From third world to first in class (and Who coined the term “third world”?)

Jonathan Woetzel writes a nice piece on how third world has risen over the years (HT: Conversable Economist blog):

When historians in the distant future look back at our era, the name Alfred Sauvy may appear in a footnote somewhere. Sauvy was a French demographer who coined the term “third world” in a magazine article in 1952, just as the Cold War was heating up. His point was that there were countries not aligned with the United States or the Soviet Union that had pressing economic needs, but whose voices were not being heard.

Sauvy deliberately categorized these countries as inferior: “tiers monde” (or third world) was an explicit play on “tiers état” (third estate), the ragged assembly of peasants and bourgeoisie under France’s ancien régime that was subservient to the monarchy (the first estate) and the nobility (the second). “The third world is ignored, exploited and mistrusted, just like the third estate,” Sauvy wrote. “The millennial cycle of life and death has become a cycle of misery.”

As a piece of editorial rhetoric based on the fetid geopolitical atmosphere of the time, Sauvy’s essay was on the mark. As prophecy about the course of economic progress, he could hardly have been more wrong.

“Third world” today is politically incorrect as a phrase and economically incorrect as a concept, for it fails to take into account one of the biggest stories of the past half-century: the spectacular economic development that has taken place across the globe. Since Sauvy’s essay, some (but not all) of the countries he referred to have enjoyed very rapid growth and huge leaps in living standards, including in health and education.

To cite just one metric: the number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen from more than half the global population in the 1950s, when his magazine piece was published, to just over 10 percent today, even as the total population of the world has tripled.

The changes have been so striking that we have reached a point where the very distinctions among “developing,” “emerging” and “advanced” countries have become blurred. Singapore is now the second most competitive economy in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Competitiveness Index, which also ranks Hong Kong, South Korea and Malaysia well ahead of Italy, a founding member of the G-7 club of “rich” countries. China has more billionaires than the United States and almost twice as many as the whole of Europe. Bombay’s stock exchange has a larger market capitalization than Frankfurt’s.


How these terms have outgrown themselves.  World Bank economist Antoine Van Agtmael coined the term emerging markets in 1981 which also does not make sense for some of the countries. It gives a feeling of continued emergence…

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