New Orleans and the Third World
by Mukoma Wa Ngugi; September 08, 2005

Mukoma Wa Ngugi is the author of Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change and the forthcoming, Looking at America: Politics of Change.

The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina is being compared to disasters in the "Third World" but with no specific countries or disasters named. And if not compared to this black hole or repository of disaster that is the "Third World," a comparison to Africa is as specific as it gets New Orleans is a scene from the "Third World", "like the Third World", US Handles the crisis like a third world country, “bodies floating on water reminiscent of Africa” etc. This has been a constant with news commentators, analysts, members of the senate and
congress and other sections of America commenting on
New Orleans. The accompanying statements to this have
been "I cannot believe this is America" or “This is
not supposed to happen in America”. It is supposed to
and can only happen somewhere else. Attending a food
festival event in Madison, Wisconsin I overheard a
joke, "Where is New Orleans again?" New Orleans is
next to Somalia”.
What role is the “Third World” playing in how Americans are dealing with the disaster? Where does the "Third World" fit in the imagination of the
American? What does it mean to say that this is not
supposed to happen in the United States? To me, it is
almost as if by displacing disasters and human
suffering to the “Third World,” the New Orleans
disaster is not really happening in the United States.
New Orleans is “out there” and everyone else is ! safe
and American – the crisis in New Orleans is happening
in a “Third World” outpost and the United States
remains rich, strong and invulnerable.
The American citizen has been stewing in nationalism, manifest destiny and the myth of the
democratic society that errors but never oppresses or
marginalizes for so long that even a natural disaster
cannot be seen and understood outside this lens. And
the fact that most of the victims are predominantly
poor and African American is not being understood as a
creation of very specific domestic policies and
conservative ideologies; it has to be filtered through
the “Third World”. As if a disaster from that “part of
the world” somehow managed to sneak through the porous
Mexican borders.
Bush's Remarks

It is interesting therefore to look at
President Bush’s remarks after touring New Orleans on
September 2nd after four days of inaction. His first
sentence was “ I've just completed a tour of some
devastated country”. A detached statement but it gets
worse – a little later he says “I know the people of
this part of the world are suffering…” and he goes on
to talk about how progress is being made. Then he says
“ The people in this part of the world have got to
understand…” Shortly after this, he says “You know,
I'm going to fly out of here in a minute, but I want
you to know that I'm not going to forget what I've
seen” and again refers to his constituents as “good
folks of this part of the world”. It is almost as if
he is in a different country consoling its citizenry.
He himself is so detached about what is happening in
the very country he leads that he refers to it as
“this part of the world”. As far as I know, no one in
the mainstream media picked this up, they too are
reporting on that “part of the world”.

Believing that humor is the best medicine, in
the same speech he also makes a rather tasteless joke:
“I believe the town where I used to come [to] from
Houston, Texas, to enjoy myself, occasionally too
much, will be that very same town, that it will be a
better place to come to”. Now, this is a President who
up to this point has not visited New Orleans, a
disaster area that is being acknowledged as probably
the worst in recent U.S. history, yet, speaking to an
evacuated, wounded and dying constituency, he refers
to their drowned city that was their whole life as his
old party ground. All in all President Bush gives the
kind of speech a visiting leader would make during a
hurriedly prepared press conference after being caught
unawares by a natural disaster. It captures his
inability to empathize, to really be one with the
The Myth and the "Third World"

An American dying in a natural disaster will
look like a human being dying in any natural disaster
and not necessarily like an African. A homeless
American looks like any homeless human being and not
always like an African. And a natural disaster should
not be seen as somebody else’s natural disaster but as
one that afflicts all humanity. We are of a common
humanity. It is the myth that only other nations
torture that led to Abu Ghraib. It is the myth that
only other countries have political prisoners that
keeps political activists like Mumia Abu Jamal and
Leonard Peltier in American jails for fighting
American marginalization. It is the belief t! hat only
other countries exile those that oppose their policies
that has led to the bounty on Assata Shakur – exiled
in Cuba for fighting for African American rights –
being raised to one million dollars. And it is the
myth that only other countries ignore and exploit
their poor that led to the disaster in New Orleans.

