America as a third world country
Second Opinion

America as a third world country

Cambridge, Massachusetts—From time to time, when something goes wrong in America, its politicians and media commentators would sometimes say the following lines or a variation thereof: “This is something you’d expect in a third world country.”

Having stayed in the United States for a big chunk of the past year, there are times when that line comes to mind. To be fair, I have also gained much more appreciation for this nation, including the cultural diversity fueled by immigrants from every corner of the world; the Americans’ entrepreneurial spirit and resourcefulness; and the sheer loftiness of its democratic ideals, even if the country has struggled to live up to them. On a more personal note, I’ve also come to embrace its great outdoors, and the New Hampshire’s White Mountains have become a sanctuary.

But there are also moments of frustration and disappointment, during which I am tempted to invoke the “third world” trope.

Coming from a country that is actually part of the so-called “third world,” I am acutely aware of how problematic and inaccurate the term is, in terms of how it reinforces a divide between the “first world” and the rest of the planet; how it perpetuates how “backward” (another problematic term) other countries are in relation to those that are “advanced”; and how the ability to even conceptualize the world in those simplistic terms comes from a position of unacknowledged privilege.


“From almost the beginning, New Orleans looked more like a Third World country than part of the United States,” a news report on Hurricane Katrina back in 2005 went, as though the sight of devastated communities were a natural feature of countries like the Philippines, when it is the colonial condition that actually produced the conditions of such disasters; when it just so happened that America has been relatively spared from powerful storms until recently.

“There is nothing patriotic about what is occurring on Capitol Hill. This is 3rd world style anti-American anarchy,” US Sen. Marco Rubio tweeted in the aftermath of the infamous Capitol attacks on Jan. 6, 2021, as though America were immune to demagoguery, populism, and (gun) violence; as though America had no hand in anarchies and insurrections the world over.

As we can see, in these instances, the rhetorical uses of the US as a “third world country” are premised an even more problematic idea of American exceptionalism.

In some ways, though, America is indeed “third world,” just as in some ways, the Philippines is “first world” (and we can also just as easily replace those terms with whatever is preferable or acceptable: Global North and Global South; “developing” and “developed”; “high income” and “low and middle income”). These terms may have some utility in certain contexts, but in characterizing countries and categorizing the world they are essentially meaningless due to the inequality that has intensified both wealth and poverty within each nation.


In the Philippines, for instance, we see how commercial centers like Bonifacio Global City and Makati, even parts of Davao or Cebu, can rival the ritziest parts of America in terms of their restaurants and cafés, luxury apartments, and all the amenities that can be enjoyed by people who can afford them. We have “first world” schools and hospitals, too, completed with the necessary global credentials, readily available for those who have the ability to pay.

Conversely, America’s “third worldness” is experienced mostly by the millions living from paycheck to paycheck; dispossessed Black, indigenous, and rural communities, in what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Peter Temin calls the decline of middle America. Alongside the homelessness crisis in the Bay Area and in growing number of cities, public infrastructure is perhaps its most visible manifestation: While the uber-rich can fly on private jets, many Americans have to contend with aging subways, trains, and airports. More deeply, while billionaires are building ultra-high-tech “bunkers” as status symbols, many Americans face existential risks, from disasters like the wildfires in California and floods in Texas to the everyday violence from guns, criminality, and poverty. And while billions of dollars are spent in military spending and assistance—education and health care are under-prioritized and underfunded, with many African and Asian countries faring better than many US states in their COVID-19 responses and outcomes. Surely, America has much to learn from the rest of the world, in the same way that we also have much to learn from it.


The late medical anthropologist Paul Farmer referred to those on the receiving end of these conditions, in America and the rest of the “first world,” as constituting a “fourth world,” to underscore how vastly different their lived experiences are from their much wealthier counterparts. But I don’t think we need more than one world to articulate our shared predicaments and the need for global solidarity—including toward the people of this beautiful land who deserve better public transport, health care, education, and quality of life.


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TAGS: America, opinion

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