FirstWorld is the Problem

By Kyla Gardner

I have a problem.

I’m not sure what country, world or economic class of people my problem belongs to; a recent internet trend would have me believe that my problem, one of language, of an over-used joke, of a Twitter hashtag, is something an African child with flies in his eyes and a distended belly could never understand: a #firstworldproblem.

My problem is that the term, one used to make light of trivial frustrations – like getting the wrong color iPhone 4S for Christmas – is based on the idea that the world is disconnected, that there’s an “us” and a “them.”

This “us” and “them” distinction, based on “first world” and “third world,” is outdated. The terms were invented during the Cold War to classify the U.S. and its allies as the almighty first world, casting the Soviet bloc into the second, and everywhere else, the third. Carl Campbell, chair and associate professor of economics, said it is politically incorrect to use these designations because “third world” has negative implications, portraying developing countries (the preferred term today) as poor and backward.

There’s also that little detail about Mikhail Gorbachev and a certain wall that makes “second world” pretty irrelevant, too.

But the hashtag #developedworldproblems wouldn’t be any better. Citizens of developing nations have trivial problems, and those of developed countries have “real” problems. To help you figure out the difference, lists first world problems as “had to park far from door,” “your show isn’t in HD” and “too much goat cheese in salad,” while “real problems” are hunger, cholera and rape.

That starving African boy is a bad stereotype of developing nations we can no longer afford. A writer for the New Yorker recently collected the “Ten Biggest Positive Africa Stories of 2011,” which includes Africa’s economic boom (it’s expected to have the largest growth of any continent over the next decade), Kenya’s innovative mobile banking system and Botswana’s position as a global leader in fighting corruption. Botswana ranked 32nd, higher than half of all European nations, in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index.

For developed countries, a healthy GDP per capita isn’t mutually exclusive from those “real problems” of hunger, disease and rape. In 2010, only 85.5 percent of U.S. households had access at all times to enough food for all family members for a healthy lifestyle, according to the Department of Agriculture. Poverty isn’t only a developing world problem, either. The 2010 US Census Bureau Poverty report estimates about 14,500 people in DeKalb County, about 13 percent of the population, live in poverty – less than $22,000 per year in total income for a family of four.

The world is smaller than ever because of the Internet and affordable world travel. There were about 1,000 international students from 100 countries attending NIU in fall 2010, some from countries once classified as third world.

It seems a little obtuse to complain about your iPhone problem as uniquely #firstworld on Twitter when users tweet from nearly every country in the world in 17 languages and iPhones are sold in over 90 countries.

We could be taking advantage of that connectedness to broaden our horizons rather than refusing to look beyond them or narrowing our prejudices rather than congratulating ourselves for them.

I know, I know. #Firstworldproblems is just a joke; it’s supposed to be funny. I don’t have a problem with the idea of making fun of small annoyances so much as I do with doing it at the expense of the citizens of more than 150 countries. I even like the premise behind the joke: Acknowledging privilege and practicing humility are admirable, and satire makes for great social commentary. But the tweet trend seems to be more about conceit (“I’m funny!”) and narrow-mindedness (“Only people of my socio-economic class understand”) than sincere reflection. Humor can be smart and educated; it doesn’t have to be based on archaic stereotypes.

That #problem isn’t unique to any world.