Is It Possible to Reinvent the Third World? A Discussion

The Discussion Map charts important debates from the pages of EPW.

The phrase "the third world," now considered derogatory, emerged during the Cold War in reference to countries that were unaligned with either of the superpowers, the Soviet empire and the United States (US). The concept of the third world emerged in the region that did not comprise it as its emergence coincided with the end of colonialism, the fall of empires, struggles for independence and the birth of a hierarchical global system with the hegemonic dominance of the US. Against this backdrop of the emergence of the “third world,” author Aswini K Ray ponders over a possibility of the reinvention of the third world in her article “Reinventing the Third World” published in EPW. She argues that “the only meaningful inspiration for such a reinvention in the current phase of globalisation could be for the third world to rediscover its identity as a conscience of the system.”  Ray suggests this by relying on the inference that during the Cold War, the Non-Aligned Movement attained a moral legitimacy for itself for being the voice of the disadvantaged regions of the globe which constitute the “wretched of the earth.” By invoking Franz Fanon, she argues that “non-aligned movement appropriated the third world label for itself as a badge of honour representing the aspirations of the disadvantaged states and people within the global system as the ‘wretched of the earth.’” Therefore, according to Ray the possibility of reinvention of the third world must lie in the third world rediscovering its identity as the conscience of the hierarchical global system churned by the Cold War.

Priya Naik writes a rejoinder in response to  Ray’s article and argues that “one cannot reinvent the third world. That is like fixing the cracking ceiling of an oppressive structure, but allowing the structure to continue standing untouched.” She elaborates by challenging two of Ray’s core arguments—first, that the historicity of the third world must continue to define it, and second, the third world must reinvent itself by reclaiming its conscientious position it once possessed during the Cold War. Naik writes that Ray’s analogy of the third world bearing the burden of possessing a conscience is a skewed reading of Paul Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in which he argues that the oppressed carry the responsibility of not only untying and unshackling themselves, but their oppressors as well. “Freire’s way out of this libidinous affair is education, the pedagogy, which can set the oppressed free. For Ray, however, this is possible in the third world by having a conscience,” writes Naik. By noting that the focus on “why” the third world operates the way it does rather than “how” it has come to be this way is the preoccupation of the domain of international relations, Naik says that that Ray’s perspective is typically ahistorical of the roots of the modern, European, Westphalian state where the particular of the European province, has become universal. Naik concludes her rejoinder with a remark that encompasses her critique of Ray’s article holistically as she says, “Colonialism was also legitimised on the moral grounds of the “White Man’s Burden.” To place the moral burden of a conscience on third world states is a classic example of the colony mimicking the coloniser.”

A few other articles related to this discussion:

  1. State, Nation and Ethnicity-Experience of Third World Countries, D L Sheth, 1989

  2. Accumulation, Poverty and State in Third World-Capital/Pre-Capital Complex, Kalyan K Sanyal, 1988 

  3. The Cold War and Third World-The Good Old Days, Immanuel Wallerstein, 1991

  4. Concept of Development and Hegemonic World Order, Manish Kumar, 2021 

To contribute to a more comprehensive discussion map, please share links to other relevant articles in the comments section or write to us at with the subject line—“World Politics and Globalisation”


Curated by akankshya []


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