Zhou En-Lai, chief of the Chinese government, arrives at the Non-Aligned Countries Conference, on April 17, 1955 Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

The Origins and Legacy of the Idea of the 'Third World'

This post is in collaboration with The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress, which brings together scholars and researchers from around the world to use the Library's rich collections. The article below was originally published on the Kluge Center blog with the title The Legacy of the Third World Project 60 Years Later.

Sixty years ago, representatives from 29 Asian and African nations gathered in Bandung, Indonesia, for the “Conference of Afro-Asian Peoples,” known more colloquially as the Bandung Conference. The conference discussed economic development, trans-racial unity and uplift among Third World nations in the wake of their emergence from colonial rule. Sixty years later, the term Third World has fallen out of favor, many of the nations that attended Bandung remain economically disadvantaged, and the unifying spirit of Bandung seems a distant memory in the face of conflicts in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Jason Steinhauer sat down with historian Jason Parker, associate professor at Texas A&M University and member of the faculty of the International Seminar on Decolonization, to reflect on Bandung 60 years later.

Hi, Jason. Thanks for joining me. Let’s jump right into it: the term “Third World” was born in the era of the Cold War and decolonization. Does the term still have relevance today?

There are those who find the term “third world” to have pejorative connotations, and in present-day usage many consider it an offensive term. As a historical term, however, it has a different story. As it was being conceived and constituted by actors from around the Global South in that era, they were using the term and speaking in terms of a Third World project. It was a project that attempted to transcend the Cold War and to build solidarity among recently independent nations.

Who originated the term “Third World”?

The term came first from a French demographer named Alfred Sauvy. In 1952, as the first wave of decolonization washed through the British and Dutch empires, Sauvy identified a disjuncture. The Cold War, he reasoned, claimed to split the world in two. But, in fact, there was another split and he had in mind the decolonizing parts of the world. Writing in a French publication, he coined the term “Tiers Monde.” The term had a special resonance with his Francophone audience because it recalled the third estate, “tiers-état,” of the French Revolution. The thought was that just as the peasants of 1789 were rising to claim their stake in a new organization of society, so too were the dispossessed of the wider world now rising in the wake of empire. So “Tiers Monde” is a play on “Tiers-état,” and translated into English it means Third World. Interestingly, it didn’t make its way into English usage until sometime after that, when Jean-Paul Sartre wrote an introduction to Frantz Fanon’s “Wretched of the Earth” that was translated into English.

It’s interesting the term is coined by a First World resident from a former colonial power. How did it become appropriated and embraced by Third World actors who were in the midst of decolonization?

It’s a tricky story. In its original conception, the Third World is not a place, it’s a project. It’s an attempt to build an imagined community. Scholars accept that version because it enables the geographic borders to be fluid and also has the virtue of enabling Third World actors to accommodate their various agendas underneath it. The Third World project takes its fullest shape by the early- to mid-60s. At that moment it has three intellectual pillars: economic development, racial solidarity, and non-alignment in the Cold War. Third World leaders come to use those terms in how they articulate to their people what they envision in a post-colonial world.

Let’s talk about the Bandung Conference and its role in the Third World project. What was the impetus for the meeting?

The triggering event was the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which was the Eisenhower Administration’s attempt to replicate NATO in the bubbling Asian cauldron. It was an odd alliance, and very much an intrusion of the Cold War alliance system into a region of newly decolonized countries. In response, the leaders of the so-called Colombo Powers, including India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) decided what was needed was a conference of Afro-Asian peoples in an attempt to assert a collective determination to keep the Cold War from spreading as it had violently in Korea, reorient the global economy toward modernity, and to find a common identity that would marry together the strands of Pan-Africanism and Pan-Arabism, and to a degree Pan-Asianism. The assertion was that the shared experience of imperial rule was enough of a common bond to form a collective agenda.

Was Bandung successful in achieving Third World unity?

Twenty-nine nations attended, most from Asia and South Asia as well as three African countries. The wild card was the People’s Republic of China, which was of interest to U.S. policymakers. China was the only one of the Cold War powers which is a Third World state. The Soviet Union and the U.S. were not invited to Bandung, but China was because it has a claim on Third World identity. For the U.S., Bandung was a success because China at the conference seemed more interested in calming Cold War tensions than leading a revolutionary Third World. China’s revolutionary ambitions would come later. As for the other nations, if you ask the leaders of the various nations–Sukarno of Indonesia, Nehru of India, Nasser of Egypt–they would all claim some level of victory and some level of dissatisfaction. That is a pattern that haunts the Third World project; its achievements never match its rhetoric. It has a romantic identity and a concrete agenda, neither of which it has the power to fully achieve. As time went on, it lived on more symbolically and rhetorically than in actual contemporary significance.

Sixty years later, should we see Bandung as a sort of historical artifact, or does it have lasting resonance?

It did have a lasting impact. Sukarno’s opening address, which to paraphrase, stated that, “We the 1.4 billion strong who are speaking with one voice can mobilize in favor of peace,”–that rhetoric, the spirit of Bandung, the idea that non-white solidarity could achieve something that empire for centuries had denied, to enable the third world to jump up a few steps into parity with the first world–it was not a crazy notion at the time. In 1960, freshly independent Ghana’s GDP was the same as Korea’s. The thought was that all that was needed was to apply the right formula and economic modernization would take off. In reality economic modernization happened in some places and not in others. As such, the disappointments of the Third World project make it difficult to look at Bandung as anything but a romantic moment. Still, that moment has had a lasting resonance. One interesting anecdote: scholars have referred to the stirring speech that Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, gave at Bandung, and how this was a moment of lift-off for racial togetherness of the Global South. Except as historian Bob Vitalis has pointed out, Kwame Nkrumah didn’t go to Bandung. He was not in attendance! So there is a mythos around Bandung that remains. Anyone looking for the practical impact of Bandung will be disappointed. But its mythology and cultural resonance is still with us.

Jason Parker is an Associate Professor of History at Texas A&M University and author of “Brother’s Keeper: The United States, Race, and Empire in the British Caribbean, 1937-1962.” The International Seminar on Decolonization was a project of the National History Center of the American Historical Association, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and hosted annually by The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.

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