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The End of the Third World?

There appeared in Newsweek magazine in July 1990 an article that aroused my indignation. Its title, "End of the Third World," was based on the premise that the developing countries had become differentiated to such a degree that a single umbrella term for them was no longer useful or accurate. The writer, Robert J. Samuelson, went on to suggest that there is really not much for the industrialized nations to do about the (former) Third World, which has demonstrated its hopeless condition for 30 years or more; exceptions are of course to be found in the improving economies of a few nations like South Korea. Some foreign aid may still be useful, "when conditions are favorable," but "foreign aid doesn't permanently cure poverty."

What bothered me about this essay was its fatalism, and its generalizations about "foreign aid"—as though all aid is the same. And Samuelson also disturbed me by using as the base for much of his commentary the World Development Report 1990 of the World Bank, and quoting some data from it, without considering its overall tone and direction. In the Report’s abstract it is stated that "Great progress has already been made in the past three decades. Even during the so–called lost decade of the 1980’s, living standards continued to improve for most of the world’s poor." What the wealthier nations ought to do, the abstract says, is "to allocate larger shares of aid budgets to those countries which have shown in their policies a genuine commitment to reducing poverty." It is this kind of positive stance that holds promise for continuing gains in the developing countries.

A second gloom–filled article, "The Long Goodbye," was included in another popular American journal, Atlantic, in July 1990. This one dealt with Africa, where "there is every indication that conditions ... will only worsen in the 1990’s." David Ewing Duncan, the writer of that remarkable prognosis, observed also that "after thirty years of sometimes intensive, even bullish interest, the world is wearying of Africa." He quotes former Nigerian president Olusegon Obasanjo saying that Africa is "rapidly becoming the Third World’s Third World."

How to respond to these clouds of negation? On the terminological level, there is something to be said for subdividing the Third World into classes that indicate higher and lower levels of economic development. In fact, in the Report mentioned above, the World Bank has used the terms "low–income economies" (those with a GNP per capita of $US545 or less in 1988) and "middle–income economies" (those with a GNP per capita of $545–$6000 in 1988). Countries with a $6000+ per capita GNP are "high–income economies": those we think of as the industrialized or advanced nations. Of the nations reporting data to the World Bank in 1988, 42 were identified as "low–income economies"and 54 as "middle–income economies." There were 25 in the "high–income group." Statistics in the World Development Report 1990 disclose a considerable homogeneity among nations in the "low–income" group; they are the poorest in monetary terms, and in health, and in education as well. So let us give thought to a double–tiered Third World, in which our attention may well concentrate on the low–income states, with more specialized concern for certain aspects in the middle–income states; but let us not turn away from either group.

As librarians and educators look at Sub–Saharan Africa, we do not see failure as much as we see remarkable success. In the first issue of TWL, Basil Amaeshi noted the flowering of librarianship in West Africa, perhaps most visibly in Nigeria, where after only 22 years of independence there were already "24 university libraries, 29 polytechnic libraries, 28 college of education libraries, 19 public library systems, and 61 special libraries" in addition to a doctoral–level library school and five other library science programs. The profession is organized and active; the literature emanating from it is vigorous and varied. To be sure there has been a serious economic downturn in Africa, with a debilitating impact on libraries (soberly documented by B.U. Nwafor in TWL 1–1). These are setbacks that can be dealt with, in the affirmative spirit expressed by the World Bank. And the Bank does project a 3.7% growth in Gross Domestic Product for Sub–Saharan Africa in the coming decade, in contrast with the 1.0% growth of the troubled 1980’s; this is in fact a higher rate than the 3.0% projected for the industrialized nations. Growth in per capita income in the region is projected at about 1.0% per year from 1995–2000.

Librarians in Africa and the rest of the Third World are demonstrating their adaptability and creativity in the face of economic hardship. In this issue of TWL we have contributors from three developing countries, each offering a fresh approach for libraries in the cause of national economic growth. Let us (says Aree Cheunwattana) take the reading experience to the villages where library services are not available. If this could be done in all the poorer countries, what would be the effect in improvement ofliteracy? Let us (says Katni Kibat) provide necessary links between the population and social services they need. If this could be done universally, what would be the effect on health and agricultural productivity — to name two spheres that are highly information–dependent? Let us (says Myriam Mejía) enhance our public library’s attention to the popular culture of its community, thus bringing community attention to the library and to reading. If all public libraries would do this, what would be the effect on library use and on the impetus among semi–literates to give reading a new priority?

The other article in this TWL, by Else Granheim, confronts the issue of governmental policy regarding libraries. "Public policy is critical both in reducing poverty... and in improving social indicators" — to quote the Report again. Could the Third World nations adopt the Norwegian model,what would be the effect on library funding, on the image of the profession, on library use?

Such practical ideas are well matched to the large themes of development. Those themes are sounded in reports promulgated by the United Nations, World Bank, etc. "The poor are often set apart by cultural and educational barriers. Illiterate people may be intimidated by officials or may simply lack information about programs" — if I may quote one last time the World Development Report.

Few readers of this journal will be ready to give up on the Third World. Librarians in the more fortunate countries will offer the benefits of their experience and will find ways to give material aid. Librarians in the poorer countries will devise means of placing their work more centrally in the grand programs of their nations. Rather than a long goodbye to Africa — or Asia or Latin America — the profession will unite in proud welcome to the new day. — G.A.M.

© 1990 Guy A. Marco


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