How Outdated Labels Are Limiting The World’s Potential

Words have the power to connect, divide, uplift, or discourage. That’s why the terms we use can have lasting impacts on students—and society, says GlobalGiving Community Voices Fellow Hassina Sherjan.


It is evident that the terms “First World” and “Third World” are not only outdated but also problematic in today’s globalized world. These old terms perpetuate a hierarchy that fosters a sense of superiority among certain nations, hindering global cooperation, justice, and individual development, particularly within the education system.

The words convey false information to students and others in the West while giving a sense of inferiority to those in the East. For example, these outdated labels ignore the historical and structural factors that have contributed to the uneven distribution of wealth and resources in the world, such as colonialism, imperialism, and the free market economy.

Origin in conflict

The terms “First World,” “Second World,” and “Third World” were originally used to divide the world into three categories based on their alignment during the Cold War. The First World consisted of the capitalist countries led by the United States and its allies, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Second World consisted of communist countries led by the Soviet Union and its allies. The Third World consisted of non-aligned and neutral countries, mostly former colonies of European powers. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Second World became obsolete, and the Third World became a synonym for “developing” or “poor” countries.

What is called the “Third World” was here first. Mathematics, the science of numbers and patterns, was invented in the so-called “Third World.” Ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mesopotamia, India, and China developed sophisticated systems of counting, measuring, calculating, and reasoning that laid the foundations for modern mathematics. Present-day Afghanistan and the region gave birth to scientists, philosophers, astronomers, and poets such as Avicenna, Rumi, Hafez, Khayyam, and many more. Without their discoveries and innovations, we would not have the tools and methods we use today to solve problems and understand the world.

From ranks to ranges

Currently, the dichotomy of “developing” versus “developed” is used to establish a hierarchy, which further perpetuates the notion of one country’s superiority over another. This mindset also leads to the belief that some nations have resolved all their challenges and have the right to interfere in others’ affairs and impose their ideologies or systems upon them.

This hierarchy extends its influence into the education sector and shapes individuals’ perspectives of the world and themselves.

In the West, these outdated labels provide the students with a sense of power and superiority over others. In the East, it is the opposite and, in turn, it creates a feeling of hostility and resentment. Perhaps one of the root the causes of terrorism has grown out of this hierarchy.

I asked a few educated Afghans if they are familiar with these terms and how they feel about them. The responses were: “It makes me sad because I don’t know when, and if, we will ever be part of the ‘Developed World.’” “I feel less than others.” “I feel embarrassed.” “I feel that we are a backward people and country.” “I feel poor.”

The assertion that the “First World” created these outdated labels to reinforce a sense of superiority and influence the behavior of others is not unfounded. Historical and sociopolitical contexts have shown that powerful nations often use language and classification systems to establish dominance and control over others. Such practices are not limited to these specific terms but have been observed throughout human history.

The idea that we generate the energy we want others to exude is a philosophical perspective that suggests our thoughts, actions, and attitudes can have a ripple effect on the world around us. In other words, how we think, behave, and treat others can influence how they respond to us. While this idea is not a scientific law, it does emphasize the importance of promoting positive and respectful interactions to foster harmonious relationships on a global scale.

In the context of international relations and the global community, it becomes crucial to approach each other with empathy, respect, and a genuine desire for mutual understanding and cooperation rather than perpetuating outdated and hierarchical terms that may lead to further division.

Words are powerful tools for shaping perceptions and attitudes. Therefore, they should be used carefully.

Limiting a nation

Afghan people suffered from wars that were imposed on them for decades, and generations have gone without education. An uneducated society is vulnerable to invasions, as Afghans have witnessed since 1979. We at Aid Afghanistan for Education are teaching a new generation to, eventually, lead the country. I would like them to be free from such terminology that will limit their sense of self or worldly outlook.

Education is a powerful tool that can break cycles of conflict and poverty, enabling individuals to envision a better world and contribute positively to society. To help create a positive and empowering educational environment, it’s important to use language that fosters a sense of dignity, resilience, and global understanding.

Ultimately, moving away from divisive terminology and embracing a more compassionate and equitable mindset will be essential in promoting a world where all nations can work together for a brighter and more harmonious future. Through these efforts, we can help people live up to their potential, promote a more just and interconnected global community, and create a peaceful world.

Hassina Sherjan is the founder and CEO of Aid Afghanistan for Education. Support her work to transform the world through education.



GlobalGiving’s Community Voices fellowship aims to elevate and amplify the ideas of nonprofit partners in the GlobalGiving community. Six change leaders from Afghanistan, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, Peru, and Tanzania share their perspectives on challenges affecting our world and the solutions that exist in their communities. Each leader has embarked upon the eight-month fellowship with support from GlobalGiving and The OpEd Project to elevate their underheard, yet vitally important, viewpoints. Read more from Community Voices Fellows.

Featured Photo: Create New Women's Schools in Kabul by Aid Afghanistan for Education

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