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Reinventing the Third World Cultural Dynamics & Economic Power

Sitakant Mahapatra



The term third world is a ‘problematic’ and somewhat overloaded concept. It has been spelt out differently in political, diplomatic and economic terms at different points of time. Its origin was in the cold war, a bipolar world dominated by two superpowers, the Soviet empire and the USA. Their close allies and enemies of the Second World War days constituted the second world and the rest belonged to the third world. It was also a story of the end of colonialism, the dissolution of empires by the struggle for independence and the emergence of new sovereign States.

In the intervening years several groupings of States have come up: SAARC, BRIC, Asean etc. We also talk of North-South Divide. The theme of the current year’s seminar itself is ‘continuity and change in the Global South’. Perhaps in this context it has become necessary to have another look at the concept of third world and hence the Association of Third World Studies.

Western economists categorized the world into three: the developed, the developing and the underdeveloped economies. The last two groupings varied in prioritizations in a set of economic criteria but grouped as the third world. The World Bank Report of 1987 coined the concept of even a Fourth World picking out 37 from the group and characterizing them as least developed. That group was headed by Ethiopia with, at that time, its continuing famine, starvation, unending civil war, and untold miseries of the common man. The situation prevailing now is vastly different with some African States like Somalia and few others being exceptions.

  • Keynote Address in the 31st Annual Conference of the Association of Third World Studies (December 28-30, 2013)

However, the fourth world concept, I believe, died a natural death and the third world is now a recognized omnibus phrase that constitutes more than half the world even though there are great variations in terms of economic growth, political democracy and social fabric.

We can at best speak of the third world in generic terms. Learned economists have felt it is difficult to define for where is the common denominator say between Myanmar and Brazil or India and Nauru. There was a long phase of economic aid from the west, both multilateral and unilateral. Analysis showed that often the aid went into non-developmental categories like purchase of arms or establishment of new capitals. Misuse of aid has been well-studied and even now the malady of misapplication of aid remains. The new slogan, of course, is trade and not aid.

Whenever I try to visualize the third world in cultural terms, I see a vast procession of shifting images that rapidly merge into each other. The pyramids on the Nile and at Teotihuacán of Mexico; the flourishing cities like Babylon and on the Tigris, Euphrates, the Indus; Machu Pichhu, Angkor and Borobudder. The third world has world’s vast cultural property recognized by UNESCO. Many of them in Iraq, Afghanistan (Bamiyan Buddha statues) and African countries have been destroyed by external attack. The latest is the destruction of the biggest manuscript library in Southern Mali due to raging civil war. The third world is also the region where the major religions were born and spread all over the world.

But we have to visualize great civilizations slowly falling into sleep and waking up rather late in the day. We can see the current scenario of human decay, grinding poverty, hunger, malnutrition, aids, bloodsheds in civil war, the dark nights of the soul, the fragmentations and deprivations.

Over the years culture has been treated as a matter of political rank-path. Your travel on that route and becoming more powerful means you have access to more and more culture. Culture is basically a celebration of life, the joy of living. But it is becoming slowly a commodity for whom there are buyers and sellers. There was a time when the community produced culture for its own consumption. In the tribal world of Eastern India, I have seen women joining hands held together in a circle. The grand-mother and the mother dance and sing and the grand-daughter also joins hands and the circle becomes larger and larger. Here the community produces culture and enjoys culture. There are no salesmen of culture, no producers and consumers. Once there is commodification of culture, people can buy it with a price tag on each item.

The market mechanism has invaded culture. There are billions of dollars going into this market so that the buyers of culture are advised what to buy and at what prices. Descartes is turned upside down. It is no longer; I think, therefore, I am. Now it is ‘we think, therefore, you are’. Then the economic gatekeepers emerge who advise us on everything: all the way from daily necessities but to patterns and artifacts of culture. Culture has, thus, been turned into a packaged mass-activity of the new middle class. Today in the third world, there are two levels of culture as also two levels of economy. The poorer folks and the tribes have their won forms of culture but the richer classes want only the so-called classical culture to show off their affluence and power.

