Winter 2005

‘It Looks Like the Third World’

Writing in Southeast Asia, an American journalist comments on reporters’ use of this descriptive phrase in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

By Philip J. Cunningham
“It’s like the Third World out here. It looks like the Third World.” Dozens of news reports used the same curious term repeatedly, presumably implying that America wasn’t quite itself anymore.

Safe to say, American reporters weren’t doling out a compliment when they described conditions as Third World. It’s at best a neutral term for the global South, but more often a term of contempt. Used and abused as it was in the aftermath of Katrina, Third World could be seen to mean, variously and in sum, black poor powerless and pathetic. It took on a life as a code word, shorthand for chaos, for garbage in the streets, for looting and rape, for a breakdown in law and order. It put the blame on the victims themselves and darkly hinted at the need for martial law.

Third World? This tired, overweighted term has been bandied about quite unfairly. First a corrective: For every report of looting or antisocial behavior in New Orleans, there are dozens of reports of quiet courage and stoicism in the face of stunning government neglect. The orders to evacuate only made sense if you had a car and a credit card for a hotel down the road. No transportation or housing was provided at the outset.

Then the storm of the century hit. Six hundred police went missing; among those accounted for, some were caught scavenging stores for food themselves. For every borrowed boat or requisitioned car, 100 tired and hungry people walked miles on foot without food or water only to be denied access to a bridge by gun-toting officials, or found themselves ensconced in the filth of a concentration center such as the Superdome.

The criminal lawlessness of put-upon poor people was generally matched, if not systematically created, generated and exacerbated, by the criminal recklessness with which the irresponsible power-holders lorded over them. If there is a hidden Third-Worldish element to New Orleans, it is not a question of skin color or even poverty, but a case of government greed, neglect and ineptitude.

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