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COMMENTARY

It's time for the 'First World' hypothesis to be rewritten

THE term "First World" has been in vogue for many decades, but has meant different things to different people at different times. From a geopolitical classification, this has evolved into a purely economic configuration. Events in the current times require a fresh debate on what the rating should signal.

Historically, hard factors such as infrastructure, high wages, industrialisation, financial clout and sophistication, private wealth, good schools and universities, clean public places, water and sanitation and the like made up the definition. Therefore, "First World" meant rich countries and "Third World" denoted nations struggling to eliminate poverty.

Some fell in between. We now value many more things - political freedom, internal security, efficient bureaucracy, inclusivity, quality of jobs (not just how much it pays), rule of law, electoral fairness, nation-first principle, political leadership, cultural openness, gender equality, amenities for the aged and less privileged, caring society, social harmony, healthy living space and environmental footprint - these have garnered significant weight to determine what should constitute a good life and by corollary, references to "First World".

All these are soft and subtle factors, often prone to different assessments. Yet, the people who live in various countries make their own individual and collective judgements about their respective nations.

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In the past couple of decades, these factors have come under strain in many nations, including aspiring ones. Elections in many countries have been flawed, well-regarded countries have seen a virtual merry-go-round in their leadership (Australia), parliaments have become laughing affairs (England), civil rights being often snatched away (many African and Middle Eastern nations), security questions (attacks in New Zealand, France and long-standing problems in Pakistan, Syria), job markets have shrunk (India), the cancer of corruption has entered premier education (USA recently), elusive political freedom (Iran, China, Russia), blatant environmental transgressions (China), ravaged and divided civil societies (France and even Germany), gaping income inequality (almost every country), insensitive and uncivil public discourse (many venerable democracies), declining economies (Italy, Argentina), high dependency ratios (Japan, Nordic countries), white-collar and political corruption (all major economies) - all these have bitten off the charm of the "First-World" status (or sought status) quite dramatically.

Even the human development indices of the UNDP do not reflect all of these. High GDP or high economic growth do not guarantee any of the "softer" symbols of progress. So what is a citizen supposed to expect from the "First World" nations that they may belong to? Bhutan measures its progress in terms of a happiness index. Is that a viable alternative for bigger nations?

Even the phrase needs review. Should it be First World, first society or first citizenry? The concept of the "First World" must encompass well-being for everyone in the society, not just a view through capitalist lens. We have to accept that no nation would score high on all these parameters, but should the top ten parameters change to the "well-being" metrics? Nations would qualify for a rating depending on the attribute of measure. It is time the "First World" hypothesis is rewritten.

  • The writer is a business consultant