Third World

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The "three worlds" of the Cold War era, between April -- August 1975.
1 World: Western Bloc led by the USA and its allies.
2 World: Eastern Bloc led by the USSR, China, and their allies.
3 World: Non-Aligned and neutral countries. Cold War alliances mid-1975.svg
The "three worlds" of the Cold War era, between April August 1975.
   1 World: Western Bloc led by the USA and its allies.
   2 World: Eastern Bloc led by the USSR, China, and their allies.
   3 World: Non-Aligned and neutral countries.

During the Cold War, the term Third World referred to the developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the nations not aligned with either the First World or the Second World. [1] [2] This usage has become relatively rare due to the ending of the Cold War.

Cold War Geopolitical tension after World War II between the Eastern and Western Bloc

The Cold War was a period of geopolitical tension between the Soviet Union with its satellite states, and the United States with its allies after World War II. A common historiography of the conflict begins between 1946, the year U.S. diplomat George F. Kennan's "Long Telegram" from Moscow cemented a U.S. foreign policy of containment of Soviet expansionism threatening strategically vital regions, and the Truman Doctrine of 1947, and ending between the Revolutions of 1989, which ended communism in Eastern Europe as well as in other areas, and the 1991 collapse of the USSR, when nations of the Soviet Union abolished communism and restored their independence. The term "cold" is used because there was no large-scale fighting directly between the two sides, but they each supported major regional conflicts known as proxy wars. The conflict split the temporary wartime alliance against Nazi Germany and its allies, leaving the USSR and the US as two superpowers with profound economic and political differences.

First World conceptual country classification

The concept of First World originated during the Cold War and included countries that were generally aligned with NATO and opposed to the Soviet Union 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 often determined include GDP, GNP, literacy rates, life expectancy, and the Human Development Index. In common usage, as per Merriam-Webster, "first world" now typically refers to "the highly developed industrialized nations often considered the westernized countries of the world".

Second World Geopolitical classification

The Second World is a term that was used during the Cold War to refer to 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. But most communist states remained part of this bloc until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991; afterwards, only five Communist states remained: China, North Korea, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam. Along with "First World" and "Third World", the term was used to divide the states of Earth into three broad categories.


In the decade following the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in 1991, the term Third World was used interchangeably with developing countries, but the concept has become outdated as it no longer represents the current political or economic state of the world. The three-world model arose during the Cold War to define countries aligned with NATO (the First World), the Communist Bloc (the Second World, although this term was less used), or neither (the Third World). Strictly speaking, "Third World" was a political, rather than an economic, grouping.

Three-world model

The terms First World, Second World, and Third World were originally used to divide the world's nations into three categories. The model did not emerge to its end state all at once. The complete overthrow of the post–World War II status quo, known as the Cold War, left two superpowers vying for ultimate global supremacy. They created two camps, known as blocs. These blocs formed the basis of the concepts of the First and Second Worlds.

NATO Intergovernmental military alliance of Western states

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, also called the North Atlantic Alliance, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 29 North American and European countries. The organization implements the North Atlantic Treaty that was signed on 4 April 1949. NATO constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party. NATO's Headquarters are located in Haren, Brussels, Belgium, while the headquarters of Allied Command Operations is near Mons, Belgium.

Eastern Bloc 20th-century group of socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe

The Eastern Bloc was the group of communist states of Central and Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Southeast Asia under the hegemony of the Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War (1947–1991) in opposition to the capitalist Western Bloc. Generally, in Western Europe the term Eastern Bloc referred to the USSR and its East European satellite states in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon); in Asia, the socialist bloc comprised the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, the Lao People's Democratic Republic and the People's Republic of Kampuchea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, and the People's Republic of China. In the Americas, the communist bloc included the Caribbean Republic of Cuba, since 1961.

Since about the 2000s the term Third World has been used less and less. It is being replaced with terms such as developing countries, least developed countries or the Global South.

Developing country Nation with a low living standard relative to other countries

A developing country is a country with a less developed industrial base and a low 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. A nation's GDP per capita compared with other nations can also be a reference point.