But there are ways in which America is like
the “Third World”. Privatization, which in “Third
World” Countries becomes structural adjustment
programs, has been happening in the United States
since the Reagan years of small government, through
the Clinton years that saw a full assault on Welfare
and affirmative action originally designed to buoy the
marginalized, and through the Bush years that have
been rewarding the rich while taking away from the
poor through Federal and Supreme Court nominations
that support big business and reduce the power of
labor unions, among other things. These have been the
years of ‘blaming the victim’ while preying on them.
They are poor because they are lazy – ! enter the
“welfare queen”. While the mainstream United States
was busy trying to convince itself that poverty and
racism were things of the past or happened only to
other nations, the marginalized were becoming even
more vulnerable. Most of the victims in New Orleans
are black and poor – race and class - an inversion of
Frantz Fanon’s one is rich because he/she is white and
one is white because he/she is rich to read one is
poor because he/she is black and one is black because
he/she is poor. Just like in the “Third World” in
times of natural disasters and wars, it is the most
victimized in New Orleans that are doing most of the

The reasons why the poor couldn't leave the
city are quite easy to understand. They couldn’t
afford it. They simply did not have cars or money for
transportation, are jobless, or live pay-check to
pay-check and couldn’t have had any money saved up for
relocation. Where poor people owned houses to which
they had mortgaged their lives, where their homes had
become the marker of their humanity and achievement,
staying put and essentially fighting for their lives
was the only option.
Like the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, or the ongoing genocide in Darfur, this particular disaster
had been telegraphed – we all knew it was going to
happen, and more political and economic will,
including a more comprehensive effort to evacuate the
city of New Orleans, could have minimized human
suffering. What makes it even worse is that the
millions being pledged now by private citizens and
corporations and the 10.5 billion initially pledged by
the government could have saved New Orleans ten times
over through improvement of infrastructure. Because of
the federal government’s push for privatization which
translates into public services being slas! hed or
sold to private companies, perhaps the government
simply no longer has structures in place to handle
disasters. This could explain why Bush ended his
speech with “If you want to help, if you're listening
to this broadcast, contribute cash to the Salvation
Army and the Red Cross”. Each death in New Orleans was
preventable. But money is not made in prevention but
in reconstruction. Soon, like in Iraq, the big
contracts for reconstruction will be on their way –
some corporations will make a killing. Let the bidding

Also, it is with a sense of irony that one
reads of corporations like Wal-Mart contributing
millions of dollars to the relief efforts. Yet were
their employees in New Orleans working in better
conditions and with better pay, some of those who
couldn’t afford to evacuate would have been able to do
so. These corporations are responsible for the loss of
jobs through outside contracting to sweatshops in
“Third World” countries where in turn occasional fires
break out leading to hundreds of deaths. In “Third
World” countries, they no longer pay government taxes
in the tax free trade zones, leading to further des!
truction of already fragile and poor economies. Where
these corporations have remained in the United States
as retailers and manufacturers, they have seen to
wages being cut. They are rabidly against unions and
essentially use the community the same way colonial
companies used colonized communities – for cheap
labor, extraction of raw materials and of course as
buyers of products whose production is finished
Thus coupled with a government that has engineered its own version of structural adjustment to maximize profit, and corporations that economically
and politically colonize a community, the
vulnerability – which in real terms is the result of
victimization – seen in New Orleans is not a surprise.
Rather, it is the culmination of well planned and
orchestrated policies that consolidate wealth in the
hands of a few at the expense of the poor.
Globalization is not resulting in a world that becomes
better as it gets smaller, but rather in a world where
poverty becomes more prevalent and more apparent. This
globalization of poverty makes New Orleans a village !
in everybody’s backyard. Instead of outsourcing
disaster to an unnamed "Third World" it seems to me
that citizens of the United States should be placing
the responsibility for the preventable deaths and
suffering in New Orleans on their government and
corporate board rooms.