This is a dichotomy which is very noticeable. On the one hand we have the folk and tribal culture and on the other side the rich who demand art and culture either as a drawing room decoration or something that money can buy. There is no connection between the two cultures. It is rare to find a Jamini Roy painting Santal life and Santal village. It is unhealthy for any State to have two parallel economies and two separate cultures. Such a situation creates a rift in the body-politic by dividing society between haves and have nots and the resultant destructive effects on the unified culture of the State.

In the memory of the third world perhaps there was always two or even three levels of the past: the very ancient past, the past not so ancient and the more immediate past. Even before colonialism came, those levels had sometimes conflicting visions of life and man. In India, the Vedic-Upanishadic past and the Puranic past with the thin crust British culture may be mentioned in that connection. When a civilization is very ancient, such multi-level attitudes and approaches to the problem of today is perhaps natural and inevitable. The more immediate past is from the period of colonial domination and being ruled by foreign power. This comparatively new past has always mixed with Vedic and the Puranic pasts.

In the third world several socio-cultural and economic systems co-exist and several demands clash. Even when economic development comes, the resultant benefits do not reach out to the least fortunate. More than the developed world, the situation in the third world is more discernible. We can see what economists speak of as the Matthew effect on poverty. They quote the Bible: “for whosoever hath, to him shall be given and he shall have abundance; but whoever hath not, from him shalt be taken away even that he hath”.          (Matthew – 13:12)

Prof. J.K. Galbraith, like Ms. Joan Robinson, is one of the great admirers of the Chinese way of development and is critical of the Indian pattern. This author had opportunity to interact with him while at Harvard. He rightly feels there are many sick industries in India, but no sick industrialists. And conspicuous consumption is very marked and productive use of wealth is not there as also in many new emergent economies. Marriages of the wealthy are so demonstrative that they become insult to the poor. Imagine a costly marriage not only of the Mittal family (Arcelor Mittal) at London where millions of pounds are spent, but even marriage ceremonies of less eminent crorepatis and very rich people inside the country. Besides that the disparity between the highest and lowest incomes are glaringly high and in a poor country like India where millions live below poverty line, deprived of minimum nutrition, potable drinking water and appropriate education this becomes a mockery of economic development.

Both in economic growth and cultural flowering, it is not enough for us to rediscover our heritage and revive our historical memories. True, once we discovered Vedas and Upanishads through Max Muller. The pyramids were studied and the city of the Dead was preserved primarily by the efforts of the western scholars. The inheritors of that magnificent culture were only looting buried wealth and young Egyptian boys dressed as Bedouin mounted on camel to be photographed against the backdrop of pyramids.

We inherit so much but as inheritors we do not realize that we should be worthy inheritors. The greater the inheritance, the greater is the responsibility of the present generation.

We should not only rediscover. We have also to reinvent.  Reinvent new patterns of economic growth, new paradigms of development without following the troubled path of the west. That would involve mainstreaming culture in the development process so that growth does not destroy or mutilate valuable cultural patterns which could have ambivalent relationship with State-sponsored programmes of growth. Mainstreaming culture by putting it at the centre needs a new paradigm of development which makes optimum use of labour and capital and does not destroy the existing patterns of culture. Such destruction and mutilation have unfortunately gone on for decades along with economic growth and development. On behalf of the UNESCO elaborate advice concerning the need for analyzing the impact on culture of specific development projects have been issued to all member countries. If we don’t care about the deleterious impact of development projects on cultural patterns, not only those patterns will be lost for ever, but also affect the absorption capacity of the people for new patterns of growth and the resultant development. Development should assure equity for everybody, without waiting for the trickle-down myth. And that equity should be “inter-generational” equity, which recognizes that the resources of the planet are not meant only for ourselves, but also for our children’s children and remembers that hubris always brings nemesis. We do not have to follow all the latest gadgetry like X-box, i-phone-5 and online gambling which New Jersey feels can open up a multibillion dollar industry. We must not commit the sin based on arrogance, which the west is suffering from. Over-exploitation of the earth’s fecundity has led to myriad evil effects which we all know. We should not allow Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to be a reality. We know what Al Gore has told us and the whole specter of climate change leading to Katrina, Failin, cluster of tornadoes in mid-USA, tsunami (and as I write this the polar vortex that has overtaken almost the whole of USA) and all that. But the advanced west still refuses to share the larger burden of expenses and the failures are there all the way from Kyots Protocol, Rio and now at Warsaw. We are aware that forests in the third world vanish and with it the developed world can produce morning newspaper of 50 pages, which the hurried passenger in the metro can just glance through and throw away. I have met Vietnamese poets who were forced to write poems occasionally on toilet paper since there was no other way. The third world should do its best, consistent with the urgent need for economic growth, not to contribute to the deteriorating scenario.

