Turns out, it's a relatively new term to describe what most of us call the Third World. Those countries around our globe which suffer from economic stagnation and social regression. Defined mostly by poverty, but also civil rights abuses, and even political oppression.
You know - those places we so easily forget about while we're consumed with our own troubles and problems here in the Land of Opportunity.
When I first deduced the meaning of Majority World from the context of its usage, I smirked with indignation, like many of us do when we're struck with the haughty political correctness of something. Is this new term supposed to smack those of us in developed countries with a call of contrition and remorse for enjoying a standard of living most of our fellow planet-inhabitors can't? Is this some sort of linguistic penalty for First World excesses?
Turns out, as I researched the term, its usage actually makes sense beyond its sociopolitical contrivances. Did you know the breakdown of countries by First, Second, and Third World qualifiers stems from the Cold War era, where countries were identified based on their socioeconomic allegiances? First World countries were the "free" countries aligned with the United States, Second World countries were the "communist" countries aligned with the Soviet Union, and the Third World were all of the "non-aligned" countries, which also happened to be disproportionately poor and politically impotent.
If you know anything about our modern world, you can see how this three-world view no longer applies. Economic fortunes have risen considerably for countries like Brazil, Chile, South Africa, and Thailand, which where considered part of the Third World in the 1950's. Although today, while these countries may not be what Americans would consider to be fully-integrated First-World countries, they're hardly the squalid little backwaters they used to be regarded as.
Look, too, at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, flush with oil money, and home to some of the most ambitious construction projects of our day, including Dubai's Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building, and lavish Palm Islands development on artificial archipelagos. In the 1950's and 1960's, these were still mostly Bedouin sandscapes. Today, remarkably, the only remaining poverty exists in fetid colonies of foreign construction workers and servants for whom even the degradation of Islamic social stratification is better than, well, their Third World countries of origin.
Places where economic hardship still prevails, with little relief in sight. Places like Bangladesh, most of Africa, and Indonesia. The parts of the old Third World that haven't really changed much.
Even some of the poorer leftovers of the former "Second World" Soviet Union have fallen into the ranks of Third World ignominy. Places like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, which weren't even much under Soviet rule, have simply fallen off the international radar, as North Korea would have done, if not for their petulant nuclear sabre-rattling every now and then.
All of which combines to paint a grim epitaph for the increasingly dated three-world economic classification system.
Don't Get Mired in Colonialism
So, OK, I can see why the term "Third World" can be considered obsolete. And although I'm not crazy about "Majority World," I can respect its intent.
Even today, after decades of industrialization and post-industrialized history, the majority of people on our planet still live in poverty. And not just poverty like we see in America's welfare society, where the definition still includes clean water, reliable electricity, readily available nutritious food, and generally more television sets than some middle-class households.
Unlike liberal social scientists, however, I'm not as interested in the politically-correct correlations between impoverished nations and European colonialism for which First World countries continue to be blamed. Yes, I understand that many Third World countries - err, I mean, Majority Countries - used to be colonial conquests of major European powers. However, the persistently incompetent governments which tend to rule these Majority World countries exist for many reasons. While I agree that colonialism as a methodology is undesirable, some nations have been able to salvage remnamts of it to their advantage, and even overcome it.
India, for example, as it struggles with growing pains as a rapidly-developing economy, wouldn't be where it is today if not for the civil and institutional infrastructure England provided under its rule. Granted, it probalby won't be a First World country anytime soon, as significant swaths of the country remain mired in subsistence living. But the political and economic building blocks India inherited from the British have helped make it the world's largest democracy and one of its fastest-growing consumer markets.
And perhaps the strongest argument against using colonialism as a crutch comes from the United States, which managed to cobble itself together as an amalgamation of colonies to pull off one of the most dramatic revolutions in history.
Democracy in Action?
Nevertheless, the overall point of Majority World countries being sensitive to their economic plight is worth making. And I'll leave the in-depth reasons for why many of these Majority World countries continue to languish in disenfranchisement for another discussion.
The importance of creating a distinction between First World and Majority World countries can withstand arguments over its historical reasons. And what is that importance? That if we in the First World believe so highly in democracy, then shouldn't we give more thought to how the rest of our world thinks and acts?
After all, if everybody on this planet got a vote, you and I would probably be voted off. As a people group, we consume most of the world's resources, create most of the world's pollution, and own most of the world's wealth.
And as I say so often on this blog, "to whom much is given, much is required."
Now, I'm not sure what form of payback we should be giving the rest of the world. But changing "Third World" to "Majority World" is at least a symbolic down-payment.