OFFICIALLY I have been this newspaper's third-world correspondent for nearly two years. But more and more I have the feeling that there is no such thing as the ``third world'' at all. There are certainly poorer countries, sharply different from the richer ones to be found in North America, Western Europe, and Australasia, different from Japan.
But a single entity called third world -- dangling somewhere below the first (the capitalist rich) and the second (the Soviet bloc)?
Huge disparities exist in poorer countries. Rates of change differ.
This is more than mere semantics. As Mark Malloch Brown, editor of The Economist magazine's monthly ``Development Report,'' notes, shorthand phrases come into common use because they are convenient, but if used simply from habit, they can actually keep people from recognizing the pace -- and the demands -- of change.
Politically, the term third world usually refers to the so-called Group of 77 at the United Nations, the poorer countries that form the majority in the General Assembly. What they have in common is a desire to extract more aid money, know-how, and trade concessions from the wealthier states.
Even here, labels are misleading.
The Group of 77 actually contains more than 100 countries. Their big political vehicle, the so-called New International Economic Order, is stalled and virtually lifeless. The group's General Assembly resolutions can be and often are ignored. The group is also riven by its economic and social diversity.
Nigeria, with oil, has almost 100 million people and a per capita income of $860 a year. Neighboring Chad has no oil, 5 million people, and a per capita income of $80 a year. Arab oil states have tiny populations and huge per capita incomes (Qatar almost $22,000, Kuwait almost $20,000), whereas Mexico's oil is accompanied by almost 80 million people who earn $2,270 per head per year.
Regionally, the diversity is just as marked. Latin America is 68 percent urban; Africa, about 30 percent. Latin America and Asia have leaped ahead in food production; Africa produces less food today than two decades ago.
Observers such as David Lamb, former Africa correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, see Africa as no longer part of the third world at all. With its food output down and its population growth rates up (the highest of any continent), Africa seems to many to have slipped into a fourth world of its own.
Perhaps it makes more sense to divide poorer nations into oil exporters (Arab states, Nigeria, Mexico) and oil importers (most of the rest). Or into manufacturers (South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Argentina, Brazil) and primary-product exporters (Kenya's tea, coffee, and pineapples; Zambia's copper).
All poorer nations are aggrieved that the level of foreign aid is falling in real terms. To sub-Saharan Africa, flows of capital are stagnating, according to the World Bank, while debt repayments are due to jump from an average of $2.3 billion in 1980-82 to $8 billion in 1985-87.
Is there a better term than ``third world'' to keep the needs of the world's poor in view of the world's conscience?
The Economist's Mark Malloch Brown has come to prefer the term South as having at least some geographical logic (although he apologizes to Australia, which may be south but is far from poor).
Denzil Peiris had the same idea: When he founded a magazine in 1980 intended to report on development, aid, economics, and politics in the poorer regions, he called it South. The magazine is still published, by Humayun Gauhar in London.
It happens to be produced in New Zealand House, named for another country that's southern but not poor. You see how difficult it all is.
Am I, in fact, this newspaper's South correspondent? Its Southern correspondent, perhaps?
Yet ``south,'' too, has different connotations for different people. It means one thing to an American but quite another to a Vietnamese or a Korean.
Whatever words we use to describe the two-thirds of the world that lives in poverty, disease, and distress, we ought not to put it all into the same categories and think that similar broad-brush answers can help them all.
Many experts now see the small farmer as the key to African survival, but he (or more accurately, she) has different needs in different places.
Generalities like ``third world'' may be convenient in a media age that demands shorthand labels. They can also be lulling and misleading. New ideas can require new words. I'm still looking.
David K. Willis is a Monitor correspondent who covers the third world.