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What makes a country third world?

Policemen who don’t expect a tip

By on Friday, 8 June 2012

What makes a country a third world country? This was a question that often troubled me when I was in Kenya, sitting on a bus, staring out at the beautiful countryside or the urban sprawl of Nairobi. Kenya is certainly a third world country; so are parts of Italy, if truth be told. My conclusion was always the same: a third world country is a country where you cannot trust the police, and where the people of the country loathe and fear their police force.

Everyone knows this is true, but when I lived in Kenya, I never wrote about this aspect of life, simply because it might have annoyed people and it might have created difficulty the next time I tried to renew my residence permit. You need a permit for more or less anything in Africa, and you have to pay for residence permits, and queue up in a government office, which is a hassle, and all the time you are very much aware that the people on the other side of the desk could, if they chose, make life very difficult for you, indeed impossible. This hassle in dealing with residency permits is also a feature of life in Italy. There, in the old days, you had to go to the prefetura or questura (I forget which), queuing up outside at six in the morning. It was said that a ten thousand lire note slipped into your application form would lubricate the process considerably.

Recently we had the case of Petroc Trelawny, deported from Zimbabwe for not having a work permit.  He was there doing unpaid work. How crazy is that?

But to get back to Kenya. My students in Kenya all loathed the police. These were law-abiding young people, but they had all at various times been subjected to police harassment, usually a request for what was known as kitu kidogo, “a little something”, which is the standard euphemism for a bribe. This even happened to me, on one occasion, when I was stopped for allegedly driving down a one way street the wrong way. In fact the street was a private driveway, and the policeman in question must have made a point of hanging around there to “catch” people like me committing this particular crime.

One person I knew had a much worse experience. He got on a matatu, one of those overcrowded minibuses that ply various routes in Nairobi. Because he was obviously foreign the conductor thought he could get away demanding a higher than normal fare. This young man refused – it was only a matter of a few Kenyan bob, but I suppose it was the principle that mattered. Immediately the driver drove the minibus at speed to the nearest police station, and the young man was ejected and arrested as a fare-dodger. He was stripped to his underpants and thrown into a cell where he was left for several hours with about forty other people. Eventually friends were able to rescue him, get his clothes back, and he was released without charge.

What had happened was that the owner of the matatu was a police inspector, and that anyone who questioned an extortionate fare could expect similar treatment. The friends who got him out had to pay for the incident to be forgotten.

What happened to Alexander Monson in Kenya has to be seen in context. This was presumably an arrest, which would have been overlooked in return for a substantial bribe, that went wrong. It is of course a tragedy, but sadly a tragedy of the type that is all too common in Kenya and other third world countries.

  • T Sorensen

    The term “third world” dates back to the cold war era. The first world was NATO and its allies, the second world was the USSR, China, and their allies, and the third world was the non aligned countries that made up the rest of the world. Since these were generally extremely poor countries in Africa, Latin America and south Asia, the term became synonymous with “undeveloped” countries.

    Sadly you can find examples of police corruption in many countries, not just “third world” ones.

  • James H

    I think it goes beyond trusting the police – it includes anyone on a government payroll. Public servants in the third world are notoriously corrupt. It’s one of the reasons why development is always stymied – everyone at each level of beaurocracy takes their cut. By that metric, South Africa is now every bit as Third World as the rest of the continent, where that wasn’t the case previously.

    But you’re right, it starts with the police. Americans are beginning to trust their police less and less.

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    I think the police issue is a “shibboleth” issue. People in certain Italian regions hate the police, but not in others…. not all Italy is Third World.

  • Parasum

    “What makes a country a third world country?”

    Perhaps – a country where people’s palm need greasing with something additional to their pay, if what they are paid for is to get done ?

    There must surely be many indicators.