Just dealing with a "first world problem"

A friend of mine was quite put out recently when a whinge about something was dismissed rather contemptuously by the person she was complaining to as a ‘first-world problem’.


“What”, she wondered, “did this mean”? If you’re wondering too, here’s some explanation from someone familiar with the lingo of international development economists – and also a bit sympathetic with the person who dismissed my friend’s whinge.


The term ‘first world’ is used particularly to refer to the collection of countries whose citizens enjoy a high level of income per person. Call them the ‘rich countries’.

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The ‘first world’ used to be contrasted with the ‘second world’ – socialist countries. This term was never widely used (‘the west’ and ‘the east’ were the more commonly used labels) and since the demise of theSoviet Unionnot now relevant anyway.


By contrast the term the ‘third world’ was, and still is, used to refer to countries – regardless of their political systems – that have a low level of income person. Call them the ‘poor countries’.


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The ‘poor countries’ (i.e. those of the ‘third world’) are often referred to euphemistically, and sometimes a bit patronisingly, as ‘developing’ countries in contrast to the ‘developed’ countries of the first world. And while were playing games, here’s a quiz: if all the countries in the world were ranked by income (GDP) per person what continents do the bottom-ranked (‘poorest’) 50 countries come from?


Answer: Africa – 34; Asia – 7, other (mainly not from continents at all, but rather small nations in the Pacific andCaribbean) – 9. (This is World Bank data.)


But back to the issue of ‘first world problems’.

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The retort to my complaining friend went along these lines:

what do you think a person in a third world country who is wondering where their next meal is going to come from;
or who is facing a three-hour walk to the nearest medical centre to get treatment for a disease that’s almost unknown in rich countries, and who will probably find that the centre can’t afford to stock the necessary drug anyway;

or who can’t afford to give his children even the basic education that might enable them to lift themselves out of the poverty in which he exists – and possibly all of these together – would think about someone in a rich country complaining that the steak they ordered at a restaurant wasn’t well enough cooked;

or being critical of their GP for not really appreciating that the tablets being prescribed for their obesity were making their skin a bit blotchy, or that they were depressed because one of their children only got 7 out of 10 in their last spelling test?

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It’s true that in even the richest country there are still some people who ‘miss out’. That’s certainly true of Australia. But on the whole do we tend to take for granted that very few of us are often hungry, or suffer from a disease which it’s possible to treat, or can’t give our children a pretty good education for very little cost? And proceed to complain about things which really are relatively minor… about ‘first world problems’.


Tell us the first world problems you roll your eyes about when you hear them?

photo: mrpac-man