Global South term used in transnational and postcolonial studies to refer to developing countries

The Global South is an emerging term which refers to countries seen as low and middle income in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean by the World Bank. These nations are often described as newly industrialized or in the process of industrializing. Global South does not necessarily refer to geographical south. The term started to develop as using “Third World” to describe these countries was seen inferior compared to “First World”. “Developing countries”, “less developed countries” and “less developed regions” are also seen inappropriate to refer to Global South.


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 (French: Tiers Monde), referring to countries that were unaligned with either the Communist Soviet bloc or the Capitalist NATO bloc during the Cold War. [3] His usage was a reference to the Third Estate, 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. Sauvy wrote, "This third world ignored, exploited, despised like the third estate also wants to be something." [4] He conveyed the concept of political non-alignment with either the capitalist or communist bloc. [5]

Alfred Sauvy demographer, anthropologist and historian of the French economy

Alfred Sauvy was a demographer, anthropologist and historian of the French economy. Sauvy coined the term Third World in reference to countries that were unaligned with either the Communist Soviet bloc or the Capitalist NATO bloc during the Cold War. In an article published in the French magazine, L'Observateur on August 14, 1952, Sauvy said:

French Revolution Revolution in France, 1789 to 1798

The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.

Non-Aligned Movement group of states which are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc

The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is a forum of 120 developing world states that are not formally aligned with or against any major power bloc. After the United Nations, it is the largest grouping of states world-wide.

Origin and shift of meaning

The term "Third World" arose during the Cold War to define countries that remained non-aligned with either NATO or the Communist Bloc. The United States, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Western European nations and their allies represented the First World, while the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, 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 and economic divisions. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the term Third World has been used less and less. 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.

United States Federal republic in North America

The United States of America (USA), commonly known as the United States or America, is a country comprising 50 states, a federal district, five major self-governing territories, and various possessions. At 3.8 million square miles, the United States is the world's third or fourth largest country by total area and is slightly smaller than the entire continent of Europe's 3.9 million square miles. With a population of over 327 million people, the U.S. is the third most populous country. The capital is Washington, D.C., and the largest city by population is New York City. Forty-eight states and the capital's federal district are contiguous in North America between Canada and Mexico. The State of Alaska is in the northwest corner of North America, bordered by Canada to the east and across the Bering Strait from Russia to the west. The State of Hawaii is an archipelago in the mid-Pacific Ocean. The U.S. territories are scattered about the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, stretching across nine official time zones. The extremely diverse geography, climate, and wildlife of the United States make it one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries.

Canada Country in North America

Canada is a country in the northern part of North America. Its ten provinces and three territories extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific and northward into the Arctic Ocean, covering 9.98 million square kilometres, making it the world's second-largest country by total area. Canada's southern border with the United States, stretching some 8,891 kilometres (5,525 mi), is the world's longest bi-national land border. Its capital is Ottawa, and its three largest metropolitan areas are Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. As a whole, Canada is sparsely populated, the majority of its land area being dominated by forest and tundra. Consequently, its population is highly urbanized, with over 80 percent of its inhabitants concentrated in large and medium-sized cities, with 70% of citizens residing within 100 kilometres (62 mi) of the southern border. Canada's climate varies widely across its vast area, ranging from arctic weather in the north, to hot summers in the southern regions, with four distinct seasons.

Japan Country in East Asia

Japan is an island country in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies off the eastern coast of the Asian continent and stretches from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and the Philippine Sea in the south.

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, Theotonio 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". [6]

Colonization is a process by which a central system of power dominates the surrounding land and its components.

Africa The second largest and second most-populous continent, mostly in the Northern and Eastern Hemispheres

Africa is the world's second largest and second most-populous continent, being behind Asia in both categories. At about 30.3 million km2 including adjacent islands, it covers 6% of Earth's total surface area and 20% of its land area. With 1.2 billion people as of 2016, it accounts for about 16% of the world's human population. The continent is surrounded by the Mediterranean Sea to the north, the Isthmus of Suez and the Red Sea to the northeast, the Indian Ocean to the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The continent includes Madagascar and various archipelagos. It contains 54 fully recognised sovereign states (countries), nine territories and two de facto independent states with limited or no recognition. The majority of the continent and its countries are in the Northern Hemisphere, with a substantial portion and number of countries in the Southern Hemisphere.

