The phrase “first world problems” is commonly used in everyday conversation and hashtagged on social media to depict the “plight” of those privileged in Western countries, otherwise known as the Global North. I myself, have been a culprit of utilising this phrase which connotes a sense of superiority and creates a further chasm between the Global North-Global South divide.
“Stepping out of the shower is becoming a bit of a struggle. And it’s not even Winter yet….. #firstworldproblems
This was evident by my Facebook status in 2013 when there was a trend to hashtag phrases like such on Facebook in order to maximise the number of “likes” and coverage across our social media networks. While upon face-value, this status appears to be somewhat witty or humorous as it is relatable and encapsulates the “struggles” we encounter in our daily lives. There are undertones of condescension and a misinformed judgement that seemingly denigrates those living in developing countries which presupposes the fact that we live in a globalised world where everyone is born equal, regardless of their location, ethnicity and/or family background.
While I have been blessed with “winning” the “geographic lottery” of being born and growing up in Melbourne, deemed the world’s most liveable city and living a suburban lifestyle with a family from a middle-class background, this clearly denotes privilege and luxury in comparison to some other living conditions around the world.
However, who am I, who are WE to decide what should be considered as the “ideal lifestyle” and hence, whether the problems associated are of the first-world or third-world nature?
Due to the abundance of “poverty porn” that is propagated by the media and various charity organisations worldwide (not to mention any names but….), those living in developing countries are wrongly perceived as being “desperate, in despair and/or in distress” or in “dire need” of being “rescued” by organisations led by Western, middle-aged men who are portrayed as the “heroic, selfless, supreme caregiver” who attempts to “feed the poor, clothes the naked, nurses the sick, advocates for the voiceless.” However, there are MANY significant issues that perpetuate from this portrayal which is both disempowering and does nothing to support the cause of our fellow neighbours.
We refer to those both in developing and developed countries by collective terms such as “the needy”, “the poor”, “the homeless, “the less fortunate.” However, what we often forget is the fact that these people who we are referring to are individuals, with stories, lived experiences, skills and talents just like us. It is time we acknowledge people for who they are and not how they have been portrayed!
The term “third world” which originates from the Cold War in the late 1970s was used to describe countries that were not allied with the Soviet Union or members of NATO. Meanwhile “second world” is associated with countries which were part of the Soviet Union. Whilst, “first world” encompasses countries aligned with NATO led by the United States, which included Australia. However, these terms are now considered archaic because the Soviet Union has since long collapsed and the world has become globalised, albeit a perceived divide between the Global North and South. Therefore, these terms should no longer be used as they are inaccurate, demeaning and divisive.
What needs to happen is for us to not only be mindful of the language we use to demonstrate our understanding of our neighbours. However, there needs to be a shift in our attitudes and mindsets towards the developing world in general. We need to recognise the limitations of our understanding and leave behind any cultural bias that have been instilled to us from the Western culture and model of education.
Instead, all we need to do is to look within us to our innate goodness and compassion that is already present so we can break down those barriers of alienation and discrimination that currently divides our world so that we don’t feel the need to merely “help” but to “empower”. This is at the heart of our development as human beings.