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Is the US a Third World Country?

As we all know, the short answer is no, the United States is not a third-world country.

The distinction between first-world, second-world, and third-world countries dates back to the 1950s during the start of the Cold War. The first world was defined as the countries that sided with the United States during the war, the second world denoted the communist countries that sided with the Soviet Union, and the third-world countries were those on the periphery that were or had been colonized by the first world countries. Today, the world is divided into the first world and the third world, the first world being the imperial core and the third world being the countries that were colonized by the first world. 

These terms, however, have colloquial definitions that slightly differ. When people talk about the “first world,” it is conflated with the arbitrary terms of “developed” and “developing countries.” The development of countries is judged on a scale of five stages with stage four being considered “peak” development. This is based on a variety of factors including but not limited to infant mortality rate, birth/death rate, and GDP. Based on these metrics, the first world is viewed as “developed” while the third world is viewed as “developing.” 

It’s important to recognize these distinctions as simply marking the imperial core and the countries they colonized. The latter was robbed of resources and left with internal conflicts, many of which are still not resolved. The Western media uses the distinction between the first and third worlds to point fingers at human rights violations in other countries despite many of the same issues happening in their own backyard. 

Third-world countries are often painted as countries filled with small villages, mass poverty, and shanties. While these regions definitely exist in the third world, they also exist in non-negligible numbers in the United States. There are massive shanties in Oakland, California, a region with a massive homeless population. In addition, third-world countries have developed massive metropolitan areas comparable to large US cities like Mumbai, India and Lagos, Nigeria. 

The United States also points fingers at countries including India and Saudi Arabia for the prevalence of child marriage. Between 2000 and 2015, over 200,000 child marriages took place in the US (based on a study that did not get information from six states). So far in 2022, only seven states (New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New York, and Massachusetts) have completely outlawed child marriage, meaning even with parental permission both parties must be 18 or older to get married. Other states have laws that permit sixteen-year-olds to get married without parental permission and kids at any age to get married with parental permission. There is a high likelihood that the numbers for child marriage are a lot more since data collection is difficult. 

The United States also leads the world in the rate of incarceration. As of 2022, 639 out of every 100,000 people are incarcerated. The rhetoric used to speak about the carceral system differs when speaking about the imperial core versus the global south. The United States has prisons while third-world countries have concentration camps. When police beat up and use tear gas on protestors in the US it’s legal, but in third-world countries, it’s a human rights violation. The US has more police per capita than both China and Iran, both of which are painted as police states by the US. 

The United States is not a third-world country based on the political definition of the term, but the issues we classify as third-world issues are not limited to the countries of the third world. The United States government must focus on what is happening within its own borders.

~ Mahika Gupta `23

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