Latin America Region of the Americas where Romance languages are primarily spoken

Latin America is a group of countries and dependencies in the Western Hemisphere where Romance languages such as Spanish, Portuguese, and French are predominantly spoken; it is broader than the terms Ibero-America or Hispanic America. The term "Latin America" was first used in an 1856 conference with the title "Initiative of the America. Idea for a Federal Congress of the Republics", by the Chilean politician Francisco Bilbao. The term was used also by Napoleon III's French government in the 1860s as Amérique latine to consider French-speaking territories in the Americas, along with the larger group of countries where Spanish and Portuguese languages prevailed, including the Spanish-speaking portions of the United States Today, areas of Canada and the United States where Spanish, Portuguese and French are predominant are typically not included in definitions of Latin America.

Due to the complex history of evolving meanings and contexts, there is no clear or agreed-upon definition of the Third World. [6] 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 poor countries as "third world countries", yet the "Third World" term is also often taken to include newly industrialized countries like Brazil, India, and China; they are now more commonly referred to as part of BRIC. Historically, some European countries were non-aligned and a few of these were and are very prosperous, including Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Yugoslavia.

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 and probably second-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. [7]


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. [8]

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 [6] 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). [6] 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. [6]

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.). [3] 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). [9] 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. [9]

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" was 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. [10]

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. [11] 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". [12]

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 the G7, the European Union, OECD; G20, OPEC, BRICS, ASEAN, the African Union, and the Eurasian Union.

See also

Related Research Articles

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Eastern Europe eastern part of the European continent

Eastern Europe is the eastern part of the European continent. There is no consensus on the precise area it covers, partly because the term has a wide range of geopolitical, geographical, cultural, and socioeconomic connotations. There are "almost as many definitions of Eastern Europe as there are scholars of the region". A related United Nations paper adds that "every assessment of spatial identities is essentially a social and cultural construct". One definition describes Eastern Europe as a cultural entity: the region lying in Europe with the main characteristics consisting of Greek, Byzantine, Eastern Orthodox, Russian, and some Ottoman culture influences. Another definition was created during the Cold War and used more or less synonymously with the term Eastern Bloc. A similar definition names the formerly communist European states outside the Soviet Union as Eastern Europe. The majority of historians and social scientists view such definitions as outdated or relegated, but they are still sometimes used for statistical purposes.

A satellite state is a country that is formally independent in the world, but under heavy political, economic and military influence or control from another country. The term was coined by analogy to planetary objects orbiting a larger object, such as smaller moons revolving around larger planets, and is used mainly to refer to Central and Eastern European countries of the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War or to Mongolia or Tannu Tuva between 1924 and 1990, for example. As used for Central and Eastern European countries it implies that the countries in question were "satellites" under the hegemony of the Soviet Union. In some contexts it also refers to other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence during the Cold War—such as North Korea and Cuba. In Western usage, the term has seldom been applied to states other than those in the Soviet orbit. In Soviet usage, the term applied to the states in the orbit of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.

Foreign relations of Algeria

Since its independence from France in 1962, Algeria has pursued an activist foreign policy. In the 1960s and 1970s, Algeria was noted for its support of Third World policies and independence movements. Since its independence, Algeria has been a member of the Arab League and of the United Nations.

North–South divide socio-economic and political divide

The North–South divide is broadly considered a socio-economic and political divide. Generally, definitions of the Global North include the United States, Canada, Europe, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan as well as Australia and New Zealand. The Global South is made up of Africa, Latin America, and developing Asia including the Middle East. The North is home to all the members of the G8 and to four of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The Western Allies were a political and geographic grouping among the Allied Powers of the First World War and Second World War. It generally includes the British Empire, the United States, France and various other European and Latin American countries, but excludes China, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, and the Kingdom of Serbia and Kingdom of Montenegro and their successor state, Yugoslavia due to different economic, geographic and political circumstances, some of which arose after the wars. Similarly, Poland and Czechoslovakia are often excluded from the term, because of their post-war forced inclusion in the Eastern Bloc, even though Polish and Czechoslovak armed forces fought alongside Western Allies. Most African and Asian allies not part of the British Commonwealth or France are often excluded from the term, though irregular Arabian and Ethiopian forces fought along the Western Allies. France is also often counted among the Western Allies, because although the Vichy Regime collaborated with the Axis powers and fought the Allies, the Free French military forces played a major role against the Axis Powers throughout the war, similarly to many nations that endured military occupation and collaboration.

