Washington DC as a Third World City
I published this piece as an attempt to contribute to the need for international relations scholars to be more self-reflective. (see e.g. “International Relations from Below” by David Blaney and Nayeem Inayatullah, 2008 in the Oxford Handbook of International Relations). My piece is the following: “Development’s Paradox: Washington DC is a Third World City?” Third World Quarterly, 32: 9 (November 2011), 1541-1556. Here is a power point explaining the work.
Here’s a brief synopsis, in plain language:
Given its elegant architectural façades, the impressive national capitol, and K Street lobbyists, the District is perhaps second only to Wall Street as an epicenter and emblem of global power. It was recently deemed the richest metropolitan area in the US. However, if we look a little beneath the surface, we might see that Washington DC is more of a Third World city than a model of global power and prestige. The scale of its problems may be different than in the traditionally conceived “less developed” world, but the nature of those problems is the same.
After all, what constitutes Third World conditions? A colonial legacy and lack of representative government? Check. The 600,000 citizens in the District have long demanded Congressional voting rights. Washington DC’s license plates contain the rallying cry “No Taxation without Representation.” It is far from a slogan of state pride. Congress, a clique of wealthy and foreign-to-DC outsiders, routinely thwarts the District’s sovereignty. Congressional attempts to undo both women’s health clinic funding and bans on carrying semi-automatic weapons are the latest manifestations of what DC Mayor Vincent Gray describes as a “travesty of democracy.” Colonial influence, indeed colonialism itself, which historically characterized the “Third World,” is alive and well in the heart of the First World.
What about other conditions of the Third World, such as extraordinarily bad environmental problems, such as air and water pollution? Or gross social inequality? Or public health epidemics? Check, check, check. Washington DC’s air pollution consistently gets failing grades. The Potomac and Anacostia Rivers are so polluted that more than 50% of their brown bullhead catfish have tumors. Washington DC ranks first among US cities in terms of the standard measures of human development. However, white people in the District will have about 15 percent longer lifespans than African American residents, living on average an extra twelve years. At more than 3 percent, Washington DC’s HIV epidemic is comparable to Ugandan and Kenyan rates. Abysmal infant mortality levels in the capital are on par with Russia and Costa Rica. The inequalities are manifest disproportionately, mostly burdening the non-white populations living outside the Northwest quadrant of the largely segregated city. These realities tend to go unseen by “beltway bandit” employees who live in elegant homes and get paid handsomely through winning contracts to do poverty alleviation and development work overseas.
As a nation, if we will ever be able to effectively come to terms with problems of civil rights, inequality, poverty, corruption, and environmental damage, we might be best suited to start looking at the ways in which such challenges are local as well as global. The current turmoil is indicative of a global system that is collectively faltering and suffering. The 99 percent is a global population, and the 1 percent, a global elite. The traditional geographic notion of the Third World is taking place at local levels, in new ways, but these are in fact old realities.
Addressing these persistent problems will take political will, as well as a conscious confrontation of our systemically rooted economic, social and environmental challenges. In recognizing Washington DC as a Third World city, we may begin to acknowledge that we need new models for what “good” development, and indeed a better society, looks like. Without taking a good hard look in the mirror at our own problems, we only will continue to expose cracks in the thin veneer of our First World mythology.