Apparently the term was first used in the 1950s by people who grouped the world into countries that were leading the drive toward capitalism, those who believed in communism, and the "third world" that had not yet aligned with either side. But for most of my lifetime, it's merely been a way of summoning the image of a country with crushing poverty and little hope for a better day unless people from the other two worlds show up to save the day.
Which is basically a load of hooey in the case of Central America.
The countries in this little neck of land between north and south have definitely been shaped over the centuries by the demands and dreams of the First and Second worlds, mostly because Central America had something that a more powerful nation wanted (materials to mine, land for bananas, people to recruit to the cause, a willingness to consider vast canal projects that would serve the interests of wealthier countries).
But the people here - the life here - do not much resemble the image that "Third World" brings to mind. I think it does quite a disservice to creative, resourceful and resilient countries to think of them that way.
The modern world loves to measure countries like Nicaragua, and plot their statistics on scales like the Human Development Index to demonstrate just how far they have to go to "catch up" with countries that are deeply committed to the pursuit of wealth and thus perceived as doing everything right.
I'm sure we have the best of intentions when we use such tools to measure this thing we call progress (although a cynic might note that the pursuit of international development is also a good way to leverage money and jobs in wealthy countries). A family in Nicaragua is just as eager as a family in Canada to prevent their mother, wife or sister from dying unnecessarily in childbirth for lack of good medical care, for instance, or to have their children end up disadvantaged, disabled or dead due to preventable diseases or poor nutrition.
But at the same time, the way we measure "progress" for the purposes of development is very specifically about a certain understanding of that term based on the way rich countries see it. The measurements are virtually always connected to things that a dollar value can be attached to. They are often missing the analysis and context that would help the rest of us understand why a country isn't seeing more economic growth. They set the terms for how failure and success will be understood, and never mind that a particular culture might have a completely different interpretation of what counts as success.
Nor are we very often transparent in our drive toward "development," hiding behind the needs of the poor to serve our own interests.
When giant corporations come to countries like Nicaragua and Honduras to set up their factories, for instance, their real commitment is not to creating jobs in poor countries, it's to serving the constant demands of consumers in wealthy countries for cheaper and cheaper goods. The working conditions at many of these maquilas trouble me deeply as a Canadian, and the tax-free status that companies demand as a condition to setting up in poorer countries is loathsome.
But don't go blaming the Capitalist Bastards. Those factories exist because consumers in wealthy nations like mine want cheap stuff without having to sacrifice their own wage levels or tax systems. Should anyone set out to improve working conditions or impose taxation on the international companies, the corporations will simply pack up their bags and find a more willing country. And they will always find one.
On a purely superficial note, here's what I see around me every day here in Nicaragua: Modern cars driving on modern roads. Electricity, internet and good running water. Brie and baguettes in the supermarkets, and a whole lot of Nicaraguans loading up their shopping carts with such things. Comfortable houses built to make the most of a beautiful climate. Safe city streets full of people who make eye contact as you pass by and are happy to say hello or stop what they're doing if it looks like you feel like talking.
I see people who are pretty damn healthy given that a lot of them can't afford better-quality private care and have to line up for public care. (I sometimes wonder if that's because the drive to stay alive at any cost that exists in countries like mine simply can't exist in a country like this one, and so the ones who have survived have stronger genetics.)
In the countryside, I see farming families living on an astoundingly small amount of money in scratchy little houses, yes, but they're producing their own food. They're active citizens who are working hard to hold their governments accountable, and they've been doing that since long before the development agencies started coming down to show them how it's done.
And the resilience - well, I am endlessly amazed by the resilience. One of the greatest conceits I've encountered since working in Central America was a European development organization's call for proposals to help people here develop resilience. Oh, please. These people wrote the book on resilience.
One of my biggest learnings so far in this new life has been that just because a country doesn't look like ours doesn't mean it's a failure. I fear we disempower perfectly good cultures with our need to compare them to us and find fault, as if there's only one version of a world. I celebrate diversity.