The Term “Third World Country” Refers to the Political and Economic Structure of a Country, Not Its Developmental State or Wealth

slumToday I found out a “Third World” country is not a country that simply is primitive, underdeveloped, or poor, as most people think.  In fact, a third world country is actually just a country that is not considered a capitalist country (first world) and not considered a communist country (2nd world).

This terminology was originally coined just after WWII with the “first world” countries being roughly all the countries that were aligned with the United States after WWII with more or less common political and economic structure (capitalists); the “second world” countries were all those that roughly aligned with the Soviet Union in terms of their political and economic structure (communists and socialists); the “third world” countries were just everybody else.

This “everybody else” meaning included an awful lot of countries that were underdeveloped or poor.  Through time, this has given rise to the misconception that “third world” means only countries that are underdeveloped and poor, even though there were, and still are, many countries in this group that are very well developed and a few of them are among the wealthiest nations in the world.

If you liked this article and the Bonus Facts below, you might also enjoy:

Bonus Facts:

  • The term “third world” appeared first in print, and was possibly coined, by French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy, in an article published in the French magazine L’Observateur, on August 14, 1952.  His quote specifically was “Like the Third Estate, the Third World is nothing, and wants to be something.”   The “Third Estate” were the commoners of France who, during the French Revolution, opposed priests and nobles who were the first and second estates, respectively.   However, there is some contention on whether he in fact coined the term or if it had been previously coined by a coalition of political leaders, who had already been using “first world” and “second world” in their common speech.
  • The commonly held correct terms to refer to poor or underdeveloped countries are “Developing World” or “Majority World”, which the latter kind of sounds like a fun amusement park ride and the former sounds like something fun to do in a video game.  It’s no wonder these terms haven’t caught on with the masses over the incorrect usage of “third world”.
  • In 1974, there was another similar term coined called “fourth world”, meaning to refer to ethnic nations that span nation-state boundaries.
  • The terms “first world” and “second world” virtually disappeared from usage after the fall of the Soviet Union.
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  • Not to be a Debbie Downer, but I believe that the definition you provide is misleading. The definition of “Third World” is just not that cut and dry. