Third World

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The "Three Worlds" of the Cold War era, April - August 1975
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First World: Western Bloc led by the USA, Japan, United Kingdom and their allies
Second World: Eastern Bloc led by the USSR, China, and their allies
Third World: Non-Aligned Movement (led by India and Yugoslavia) and other neutral countries Cold War alliances mid-1975.svg
The "Three Worlds" of the Cold War era, April   August 1975
   First World: Western Bloc led by the USA, Japan, United Kingdom and their allies
   Second World: Eastern Bloc led by the USSR, China, and their allies
   Third World: Non-Aligned Movement (led by India and Yugoslavia) and other neutral countries

The term "Third World" arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either NATO or the Warsaw Pact. The United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Western European nations and their allies represented the "First World", while the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and their allies represented the "Second World". This terminology provided a way of broadly categorizing the nations of the Earth into three groups based on political divisions. Strictly speaking, "Third World" was a political, rather than an economic, grouping. [1] Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the term Third World has decreased in use. It is being replaced with terms such as developing countries, least developed countries or the Global South. The concept itself has become outdated as it no longer represents the current political or economic state of the world and historically poor countries have transited different income stages.


The Third World was normally seen to include many countries with colonial pasts in Africa, Latin America, Oceania and Asia. It was also sometimes taken as synonymous with countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. In the dependency theory of thinkers like Raúl Prebisch, Walter Rodney, Theotônio dos Santos, and Andre Gunder Frank, the Third World has also been connected to the world-systemic economic division as "periphery" countries dominated by the countries comprising the economic "core". [2]

Due to the complex history of evolving meanings and contexts, there is no clear or agreed-upon definition of the Third World. [2] Some countries in the Communist Bloc, such as Cuba, were often regarded as "Third World". Because many Third World countries were economically poor and non-industrialized, it became a stereotype to refer to developing countries as "third world countries", yet the "Third World" term is also often taken to include newly industrialized countries like Brazil, China and India now more commonly referred to as part of BRIC. In the Cold War, some European democracies (Austria, Finland, Republic of Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland) were neutral in the sense of not joining NATO, but were prosperous, never joined the Non-Aligned Movement, and seldom self-identified as part of the Third World.


French demographer, anthropologist, and historian Alfred Sauvy, in an article published in the French magazine L'Observateur , August 14, 1952, coined the term third world (tiers monde), referring to countries that were playing little role on the international scene. His usage was a reference to the Third Estate (tiers état), the commoners of France who, before and during the French Revolution, opposed the clergy and nobles, who composed the First Estate and Second Estate, respectively (hence the use of the older form tiers rather than the modern troisième for "third"). Sauvy wrote, "This third world ignored, exploited, despised like the third estate also wants to be something." [3] In the context of the Cold War, he conveyed the concept of political non-alignment with either the capitalist or communist bloc. [4] Simplistic interpretations quickly led to the term merely designating these unaligned countries. [5]

Third World vs. Three Worlds

The "Three Worlds Theory" developed by Mao Zedong is different from the Western theory of the Three Worlds or Third World. For example, in the Western theory, China and India belong respectively to the second and third worlds, but in Mao's theory both China and India are part of the Third World which he defined as consisting of exploited nations.

Third Worldism

Third Worldism is a political movement that argues for the unity of third-world nations against first-world influence and the principle of non-interference in other countries' domestic affairs. Groups most notable for expressing and exercising this idea are the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and the Group of 77 which provide a base for relations and diplomacy between not just the third-world countries, but between the third-world and the first and second worlds. The notion has been criticized as providing a fig leaf for human rights violations and political repression by dictatorships. [6]

Since 1990, this term has been redefined to make it more correct politically. Initially, the term “third world” meant that a nation is “under-developed”. [7] However, today it is replaced by the term “developing.” The world today is more plural[ citation needed ], and so the third world is not just an economic state. These nations have overcome many setbacks and are now developing rapidly. Thus, this categorization becomes anachronistic in a diverse society.[ clarification needed ].

That being said, the term "Third World" is preferred by many to "Developing Countries", as the latter implies only one route to development, and indeed raises the point as to what is considered 'development'. For instance, so-called third world countries have a much lower incidence of personal depression, alienation and single parent families than the 'developed countries' (aka the West), by virtue of stronger family and community bonds. Furthermore, the mode of industrialized and technological development in the West has been facilitated by lower population and funded by their role as colonists for more than four centuries, and also have negative environmental and social effects. Hence, the term "developing nations" also indicates a pro-West bias of moral, intellectual and technological superiority.[ citation needed ]

Great Divergence and Great Convergence

World Income Distribution 1970.png
World Income Distribution 2015.png
Density function of the world's income distribution in 1970 by continent, logarithmic scale: The division of the world into "rich" and "poor" is striking, and the world's poverty is concentrated in Asia. Density function of the world's income distribution in 2015 by continent, logarithmic scale: The division of the world into "rich" and "poor" has vanished, and the world's poverty can be found mainly in Africa.
  Asia and Oceania

Many times there is a clear distinction between First and Third Worlds. When talking about the Global North and the Global South, the majority of the time the two go hand in hand. People refer to the two as "Third World/South" and "First World/North" because the Global North is more affluent and developed, whereas the Global South is less developed and often poorer. [8]

To counter this mode of thought, some scholars began proposing the idea of a change in world dynamics that began in the late 1980s, and termed it the Great Convergence. [9] As Jack A. Goldstone and his colleagues put it, "in the twentieth century, the Great Divergence peaked before the First World War and continued until the early 1970s, then, after two decades of indeterminate fluctuations, in the late 1980s, it was replaced by the Great Convergence as the majority of Third World countries reached economic growth rates significantly higher than those in most First World countries". [10]

Others have observed a return to Cold War-era alignments (MacKinnon, 2007; Lucas, 2008), this time with substantial changes between 19902015 in geography, the world economy and relationship dynamics between current and emerging world powers; not necessarily redefining the classic meaning of First, Second, and Third World terms, but rather which countries belong to them by way of association to which world power or coalition of countries such as G7, the European Union, OECD; G20, OPEC, N-11, BRICS, ASEAN; the African Union, and the Eurasian Union.


Most Third World countries are former colonies. Having gained independence, many of these countries, especially smaller ones, were faced with the challenges of nation- and institution-building on their own for the first time. Due to this common background, many of these nations were "developing" in economic terms for most of the 20th century, and many still are. This term, used today, generally denotes countries that have not developed to the same levels as OECD countries, and are thus in the process of developing.

In the 1980s, economist Peter Bauer offered a competing definition for the term "Third World". He claimed that the attachment of Third World status to a particular country was not based on any stable economic or political criteria, and was a mostly arbitrary process. The large diversity of countries considered part of the Third World — from Indonesia to Afghanistan — ranged widely from economically primitive to economically advanced and from politically non-aligned to Soviet- or Western-leaning. An argument could also be made for how parts of the U.S. are more like the Third World. [11]

The only characteristic that Bauer found common in all Third World countries was that their governments "demand and receive Western aid," the giving of which he strongly opposed. Thus, the aggregate term "Third World" was challenged as misleading even during the Cold War period, because it had no consistent or collective identity among the countries it supposedly encompassed.

Development aid

Least Developed Countries in blue, as designated by the United Nations. Countries formerly considered Least Developed in green. Least Developed Countries map.svg
Least Developed Countries in blue, as designated by the United Nations. Countries formerly considered Least Developed in green.

During the Cold War, unaligned countries of the Third World [2] were seen as potential allies by both the First and Second World. Therefore, the United States and the Soviet Union went to great lengths to establish connections in these countries by offering economic and military support to gain strategically located alliances (e.g., the United States in Vietnam or the Soviet Union in Cuba). [2] By the end of the Cold War, many Third World countries had adopted capitalist or communist economic models and continued to receive support from the side they had chosen. Throughout the Cold War and beyond, the countries of the Third World have been the priority recipients of Western foreign aid and the focus of economic development through mainstream theories such as modernization theory and dependency theory. [2]

By the end of the 1960s, the idea of the Third World came to represent countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that were considered underdeveloped by the West based on a variety of characteristics (low economic development, low life expectancy, high rates of poverty and disease, etc.). [5] These countries became the targets for aid and support from governments, NGOs and individuals from wealthier nations. One popular model, known as Rostow's stages of growth, argued that development took place in 5 stages (Traditional Society; Pre-conditions for Take-off; Take-off; Drive to Maturity; Age of High Mass Consumption). [12] W. W. Rostow argued that Take-off was the critical stage that the Third World was missing or struggling with. Thus, foreign aid was needed to help kick-start industrialization and economic growth in these countries. [12]

Perceived "End of the Third World"

Since 1990 the term "Third World" has been redefined in many evolving dictionaries in several languages to refer to countries considered to be underdeveloped economically and/or socially. From a "political correctness" standpoint the term "Third World" may be considered outdated, which its concept is mostly a historical term and cannot fully address what means by developing and less-developed countries today. Around the early 1960s, the term "underdeveloped countries" occurred and the Third World serves to be its synonym, but after it has been officially used by politicians, 'underdeveloped countries' is soon been replaced by 'developing' and 'less-developed countries,' because the prior one shows hostility and disrespect, in which the Third World is often characterized with stereotypes. [13] The whole 'Four Worlds' system of classification has also been described as derogatory because the standard mainly focused on each nations' Gross National Product. [14]

The general definition of the Third World can be traced back to the history that nations positioned as neutral and independent during the Cold War were considered as Third World Countries, and normally these countries are defined by high poverty rates, lack of resources, and unstable financial standing. [15] However, based on the rapid development of modernization and globalization, countries that were used to be considered as Third World countries achieve big economic growth, such as Brazil, India, and Indonesia, which can no longer be defined by poor economic status or low GNP today. The differences among nations of the Third World are continually growing throughout time, and it will be hard to use the Third World to define and organize groups of nations based on their common political arrangements since most countries live under diverse creeds in this era, such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Singapore, which they all have their own political system. [16] The Third World categorization becomes anachronistic since its political classification and economic system are distinct to be applied in today's society. Based on the Third World standards, any region of the world can be categorized into any of the four types of relationships among state and society, and will eventually end in four outcomes: praetorianism, multi-authority, quasi-democratic and viable democracy. [17] However, political culture is never going to be limited by the rule and the concept of the Third World can be circumscribed.

See also


  1. Silver, Marc (4 January 2015). "If You Shouldn't Call It The Third World, What Should You Call It?". NPR. Archived from the original on 1 April 2020. Retrieved 5 March 2020.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Tomlinson, B.R. (2003). "What was the Third World", Journal of Contemporary History , 38(2): 307–321.
  3. Literal translation from French
  4. Wolf-Phillips, Leslie (1987). "Why 'Third World'?: Origin, Definition and Usage", Third World Quarterly, 9(4): 1311-1327.
  5. 1 2 Gregory, Derek et al. (Eds.) (2009). Dictionary of Human Geography (5th Ed.), Wiley-Blackwell.
  6. Pithouse, Richard (2005). Report Back from the Third World Network Meeting Accra, 2005 Archived 2011-10-28 at the Wayback Machine . Centre for Civil Society : 1-6.
  7. Nash, Andrew (2003-01-01). "Third Worldism". African Sociological Review. 7 (1). doi: 10.4314/asr.v7i1.23132 . ISSN   1027-4332.
  8. Mimiko, Oluwafemi (2012). "Globalization: The Politics of Global Economic Relations and International Business". Carolina Academic Press: 49.
  9. Korotayev A., Zinkina J. On the structure of the present-day convergence. Campus-Wide Information Systems. Vol. 31 No. 2/3, 2014, pp. 139-152 Archived 2014-10-08 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Phases of global demographic transition correlate with phases of the Great Divergence and Great Convergence. Technological Forecasting and Social Change. Volume 95, June 2015, Page 163 Archived 2015-07-03 at the Wayback Machine .
  11. "Third World America" Archived 2014-02-13 at the Wayback Machine , MacLeans, September 14, 2010
  12. 1 2 Westernizing the Third World (Ch 2), Routledge
  13. Wolf-Phillips, Leslie (1979). "Why Third World?". Third World Quarterly. 1 (1): 105–115. doi:10.1080/01436597908419410. ISSN   0143-6597. JSTOR   3990587.
  14. Wolf-Phillips, Leslie (1987). "Why 'Third World'?: Origin, Definition and Usage". Third World Quarterly. 9 (4): 1311–1327. doi:10.1080/01436598708420027. ISSN   0143-6597. JSTOR   3991655.
  15. Drakakis-Smith, D. W.; Drakakis-Smith, the late David W. (2000). Third World Cities. Psychology Press. ISBN   978-0-415-19882-0. Archived from the original on 2021-07-15. Retrieved 2020-11-22.
  16. RIEFF, DAVID (1989). "In The Third World". Salmagundi (81): 61–65. ISSN   0036-3529. JSTOR   40548016.
  17. Kamrava, Mehran (1995). "Political Culture and a New Definition of the Third World". Third World Quarterly. 16 (4): 691–701. doi:10.1080/01436599550035906. ISSN   0143-6597. JSTOR   3993172.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

Developing country Nation with a lower living standard relative to more developed countries

A developing country is a sovereign state with a less developed industrial base and a lower Human Development Index (HDI) relative to other countries. However, this definition is not universally agreed upon. There is also no clear agreement on which countries fit this category. The term low and middle-income country (LMIC) is often used interchangeably but refers only to the economy of the countries. The World Bank classifies the world's economies into four groups, based on gross national income per capita: high, upper-middle, lower-middle, and low income countries. Least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing states are all sub-groupings of developing countries. Countries on the other end of the spectrum are usually referred to as high-income countries or developed countries.

