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a green background with a globe shape showing only New Zealand. in front, there are MPs David Seymour and Greg O'Connor and lots of speechmarks to show it's not just them saying all of this
Photos of David Seymour and Greg O’Connor: Getty, design: Archi Banal)

OPINIONMediaMay 26, 2023

The ‘third world’ isn’t the bogeyman New Zealand seems to think it is

a green background with a globe shape showing only New Zealand. in front, there are MPs David Seymour and Greg O'Connor and lots of speechmarks to show it's not just them saying all of this
Photos of David Seymour and Greg O’Connor: Getty, design: Archi Banal)

Hardly a day goes by without someone comparing New Zealand to the ‘third world’, and being quoted in the media for their trouble. It’s a tired, meaningless trope that says nothing about the actual problems here, writes Shanti Mathias.

When I’m feeling sorry for myself, for one reason or another, I like to play the comparisons game. It’s pretty self explanatory, really: I think of something that could be worse than my current situation and feel relieved that, bad as things may be, at least I don’t have to be like those people. Cycling, breathless and sweaty, to an event, I pat myself on the back for not having to find parking like the poor suckers in cars. Miserable with a dreadful flatmate, I remember my friend whose flatmate took to stealing things and never paid their rent. Confronted with a sudden expense, I remind myself that the reason I don’t have much money is that I keep going on holiday – unlike someone I know who never leaves the city limits.

I’m hardly alone in the perverse enjoyment of comparisons. In the media, all the time, I see politicians and commentators and the public playing the comparisons game, only at a much bigger scale: the comparison of New Zealand to the “third world”. 

There are abundant examples.

The May 12 report into the problem of forestry slash on the East Coast, for instance, declared in its introduction: “We are not a third world country. We heard from experts that the situation is perilous – the time to act is now.” The sentiment “we need to take action about a harmful problem” is just as powerful without any mention of the “third world”. Why even bring it up?

On May 15 David Seymour told One News that New Zealand was “sliding” from a “first world country” to “a kind of big Fiji”. Then he did it again on May 22, saying on Newshub that crime rates in New Zealand indicated that New Zealand was becoming a “third world country”.

David seymour, a light-skinned man in a grey suit with a pink tie stands in front of a microphoone and the blue, yellow, and pink ACT logo
David Seymour doesn’t miss opportunities to compare New Zealand with the so-called “third world”

On May 16, responding to an article about the Loafers Lodge fire, NZ Herald columnist Fran O’Sullivan wrote on Twitter “Prefer not to be third world.”

Even when the term “third world” isn’t used, the sentiment is present. On 12 May, Businessdesk’s Dileepa Foneska reported that Githara Gunawardena, a New Zealand permanent resident, was concerned that she wasn’t able to take out a student loan. Upon raising concerns with her local Labour MP, Greg O’Connor, he reportedly told her “This is not Sri Lanka,” saying there was nothing he could do. O’Connor was implying, presumably, that for one of his constituents to discuss an issue that affected her and many others with her elected representative was tantamount to asking for unreasonable personal favours. 

What do these comparisons achieve? Are they supposed to make our problems of poverty and injustice seem worse, or better? Is the instinct of the media and politicians to compare our country to “the third world” supposed to be a warning? The implicit assumption, I think, is something like this: as a relatively high income country, we shouldn’t have to think about, much less respond to, issues like ram raids or rheumatic fever or elderly homelessness, all of which have been labelled as “third world” problems in the New Zealand media. No, those are problems for poor people, in other places.

Presumably, those using the term “third world” intend it as a rhetorical device to emphasise that things here are really bad. But as a phrase, “third world” is vague, rarely backed up by specifics of policy or statistics to make the comparison useful. 

“‘Third world’ is a term that exists in the imagination,” says Waikato University professor Priya Kurian. In 2012, Kurian and Debashish Munshi wrote a paper about the “shadow of the ‘Third World’ in New Zealand media and politics, finding 521 examples in newspapers and magazines between 2006 and 2011. 

“We accept an association of the ‘third world’ with poverty and diseases and poor infrastructure, with all that is negative. Then, when those things happen here, like spikes in crime, child poverty or electricity failures, it serves the purpose of distancing what New Zealand is from what New Zealand desires not to be,” Kurian tells me. It’s a comparison that is intended not to be useful, but instead to conjure the fearful spectre of things being really bad. 

a brown skinned woman with a bobbed haircut, glasses, a big smile, and a black cardigan with a colourful top underneath
Professor Priya Kurian noticed the pejorative use of ‘third world’ a decade ago. It’s still everywhere. (Photo: Supplied)

The term “third world” has always been a fraught one. When it emerged in the 1950s it was as an alternative to the “first world” (capitalist, democratic, wealthy European and North American countries) and the “second world” (communist countries led by the former USSR): a different way of being for newly independent, formerly colonised states like Egypt, Ghana and India. In recent decades, though, Kurian says that original use has nearly disappeared: it’s become simply a disparaging term. “It refers to places of irrationality, poverty and chaos, where diseases like meningitis, measles and malaria are found – and it’s also used in a racialised sense to talk about the origin of visible migrants, anyone with an accent who is a person of colour.”

After all, labelling a problem – decrepit houses, delayed trains – as “third world” doesn’t buy it a ticket to somewhere “exotic” and make it disappear. It’s a fruitless exercise and a lazy way to make a broad point, relying more on the fear of being like a place where poor brown people live than a willingness to look at New Zealand’s problems as products of our culture, environment, economy and governance. 

“You see it in how we constantly compare New Zealand to other countries in the OECD,” Kurian says. These places – wealthier, whiter and ‘better’ – seem like the sort of countries New Zealand should be compared to. “There’s a Eurocentrism that dismisses anything associated with the non-specific geographical space of the ‘third world’ as an inferior other,” Kurian says.

It’s difficult to say trace its impacts exactly, but how much might relegating “third world” countries to second-class status affect how people develop foreign aid policy, or talk to migrants, or pick charities to donate to? How much might it prevent our policy makers and politicians from learning valuable lessons about how other governments – often with fewer resources – respond to complex social and environmental issues?

Two bowls of goldfish: one is big with lots of lovely plants and only one fish; the other is small and crammed with four fish. Cash is falling into the bowls – loads of notes into the big bowl, a couple of coins into the smaller.
No amount of comparing New Zealand to other places will make our problems go away: (Image: Getty Images/Archi Banal)

Dismissing problems as “third world” also disguises inequality in New Zealand itself. The problems consigned to the “third world” are the ones that happen more to brown, black and indigenous communities here. Damage to land from forestry slash has impacted Māori without ancestral land living in Tairāwhiti much more than middle class professionals in Wellington. Ram raids costing dairy owners thousands of dollars hurt migrant business owners with few economic protections much more than the upward wealth transfer caused by white collar crime. The people catching “third world” diseases like rheumatic fever and tuberculosis are far more likely to be Māori and Pasifika, or migrants from other parts of the world. 

Comparing New Zealand to the amorphous bogeyman of the “third world” isn’t only lazy, meaningless language that reiterates harmful stereotypes, it also prevents us from understanding the problems we have here on their own terms. I’d like to think, for example, that David Seymour wants crime to reduce in New Zealand because crime hurts communities, not because he wants to win the comparison game of homicide rates; that Fran O’Sullivan thinks that people dying in boarding house fires is a tragedy even if similar things happen in the UK

Because while comparisons have their utility – when they’re specific, constructive, and not based on the fear of a vague other – they have their limits. I remember, in the depths of a lockdown, explaining to a friend my miserable helplessness as I watched my parents move country, unable to do anything to help them. I felt so guilty, I told him, for the tears I’d spilled over this, knowing that so many people had it so much worse. “Shanti,” he replied. “Just because other people are suffering doesn’t mean your problems aren’t real.” We have real issues in New Zealand. Comparisons with the “third world” don’t make them go away.

Keep going!