Realizing that man’s ultimate quest is for happiness, the third world should invent the roots of what goes to make men happy. A minimum level of economic well-being and a healthy political system are imperatives for a happy polity. For too long, growth has been measured in terms of GNP and personal income. It is a small State like Bhutan, whose King insisted upon and the State has followed a new concept of Gross National Happiness in place of GNP. Years ago this author had the privilege of working as the President of the World Decade for Cultural Development and we asked member-States to consider the supreme need of a happy polity. Later, the Perez de Cuellar Commission, of which I was an Observer, in its Report called Our Creative Diversity emphasized that point. Happiness comes from a person going out of his limited self and seeking something in life that gives him genuine bliss. It is not a question of possession more and more material things and forgetting the essence of what constitute happiness.

Today our emotive journey of the imagination does not deliver us from continuous corrosions of our essential humanity. Nietzsche made that remarkable statement that we use up so much of our true creativity in dreams that our waking life becomes so poor. Art seeks to restore dream and creativity to life. In each of us, there is a psychic subconscious world which we often refuse to acknowledge. Literature holds up a mirror to that inner self and seeks to present that privileged image which the writer’s creative self has made everyman’s. It is a final act of achieving communitas.

To a monastery in fifteenth century Europe came an impatient young man who questioned the Head of the monastery whether they ever got bored in their steadfast and lonely meditation year after year. The Head pointed out to the young man a bird of beautiful plumage sitting on the branch of a nearby tree and singing. The young man was charmed and pursued the bird for a closer look as it kept flying away from tree to tree. Finally, somewhat tired he came back to the monastery. He found a new Head of the monastery who told him quietly “Dear one, you took forty long years just looking at a bird”. Someone brought him a mirror and he found to his dismay the hair on his head all grey and a few teeth gone. Then the monastery Head added, “Dear one, if you could not notice the passage of forty long years in looking at a beautiful bird, how can one get tired in looking at the web of mystery surrounding life and seeking to find some meaning out of it?”

Let the third world countries consider this serious need and provide mechanisms both within the State-power and outside to achieve their objectives.


About Editor in chief

Ashok Palit has completed his graduation from Upendranath College Soro, Balasore and post graduation from Utkal University in Odia Language and literture.. He has also carved out a niche for himself as a scribe of eminence after joining the profession in 1988. He is also an independent media production professional. He brings loads of experience to Advanced Media, Ashok Palit as a cineaste has been active in film criticism for over three decades. As a film society activist, he soared to eminence for his profound commitment to the art film appreciation and aesthetics of cinema. His mode of discourse is often erudite but always lucid and comprehensible marked by a perfect acumen so rare in the field. A film aesthete with an immense fond of critical sensibilities, he wrote about growth and development of odia cinema in New Indian Express, The Times of India, The Hindustan Times, The Asian Age and Screen. He has been working as an Editor for Cine Samaya from 2002-2004.. He had made solid contribution on cinema in many odia Dailies and weekly such as Samaj, Prajatantra, Dharatri, Samaya, Satabadi, and weekly Samaya.

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