Import substitution industrialization Trade and economic policy

Import substitution industrialization (ISI) is a trade and economic policy that advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production. It is based on the premise that a country should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through the local production of industrialized products. The term primarily refers to 20th-century development economics policies, but it has been advocated since the 18th century by economists such as Friedrich List and Alexander Hamilton.

Economic development Process and policies to improve economic well-being

In the economics study of the public sector, economic and social development is the process by which the economic well-being and quality of life of a nation, region, local community, or an individual are improved according to targeted goals and objectives.

First World Geopolitical grouping of the worlds most politically and economically stable nations

The concept of First World originated during the Cold War and comprised countries that were aligned with United States and the rest of NATO and opposed the Soviet Union and/or communism during the Cold War. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the definition has instead largely shifted to any country with little political risk and a well-functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economy, economic stability, and high standard of living. Various ways in which modern First World countries are usually determined include GDP, GNP, literacy rates, life expectancy, and the Human Development Index. In common usage, "first world" typically refers to "the highly developed industrialized nations often considered the westernized countries of the world".

Second World Geopolitical concept

The Second World was a term used during the Cold War for the industrial socialist states that were under the influence of the Soviet Union. In the first two decades following World War II, 19 communist states emerged; all of these were at least originally within the Soviet sphere of influence, though some broke with Moscow and developed their own path of socialism while retaining Communist governments. Most communist states remained part of this bloc until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; afterwards, only five Communist states remained: China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. Along with "First World" and "Third World", the term was used to divide the states of Earth into three broad categories.

The category of newly industrialized country (NIC), newly industrialized economy (NIE) or middle income country is a socioeconomic classification applied to several countries around the world by political scientists and economists. They represent a subset of developing countries whose economic growth is much higher than other developing countries; and where the social consequences of industrialization, such as urbanization, are reorganizing society.

Global North and Global South Neologism to describe groupings of countries as per socioeconomic and political characteristics

The concept of Global North and Global South is used to describe a grouping of countries along socio-economic and political characteristics. The Global South is a term often used to identify the regions of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Oceania. It is one of a family of terms, including "Third World" and "Periphery", that denote regions outside Europe and North America, mostly low-income and often politically or culturally marginalized countries on one side of the so-called divide, the other side being the countries of the Global North. As such, the term does not inherently refer to a geographical south; for example, most of the Global South is geographically within the Northern Hemisphere.

International development Concept concerning the level of development on an international scale

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Dependency theory is of the notion that resources flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former. It is a central contention of dependency theory that poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the "world system". This theory was officially developed in the late 1960s following World War II, as scholars searched for the root issue in the lack of development in Latin America.


Underdevelopment, relating to international development, reflects a broad condition or phenomena defined and critiqued by theorists in fields such as economics, development studies, and postcolonial studies. Used primarily to distinguish states along benchmarks concerning human development—such as macro-economic growth, health, education, and standards of living—an "underdeveloped" state is framed as the antithesis of a "developed", modern, or industrialized state. Popularized, dominant images of underdeveloped states include those that have less stable economies, less democratic political regimes, greater poverty, malnutrition, and poorer public health and education systems.

Modernization theory is used to explain the process of modernization within societies. Modernization theory originated from the ideas of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), which provided the basis for the modernization paradigm developed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–1979). The theory looks at the internal factors of a country while assuming that with assistance, "traditional" countries can be brought to development in the same manner more developed countries have been. Modernization theory was a dominant paradigm in the social sciences in the 1950s and 1960s, then went into a deep eclipse. It made a comeback after 1991 but remains a controversial model.

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In the field of international relations, the Three Worlds Theory by Mao Zedong proposed to the visiting Algerian President Houari Boumédiène in February 1974 that the international system operated as three contradictory politico-economic worlds. On April 10th 1974, at the 6th Special Session United Nations General Assembly, Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping applied the Three Worlds Theory during the New International Economic Order presentations about the problems of raw materials and development, to explain the PRC's economic co-operation with non-communist countries.

Developmentalism is an economic theory which states that the best way for less developed economies to develop is through fostering a strong and varied internal market and imposing high tariffs on imported goods.

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