The Third World Idea

The Third World Idea

The Third World was never imagined as a place but rather a project, one that was ultimately doomed by globalization–it awaits a resurrection.


The era of decolonization is sixty years old. It began in 1947, when India and Pakistan won their independence from Britain, and it continued until 1974, when the Portuguese Empire collapsed. In between, African and Asian nations emerged from the long night of colonial rule, and in Latin America new regimes broke out of the grip of oligarchies.

This year Ghana celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of its independence, the first sub-Saharan African nation to free itself of its colonizers. Kwame Nkrumah, a few minutes after his country’s birth, offered this vision for its future: “We are going to see that we create our own African personality and identity. We again rededicate ourselves in the struggle to emancipate other countries in Africa. Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked to the total liberation of the African continent.” Ghana’s independence was significant, but alone it was vulnerable. Nkrumah surveyed the African continent and the rest of the “darker nations,” whose solidarity would be essential.

These new nations did not want only to rid themselves of their colonial masters. Crucially, they also articulated a vision for a new global dispensation. Twenty-nine new nations and movements had gathered together at Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955 to lay out how they wished to reshape the world. “Irresistible forces have swept the two continents,” said Indonesia’s Sukarno. “There are new conditions, new concepts, new problems, new ideals abroad in the world.”

The central concept for the new nations was the Third World. For them, the Third World was not a place; it was a project. Galvanized by mass movements and by the failures of capitalist maldevelopment, leaders in the darker nations looked to one another for an alternative agenda. Politically they wanted more planetary democracy. No more the serfs of their colonial masters, they wanted to have a voice and power on the world stage. What would that voice say? It would speak of three core principles: peace (nuclear disarmament), bread (what they dubbed a New International Economic Order, in which human needs would take precedence over profit) and justice (social development and an end to racism). They would carry these aspirations to the United Nations, where, forming a Non-Aligned Movement, they engaged in a concerted struggle to gain ascendancy. Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Jaja Wachuku chided his fellows for their acceptance of the inequality built into the new international body. “Are we only going to continue to be veranda boys,” he asked, watching from the balcony as the five permanent members controlled the debate?

Today the Third World project is no longer. It was not a failure, for that implies it was doomed from the start. No, it was assassinated. The main culprit was not corruption, one-party rule or famine; it was what we have come to call globalization. From its inception, the Third World project faced an enemy in the advanced capitalist states (led, with confidence, by the United States), determined to subdue any independent dynamic in the darker nations. For three decades, the Third World was able to fend off that challenge, partly due to backing from the Soviet Union and China, but mainly because of the widespread support the project enjoyed among the masses of people who lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

From the late 1960s, capital from the advanced industrial states flooded the world, just as raw material prices plummeted. We know what came next: States in short-term debt because of a drop in commodity prices and a rise in military expenditures borrowed heavily. To recover, they turned to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF’s charter enjoins it to offer short-term credit without question; instead, the fund used this opportunity to demand “structural adjustments.” The IMF desiccated the capacity of states to act on behalf of their own populations, and threw people to the wolves of destitution and hopelessness.

In 1979, for example, Ghana went to the IMF for a series of loans guaranteed by a promise to unravel whatever gains had been made by the new state. Unable to repay them, Ghana became a ward of the fund. By 1987 the “fundamentals” of Ghana’s economy were stable, at a substantial cost: A decline in the price of cocoa and the dumping of chickens and other foreign agricultural goods had crippled the population’s ability to survive. In 2001 Ghana’s president, John Kufuor, painted a stark portrait of the situation: “After twenty long years of implementing structural adjustment programs, our economy has remained weak and vulnerable and not sufficiently transformed to sustain accelerated growth and development. Poverty has become rather widespread, unemployment very high, manufacturing and agriculture in decline and our external and domestic debts much too heavy a burden to bear.” In a tragic coda to this story, the Fiftieth Anniversary Jubilee kente cloth, with Nkrumah’s image emblazoned on it, was printed in China. “We must be able to print our anniversary clothes,” said Abraham Coomson, general secretary of Ghana’s Textile, Garment and Leather Workers Union. “Otherwise what are we celebrating?”

The assassination of the Third World agenda has also shrunk the political horizons of the darker nations. Nkrumah once exuberantly declared, “Ghana, your beloved country, is free forever.” Now Ghana aspires merely to enter the ranks of “middle income countries” by 2015.

Ghanaians and others in what is today called the global South continue to push against the power that smothers their lives. Trade unions, citizens groups, political parties and other such forces now make matters difficult for unfettered capital. Political developments in Latin America raise hopes elsewhere. When Hugo Chávez attended the African Union summit this past July, one African leader hailed his presence as “a morale booster as well as an assurance that Africa can also make it.” At the September meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in Havana, Chávez evoked the history of the Third World and called for the construction of a project befitting our times. The Third World awaits such a resurrection, not as nostalgia but as a project that matches our contemporary dilemmas.

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