Sino-Soviet split Cold War schism between communist states

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Foreign relations of the Soviet Union

When Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over Russia in 1918, they faced enormous odds against the German Empire, and then again against multiple enemies in a bitter civil war.. At first, it was treated as an unrecognized Pariah state because of its repudiating the tsarist debts and threats to destroy capitalism at home and around the world. By 1922, Moscow had repudiated the goal of world revolution, and sought diplomatic recognition and friendly trade relations with the world, starting with Britain and Germany. Trade and technical help from Germany and the United States arrived in the late 1920s. Under dictator Joseph Stalin, the country was transformed in the 1930s into an industrial and military power. A totally unexpected treaty with Germany in 1939 allowed the Nazis to launch World War II with attacks first on Poland and in 1940 Western Europe without worrying about a two-front war. Germany in 1941 turned east in a massive invasion that reached the outskirts of Leningrad and Moscow. However, the Soviet Union proved strong enough to defeat Nazi Germany, with help from its key allies the In 1945 the USSR became one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council--along with the United States, Britain, France, and China--giving it the right to veto any of the Security Council's resolutions. By 1947, American and British anger at Soviet control over Eastern Europe led to a Cold War, with Western Europe organized economically with large sums of Marshall Plan money from Washington. Opposition to the danger of Soviet expansion form the basis to the NATO military alliance in 1949. There was no hot war, but the Cold War was fought diplomatically and politically across the world by the Soviet and NATO blocks.

Cold War (1962–1979) phase of the Cold War

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Third-Worldism political concept and ideology that emerged in the late 1940s or early 1950s during the Cold War

Third-Worldism is a political concept and ideology that emerged in the late 1940s or early 1950s during the Cold War and tried to generate unity among the nations that did not want to take sides between the United States and the Soviet Union. The concept is closely related but not identical to the political theory of Maoism-Third Worldism.

Three Worlds Theory

In the field of international relations, the Three Worlds Theory, by Mao Zedong, proposes three politico-economic worlds: the First world consisting of superpowers, the Second world of developing powers, and the Third world of exploited nations.

India played an important role in the multilateral movements of colonies and newly independent countries that wanted into the Non-Aligned Movement. India's policy was neither negative nor positive.

Proletarian internationalism Marxist social class concept

Proletarian internationalism, sometimes referred to as international socialism, is the perception of all communist revolutions as being part of a single global class struggle rather than separate localized events. It is based on the theory that capitalism is a world-system and therefore the working classes of all nations must act in concert if they are to replace it with communism. Proponents of proletarian internationalism often argued that the objectives of a given revolution should be global rather than local in scope—for example, triggering or perpetuating revolutions elsewhere.


  1. Company, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing. "The American Heritage Dictionary entry: Third World".
  2. "Third World - Definition of Third World in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries - English.
  3. 1 2 Gregory, Derek et al. (Eds.) (2009). Dictionary of Human Geography (5th Ed.), Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. Literal translation from French
  5. Wolf-Phillips, Leslie (1987). "Why 'Third World'?: Origin, Definition and Usage", Third World Quarterly, 9(4): 1311-1327.
  6. 1 2 3 4 5 Tomlinson, B.R. (2003). "What was the Third World?". Journal of Contemporary History . 38 (2): 307–321. doi:10.1177/0022009403038002135. JSTOR   3180660.
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  10. Mimiko, Oluwafemi (2012). "Globalization: The Politics of Global Economic Relations and International Business". Carolina Academic Press: 49.
  11. 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
  12. 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.

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