Fun fact: The term “Third World country” comes from the Cold War and referred to countries that were not part of NATO (the “First World”) or the Communist Bloc (the “Second World”). It primarily labeled developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, often countries with colonial history.
That said, the term “Third World country” is outdated, but it was how people described Morocco to me in 2017. When they used the term, I knew exactly what they meant: A Third World country was economically impoverished, which in turn created a low standard of living. I could expect to see homeless children, unclean water, rampant disease, no healthcare, high crime, and low industrialization among other things.
After experiencing Morocco, though, I quickly learned that it didn’t fit within that definition. Granted, I know I experienced a sanitized version of the country; I rode in a chartered van, I stayed in 5-star hotels, I went to restaurants every day, and we had an itinerary directing us to universities and museums. But then there’s the thing: I didn’t expect universities or museums. I didn’t expect restaurants or fancy hotels, artisanal centers, or even friendly people, and yet those things were everywhere.
My perceived notion of Morocco was flat out wrong.
So, if it’s not a Third World country, what is it?
The term “Third World country” has been replaced with terms like “developing country” or “least developed country”. A country’s state of development can be measured by statistics like income, life expectancy, and literacy rates, but when these (and many more) stats combine, they create the Megazord of measurements called the Human Development Index. Created by the United Nations, HDI is the most widely accepted approximation of country development. You can think of it like a ranking system, and every year countries may shift a little.
In 2018, Morocco’s HDI was 123 out of 189.
So, what was it like being in a developing country?
Let me start by telling you about a game I began playing upon my return to the U.S. I would consider things like places, objects, and issues, then compare what I had seen in Morocco to what I was used to seeing in the U.S.
Morocco doesn’t have clean water? Flint, Michigan has been trying to clean theirs for 4 years.
Morocco has homelessness? I’m approached by homeless people in Richmond on my way to class every day.
Morocco is dangerous? There’s a long list of reasons why America doesn’t feel safe to me.
By thinking about it this way, it allowed me to reflect on what my experiences in a developing country and a developed country looked and felt like, which added an extra layer to my answer when someone asked, “What was it like?” I couldn’t give them a straight answer because difference between the two experiences were no longer black and white.
But what did I literally see? I saw paved highways, bottled water, and rest areas cleaner than anything I’ve ever experienced in the U.S. There were fast food restaurants, Starbucks, and boys sporting colored braces when they smiled. There was also endless construction. In every city I visited there was something being renovated, reinforced, rerouted, or built completely from scratch. I was literally watching the country as it developed.
I did get glimpses of the things I had associated with the skewed definition of a “Third World country”. I saw the homelessness, the stretches of undeveloped land, and the wet trash-covered streets, but those concepts—and the other concepts on my definitive list—simply weren’t enough to define the country as “Third World” in the way I understood. That coupled with the fact I was seeing streets covered in fast food chains, car dealerships, and tennis courts—the kind of things I was used to seeing in America, the pinnacle of “First World” awesomeness—just threw me for a loop.
It took me a while to fully readjust my perspective, and that’s why the game came in handy.
What did you do?
It’s a good question. You’re in a country with a different state of development than your own. What do you do when you’re in a situation you’re not used to? What if you’re familiar with the situation, but it pops up in a new way?
What do you do when a four-year-old girl in a pretty pink dress walks across a busy street just to say hello to you? She doesn’t ask for money, only greets you and points to her slightly older sister and younger brother sitting across the street staring at you too. Where are her parents? She doesn’t mention them, and you don’t see them. Is it a scam? You don’t know. The student on the trip who talked to this little girl politely told her to go back to her siblings, effectively ending the conversation and distancing herself from the situation.
So, is the rule “when in doubt, don’t”? Don’t engage with the little girl and don’t involve yourself in what could be a “Third World problem”?
What about another student on the trip who gave a homeless woman his leftover change? After all, what was he going to do with it once he left the country? Well, a faculty member saw him advised him not to do things like that. I, for one, have been given the same advice in the U.S. under the argument of “people crazy” and you never know whether the homeless person is being honest. So, does that “rule” still apply in this new country?
How about this one: A student bought a Coca-Cola in the market and started being followed around by a woman asking if she could have the soda. The student continued to refuse, but the woman kept following her, and eventually the student gave up the soda. Similarly, as I was leaving out of a fast food restaurant in Marrakesh, a boy repeatedly called out to me. “Madame!” he kept saying, and when I realized I was indeed the madame, I turned to speak to him. He pointed to my soda, asking through chapped lips if he could have it, and I gave it to him.
I wish I could say I did it out of the kindness of my heart, but the truth is that I didn’t even think about it; it was an immediate reaction. In fact, a part of me felt intimidated, not by the kid, but by the situation. It was new, unexpected, and a little scary; there were too many thoughts for me to process in that moment, so I just handed him the drink.
I realized later that there was no way I could have prepared for that situation or many of the other ones I experienced. Even if I had wrapped my mind around the idea of a random child asking me for my leftover Sprite, and even if I had prepared exactly how I was going to respond, being in the moment would have been completely different.
So, the answer to the question “What do you do?” in situations where the developing nature of the country presents itself to you isn’t an easy one. It may sound like a cop-out, but there’s no one way to answer that; it’s all up to you.
Just a rotten orange sitting on a work table
But if you’re still futzing over it:
Remember I said Morocco has an HDI of 123? Google HDI list for the year and see where other countries rank; it may give you a point of reference. The short answer is that Morocco rides somewhere in the middle when it comes to development; they are a work in progress and based on my experience they are moving in an exciting direction. After all, they were colonized for 44 years (1912 – 1956) and slavery wasn’t formerly abolished until 1925. Factors like that play a huge role in the development of a country, which is why you have to consider what the country has been through, what it’s going through, and where it’s trying to go as you prepare yourself for the environment it offers.
I think Morocco—and any developing country—deserves not to be immediately tossed into a strict definition of a developing nation. I think you should look at the entire picture, asking why the economy is bad or why homelessness is rampant. Could it be because people weren’t allowed to own their own property until 50 years ago? Was there a war, a rebellion, a natural disaster? Every country on the lower end of development has a reason why it’s in that situation, and those reasons are worth taking into consideration.
A note about processing these experiences:
What you’ve been exposed to before entering a new country is going to play a part in how you absorb the experience. To boot, being exposed to a country at a different stage of development than your own can be an intense experience all on its own, and it took me a while to fully absorb and process some of the situations I encountered.
In short, it can be a lot to handle and it’s different for everyone.
I know it’s difficult to process certain situations the instant they happen, so I think it’s okay to allow yourself to take it all in at your own speed. However, even if it is taking days to wrap your mind around what you just saw, heard, or felt, try and allow yourself to absorb everything the country is offering you. I know it can be overwhelming to continue piling on more and more experiences before you’ve processed the first few—especially if some of those experiences warrant intense reflection about history & society—but you should find a way to soak it all in. Even if you have to collect every experience and schedule time for you to process them later, the act of collecting them is good because you are still allowing yourself to be open to the moment and that’s how you learn.
Or, at least, it’s how I learned, and it’s why over a year later I am still reflecting on some of my experiences. Over a year later, I am still learning.
Call me an art hippie, but this photograph reminded me of a blank canvas. It's a good metaphor for willingness to learn, no?