Monday, June 27, 2011

The Ancient Third World

Among all fake topics about poverty, one of the most recurring ideas is that poverty is inevitable. And too often this argument goes hand in hand with other prejudices: poor countries are to blame for their own poverty, their people do not like working, it is part of their culture, they have always been poor and they will always be, etc. To deconstruct these myths, it is very useful to take a look at the ancient Third World: things were much different and they can change again.
Let’s get started. Romans, for instance, had the same prejudices about poor countries, but applied to other places. By the end of the 1st century AD, Cornelius Tacitus, one of the greatest Roman historians, wrote a book about the traditions of German people. Despite defending their moral superiority over the “degenerated Rome”, he would describe German people as backward and miserable, without any of the comforts of modern life. Things have changed a lot since then, but by that time, people from the former Roman province Cyrenaica (currently Libya) would regard the people from the British Islands in the same way as a Parisian regards an Ethiopian today.   
Another interesting example comes from the British writer Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the first feminist thinkers and Mary Shelley’s mother. By the end of the 18th century she published a fascinating book about her trips around Sweden, Norway and Denmark. It is a travel narrative in the form of letters where the author depicts very different Scandinavian countries as we know them today: very poor, without any kind of industry, shut off from outside influence. The writer reproduces many of our current topics about poor countries: it was and it will always be a miserable country, people do nothing to get out of poverty, it is due to their character because Scandinavian people do not have the guts to change their situation… But eventually their situation did change, didn’t it?
With these precedents in mind, it is easy to make political fiction and imagine a future in which Bolivia, Mali and Bangladesh are the countries where people live better. You may give a hint of a smile but bear in mind that one hundred years ago no-one would bet a penny on good future prospects for Brazil, India or China. And at present, it does not seem extravagant to think that these countries can become the three main world powers.


  1. Cornelius TACITUS:
  2. Mary WOLLSTONECRAFT. Letters Written in Sweden, Norway and Denmark:,_Norway,_and_Denmark


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