I have uttered the term “Third World” before, mostly out of frustration when the electricity went out, or the internet signal reduced to the point where I could not check my email, or while watching a Panama-flagged Matson vessel slip into the horizon while the stores still lacked what I considered to be basic supplies. (I had a jubilant Christmas in Chuuk when Shigeto’s Store suddenly had lentils and olive oil. I may have bought out the entire stock, along with a few parrotfish from the roadside markets. That was a good evening. The internet was working.)
As with everything, debates abound about the meaning and origin of “Third World,” but for current purposes, I trace it to the Cold War and the objective of many former colonies to align neither with the US nor the Soviet Union, culminating in — or perhaps originating with — the 1955 Bandung Conference when representatives from throughout the world met in Indonesia to chart a different path, one grounded in self-determination and cutting colonial shackles that was neither American-style capitalism nor Soviet-style communism. A third way. The Third World.
When I say “Third World” I suspect a specific image comes to mind: the poorest of the poor, endemic poverty, corruption, villagers scrambling for a single bowl of rice in front of collapsed buildings. The kind of images that make great visuals for end-of-year fundraising campaigns for international charities. Inevitably there’s an emblem of the United Nations somewhere in the background.
By definition, Micronesia has not been Third World. Vagaries of history and geography – despite the distances between landfalls – aligned it squarely with the US. In condition, however, many areas of the Pacific islands could be interchangeable with any other impoverished region. Limited futures. Squandered resources. Minimal, if any, accountability. Elected bodies acting out of anything but public policy. Benefactors that shrug their shoulders. People leaving as soon as they can.
Many dislike the term “Third World,” ditching it for more contemporary versions. North-South Divide. Developing World. (I personally believe that the Small Island Developing States should be called Big Ocean Developing States, but the term doesn’t change the conditions.) Consultants like to throw around words like “development indicators” and “capacity,” and “best practices.” Many of their reports — national development plans come to mind— remind me of corporate mission statements where objectives are published, then placed in a file until the next deadline to revise them.
All of which is to repeat the obvious. The islands are perhaps entering a new era, one more closely aligned to China than to America. Perhaps they are not. I won’t try to predict the future, but as I have stated before, it is only natural for China to assert greater influence in what it considers its front yard, much the same way that at this point there should be no surprise that China is a serious economic power.
Other regional powers are becoming more creative when it comes to blunting China’s influence, entering into free trade agreements and the like. Japan and South Korea, whose military alliances are not exactly secrets, come immediately to mind. India has recently rebuffed such advances, but has suggested room for Middle Powers such as itself (and Australia) in the Pacific. An Indian presence in Micronesia presently is little more than speculation. India certainly does not have the historical connections that China or Japan do in the region, outside of Fiji; the strongest influence I’ve seen is The Taj restaurant in Palau. Nonetheless, some are heralding an “Indo-Pacific” chapter.
Let’s be honest: Micronesia will not be a factor in trade and economic decisions. US Customs law already gives the Freely Associated States preferences for imports. It will remain, however, strategic for policy decisions on military access and aid money. Votes at the UN matter, after all. Sometimes.
In economic terms, the Pacific Islands have two things the world wants: seafood and tropical locales for tourists. People spend a lot of money to sit under a palm tree and watch the sun set over the water while nibbling on tuna sashimi after a day of diving. If recent years are any indicator, the nations of Micronesia are hardly equipped to manage either of these resources.
All of which brings to mind a toast that a new acquaintance regaled me with after discussing the state of the world:
“Welcome to the 2.8th world.”
Gabriel McCoard currently lives in Chuuk, FSM, where he works for a regional NGO. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org