economies’, at least according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The so-called ‘emerging economies’ span every continent on the planet, except for Antarctica. They include countries across Latin America such as Chile and Colombia, the majority of the former socialist projects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, most of the Middle East and North Africa, and more.

However, it is crucial to mention that none of these discussions regarding the ‘naming conventions’ change the fact that the working classes within these countries remain poor and have never broken the chains of imperialism and neoliberal American hegemony.

The most important concept to take away from this conversation — this ‘question’ that is of little value — can be summarized in the following excerpt by American political scientist, Michael Parenti, during a lecture regarding Yugoslavia back in 1999:

“…Africa wasn’t underdeveloped, there were rich cultures there, Africa is a rich continent! Latin America is a rich continent! Asia is a rich continent! The imperialists [and] the colonialists don’t go to poor places, they go to rich places! They go in there to take their markets, to take their oil, their timber, their cotton, their hemp, their flax, their gold, silver, and diamonds, and a thousand other things. And they go in there to exploit, and ruthlessly exploit their labour. That’s why [they] go. Africa is rich(!), only its people are poor.

Take the case of India. India was a rich, advanced, developed country, until the British went in, in 1800. And between 1800 and 1830, the Indian textile industry which was outperforming the British textile industry in exports and quality, was dismantled…between 1850 and 1900, the Indian per-capita income fell by 65 percent.

So that poverty in the Third World, that so-called “underdevelopment”, these so-called “developing nations” that are now beginning, like little children learning how to walk, and we will help them along, these countries are not underdeveloped, they were over-exploited, they’re maldeveloped.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Martin Barakov

Written by

A South Slav writing about Eastern Europe, Latin America, and socialism.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Martin Barakov

Written by

A South Slav writing about Eastern Europe, Latin America, and socialism.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store