(UPDATED) A DAY before typhoon Milenyo struck and rendered Metro Manila and other parts of the country a virtual wasteland, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had proudly declared the Philippines a “Second World” country, trumpeting the supposed gains of the economy under her leadership, including a per capita income that is now worth $1,400 a year.
“Right now, we’re not Third World anymore,” Arroyo said. “At $1,400 we are now Second World, a middle class country, and we’ll be able to achieve, if we are able to continue the trajectory of (a) one-percent decline in the poverty level, we can reach hopefully the First World status by the year 2020.”
Under Arroyo, the country’s per capita income has grown to its present level from $1,040 in 2000 and $1,200 in 2004. As a measure of the wealth of the nation (in GDP terms) based on the income share of its citizens, per capita income however does not give an indication of the income distribution in the country — which has remained uneven as evidenced by widespread poverty.
But for Arroyo to refer to the country as “Second World” is quite a curiosity. In the first place, using the terms “First World,” Second World” and “Third World” harks back to the outdated model of the geopolitical world from the time of the cold war.
“She’s a third-rate ‘president’ who doesn’t know that ‘Second World’ refers to communist countries,” says Charmaine Ramos, a development economist at the Institute for Popular Democracy.
After World War II, the three worlds model gained currency as a way of categorizing countries. Explains Nations Online, in the aftermath of the war, the world split into two large geopolitical blocs and spheres of influence with contrary views on government and the politically correct society.
The bloc of democratic-industrial countries within the American sphere of influence became known as the First World. The Eastern bloc of the communist-socialist states, on the other hand, was referred the Second World.
The remaining three-quarters of the world’s population, states not aligned with either bloc were regarded as the Third World. The term was first coined by a French demographer, Alfred Sauvy, in 1954 to describe the people of the world that are “unknown, exploited, and scorned.” (A third category, “Fourth World,” was coined in 1974 to refer to the poorest Third World countries that have “lagged behind” and still lack industrial infrastructure.)
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the term Second World gradually ceased to be used. Only the term Third World — despite its criticism by some scholars as being colonialist, inaccurate and derogatory — remains in frequent usage to denote nations with a low UN Human Development Index (HDI), regardless of political status.
In the heady days of the cold war, though, the Second World encompassed nations within the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence, extending to countries that signed the Warsaw Pact to its allies such as Cuba and North Vietnam, and most of Eastern Europe. The term was also sometimes used to refer to communist countries that opposed Moscow’s leadership — Albania, the People’s Republic of China and Yugoslavia.
The Philippines is definitely neither socialist nor communist, especially under Arroyo, who is an ardent adherent of neoliberal economics. Her antipathy towards the decades-old communist insurgency which she blames for hindering the country’s development, and for which she has set a one-year deadline for the military to crush, is also well known.
Clearly, in both cases, the Second World category — not to mention the fact that its out-of-touch connotation is no longer applicable to the times — doesn’t fit the Philippines.
“For a much flaunted economist like Arroyo, that seems strange,” quips Akbayan President Ronald Llamas. The term, he says, is rarely used these days, though it might pertain to any of the following: “middle income economies with a growing middle class; whatever is in between the Third World and First World; or developing economies of the Asia-Pacific, including China, India, Brazil, Chile, South Africa, etc.”
To Wilson Fortaleza, vice president of the Freedom from Debt Coalition, Arroyo’s promotion of the Philippines to “Second World” status could be a way of propping up the “magical description of her promised Enchanted Kingdom by 2020.”
“Perhaps she was describing the country’s halfway transition to it,” he says.
Fortaleza, however, says the devastation that typhoon Milenyo left in its wake should tell Arroyo “how we are still very much Third World.” Proof of which, he says, is that “we can’t even bring back the power supply in three days.”