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  • Writer's pictureThe Gender Security Project

What's in a Name? (Part 1)

By Vaishnavi Pallapothu and Kirthi Jayakumar

In Western political philosophy, the homogenous classification of states has been normalized: whether in terms of development, region, inter-state relations, or even regional alliances. These terms have become commonplace: the best of us seldom think deeply about the implications of using phrases such as developed/developing countries, or Global North and Global South. And yet, these classifications constitute a form of structural violence, especially when the consequences of such classifications reiterate colonial paradigms or homogenize diversity.

In a multi-part article, we meditate on the many ways of classifying states, and attempt to identify a way to arrive at a feminist, non-violent, and inclusive way of referring to states. In this part, we present the existing forms of classification.

A Colonial Lens

Drawing from the impact of colonization, a common theme has been to retain the use of the terms “colonial powers” and “former colonies.” Most writing and rhetoric that have used these terms have tended to shine a spotlight specifically on the adverse impacts of colonialism – be it in the form of archaic legislation that continues to date or in the form of systemic and structural violence and histories of trauma. While contextually acceptable, the terminology tends to center the colonial “power” as the seat of power, while all others’ identities are defined as those that are occupied, those that are powerless – and in some ways, continue to be so. One may argue that systemic and structural violence continuing into contemporary times cannot be denied – but state agency and power are no longer the exclusive domain of their former colonial powers. To this end, unless the context warrants it, the terminology is not relevant.


Central contention of the Dependency Theory is the center (or core) and periphery model. It classifies states based on the idea that the former dominates the latter, and that resources flow from periphery (poor/underdeveloped) to core (wealthy/developed) states, at the expense of the former. In line with this classification, a state that did not occupy either the periphery or core position was considered part of the third world. Everything about this classification is flawed in that the focus is entirely on the Westphalian, Eurocentric order of power dynamics, with its roots in capitalism and structural violence. The dependency theory does not account for any factors governing international relations aside from conventional economic imperialism.

The Entrenched and The Emergent

Drawing from Antoine van Agtmael’s terminology, ‘Emerging markets’ to denote developing states, the use of advanced and emerging economies (or countries) is effectively developed and developing 2.0. Restricted to economic bases of classification and limiting the “aspirational” framework of development as a threshold for a state to strive for, this nomenclature is rooted in a limited understanding of global dynamics. It neither describes the contemporary world order nor does it transcend the limiting segmentation of states exclusively on monetary wealth.

Marginalizing in Name

The origins of the terms “first world”, “second world” and “third world” can be traced back to 1952, when French demographer Alfred Sauvy wrote of “three worlds, one planet” in an article published in L’Observateur. In the Cold War era, the first world referred to the capitalist world of the USA, western Europe and their allies; the second world denoted the communist countries of Soviet Union and its allies and the third world described all the remaining countries that did not ally with the first two groups. [1] Today, the term is outdated, antiquated and no longer relevant. Since the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, this classification is riddled with fallacies. The original term referred to alignment with a political ideology but now it is used as an umbrella term for any country with relatively lower economic and socio-political prosperity, compared to the western countries of the first world. This classification also implies that western countries are a default ideal to look up to, while the term third world homogenises the remaining countries, paints them in a hierarchical fashion and has derogatory undertones in that it is seen as a different alien world because it does not adhere to western standards. Although it came to refer to impoverished countries which faced a common set of problems, the third world is now considered to be a “vague label for an imprecise set of countries''. [2]

Normalizing an “acceptable” developmental threshold

Developing countries and developed countries, at first glance, seem to be harmless and objective terms of classification. The word developing indicates prospect for growth and improvement and is more relevant than the outdated lexicon of political alignment. However, this nomenclature still assumes both a dichotomy and hierarchy between countries. It presumes Western countries to be ideal blueprints for other countries to aspire to, incorrectly paints development as a linear process and suggests that development has an ending. Despite the heterogeneity of different factors impacting development, such as culture, demographics, geography and socio-economic problems, disparate countries are clubbed in the same group merely based on gross national income. By giving economic indicators too much significance, “China, Bolivia, and Eritrea, which fall in three different income groups, are all lumped together as “developing” [3] – a classification that is limited and out of date with current realities. Moreover, this lexicon replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship in that they do not acknowledge centuries of pillage and oppression. In the name of modernity and growth, developed countries often exploit developing countries for their resources, capital and labour. [1] Another form of this classification is the “Imperial and periphery nations” division, which considers developed states core and semi-periphery states (based on the level of development), and those that are less developed in comparison, periphery states.

Regional divisions

The terms Global South was first used in 1969 by writer and activist Carl Oglesby and was introduced as a less hierarchical alternative to terms like third world and developing countries. Not only does it shift focus away from value-projecting but also, it “is better suited at resisting hegemonic forces that threaten the autonomy and development of these countries." [4] Global South also acknowledges the history of imperialism, colonialism and violence endured by the comprising countries and, therefore, denotes a subaltern geopolitical identity. It presents different ways of belonging in the system as the members of the Global South are not necessarily nation-states but can be defined in transnational social terms. [5]

Notwithstanding these arguments, it remains a blanket term that encompasses a large and diverse group of countries with historical, cultural, power and wealth differences among them. It can also be argued that ‘north’ and ‘south’ are broadly synonymous with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ and ‘developed’ and ‘developing’. Moreover, the terms Global South and Global North are geographically deterministic which is problematic because geographical boundaries are not static. This nomenclature, like the others, consider the yardstick of development to be white and western countries, with the latter being included in the Global North in terms of economic growth within the framework of neoliberalism. Critical voices consider the Global South to be a creation of the Global North, especially in the context of the state-centred and structural constraints of the post-colonial international order. [5]







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