The way we are

What does it mean to be a Third-World country?

The way we are
Returning to Karachi after a somewhat prolonged overseas holiday, this correspondent found that, although new water pipelines have been laid on our street, there is still very little water being supplied (to which chlorine tablets must be added if one does not want one’s brain eaten by the Naegliria Fowleri amoeba) and one still needs to buy expensive water bowsers. In these three weeks or so, there has been a total of three nights when there was no power outage. Our neighbourhood is one of those favoured ones which, according to the screw-the-poor policies of our electric supply company, will receive continuous power without load shedding. What, then, is happening? Oh, breakdowns, of course, or “tripping” as K-Electric’s Customer Service people quaintly put it: There are multiple, almost daily breakdowns, sometime two and even three in a day, and mostly of substantial duration.

“Well, what did you think?” says my daughter, a former economics buff, who is visiting from Dubai. “There is both a failure of resources and a failure of delivery, amongst the many other failures. After all, we’re still a backward, Third World country.”

Ah, yes! The Third World! When we and our times were somewhat younger and the Cold War confrontation was at its most intense, there emerged the concept of a Third World, to which countries like Pakistan belonged. It went something like this: The post-colonial world was a neo-colonial world (it still is, but in a much more sophisticated manner than we thought at that time). In this neo-colonial system, all nations were bound into a pyramid of exploitative relationships. At the top of this pyramid (the First World) were the USA and the USSR, the Superpower and the Counter-power, locked in an intense competition for control of the neo-colonial world.

The Second World comprised the various advanced industrial countries of Western and Eastern Europe, who partnered one or the other of these major powers for their own share of Third World exploitation.

The rest of the world, from Nauru and the Maldives at one end of the scale to India and China at the other, comprised the Third World. These were the countries that were home to the vast bulk of the world’s population. They were poor and backward, and were kept that way so that the First and Second World countries could continue to exploit them as sources of cheap labour, raw materials and, when necessary, cannon fodder.

The typical perception of a Third World country was of a bare subsistence, usually a peasant, society, peopled by a tiny, rapacious elite on the one hand, and a largely bare-foot, ragged population on the other, whose children were undernourished and uneducated. Such countries had comprised the bulk of the world’s population.
Chinese and American objectives are mutual and not adversarial

But what in fact has happened to this Third World? Well, in the less than fifty years since the concept was proposed, there have been dramatic changes, not the least of which has been the development of the globally integrated world economy. Take a look at the countries earlier described as “backward Third World countries”. Well, the Middle Eastern oil producers passed out of that reckoning a long time ago, as did the Far Eastern ‘tiger economies’. With the huge populations of India, China and Brazil also well on their way out of the category of lower income countries, the very concept of a poverty-stricken ‘Third World’ has ceased to have any meaning. And, if there is a ‘Third World’ left, it today comprises, not the bulk of world population, but only Afghanistan, Myanmar, Bangladesh, some of the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and, of course, our Pakistan.

Now, we Pakistanis, who are prone to seeing things in conflictual ‘us’ and them’ terms and are highly inventive at unearthing elaborate conspiracies, believe that there are bellicose ideological stances from which we need to choose our own defining posture. In this, we are not unlike former US President George Bush, whose “with us or against us” outlook proved so disastrous for his country and for the world.

Consider, for a moment, the relationship between the US and China. Even as far back as the 1970s, the developing warmth between China and the US, in fostering which Pakistan had played a role that is not insignificant, worked to break up the previously monolithic communist bloc and to isolate the USSR. Over the years, China and America, even if they have never adopted an overtly enthusiastic tone towards one another, have become intimately linked economically at many levels. And those are the links that, at the end of the day, count for the most.

To begin with, there is of course an enormous amount of US capital invested in China, a fact that alone binds these two countries together indissolubly. More, their economies are strongly complementary, with the US consuming the bulk of what Chinese manufacture produces and, in turn, supplying technology and capital flows to China. China has amassed foreign exchange reserves of over $3 trillion (that’s three followed by twelve zeroes). It has every interest in ensuring that the US Dollar retains its strength and that the US economy flourishes. Chinese and American objectives are mutual and not adversarial.

Now, the paradox of both rivalry and closeness between China and the US may still prove hard to grasp, but their mutual co-operation in matters that count is only too apparent. There are two further points here of relevance to us in this country. First, while our pseudo-patriots continue to intone pronouncements about China being our ‘all-weather friend’ whose support will assist us in defiance of America and confrontation with India, the developments in the real world give the lie to such assumptions. Worse, it is only too clear that this kind of thinking is not only absurd in today’s context, it is downright dangerous.

The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are said to be growing as the economic powerhouses of the world. The facts are that Pakistan has no real relationship with the first and the fifth, downright bad relationships with the second and third and completely fails to understand its relationship with the fourth, ie China.

Second, consider that the world of today, where success can be seen as endeavouring to evolve beyond the primitive confrontational approaches that characterised the twentieth century towards a post-modern search for syntheses, commonalities of approach and co-operative solutions. Today, we must speak of mutually co-operative local blocs rather than go-it-alone nationalism, and the promotion of trade relations rather than of military alliances. In a real sense, the USA, with its much vaunted exclusivism, its massive military machine, and its fierce nationalism, is by no means the best example to follow.

Let us, finally, understand that, when we talk of national strategies, we need to be thinking in terms of economic, and not primarily military, strategies.