What Defines a Third World Country?
"Third World" is a term invented in 1952 by French
demographer Alfred Sauvy. It had political connotations at that
time, but it now simply refers to underdeveloped countries in
general. Although it's typically thought to signify poverty more
than anything else, after our recent trip to South America, my
wife and I have come to understand it in another way.
Ana, my wife, was born and raised in Ecuador. She remembers
using buckets of water to take a shower, because the city she
lived in as a child didn't have running water in all neighborhoods.
We were in Ecuador in October of 2007, and we were disappointed
to learn that thirty years later, there still isn't running water
in many towns. It is particularly sad given the economic boom
that has taken place in the country in the last six years or
Third World Means a Lack of Basic Services
A short while back, we bought a small piece of property in
San Vicente, Ecuador, a hundred yards from the ocean (the Pacific).
Ana's grandmother was building a small house on it, and we were
curious to see how it was coming along. It was almost complete,
but faucets and a nice shower can be misleading, as it turned
out. When I turned on the shower no water came out.
Neighbors explained that the city had water once every week
or two for a few hours, usually on Thursday mornings. The house
had a large cistern that held thousands of gallons of water,
which was filled whenever the city water came on. This easily
lasted until the next time the water was on, but Ana's grandmother
was still hauling buckets of water from the cistern into the
house for showers, dishes and general cleaning.
As quickly as we could we bought a pump, so now there was
running water all the time, except for the occasional hour when
the electricity fails. Unfortunately pumps are stolen quickly
we were told, even from walled communities, so we had a cement
pump house built, with a locking gate, solving that problem.
The whole process had me wondering about basic services. Never
a fan of higher taxes, I nevertheless felt they might be needed
here. Property taxes were something like $25 per year. This seemed
nice at first, but consider the thousands of houses here, most
with an expensive cistern, a pump (or a gravity-fed system with
a tank), and a pump house that locks. These extra costs were
a result of a system that didn't have enough tax revenue to function
What if the taxes were a little higher? Could the city have
a water system that worked then, thus avoiding the necessity
for all these other costs? This would also mean that the poorest
residents, who don't have a cistern and pump, could have running
Roads were another thing that caught our attention. A politician
had come through and built nice new roads ten years earlier,
but since that time not one penny had been spent repairing them.
It shows. Traffic goes slow and cars drive all over both sides
of the roads to avoid the worst holes and bumps. There is expensive
damage caused to cars I am sure. I guess no thought was given
to the cost of maintenance - or any plan for it - when the roads
were first constructed.
Big Cities and Small Towns
The water and power are always on in Guayaquil or in Quito,
the capital. There the streets are maintained, and people are
buying cars and everything else with easy credit. Shopping malls
are nicer than anything I've seen in the United States. There
is obviously money here, and there are even new subdivisions
popping up all over. More people than ever are buying new homes
due to easier mortgage loans.
Unfortunately this development is very uneven. Most small
towns still have poor roads, problems with basic police service
(don't leave clothes drying on the line overnight, we were warned),
and no regular running water. This lack of basic services is
what really sets third world countries apart from the rest, we
Everywhere where private companies are involved, things are
going well. There are wonderful malls, new ways to buy cars and
homes, and even some nice private parks to visit. The internet
service in the big cities of Ecuador is as fast as in any other
On the other hand, anything done by the government is done
poorly at best. Roads, parks, water and sewage systems, and anything
else they touch don't seem to work. Maybe the first thing that
a third world country like Ecuador needs is to start contracting
these things out to private businesses. Many of the poor of Ecuador
who can't afford a thousand-dollar cistern and pump could afford
to pay a bit more in taxes to have basic services, and might
not begrudge someone profiting from providing this.
Our latest visit to Ecuador, and what we know about other
such "poor" countries which are actually rich in resources,
has made us reconsider the term "third world country."
It seems to us that a lack of basic services more accurately
defines such countries. It also seems that bad government above
is the root cause of the problems they face.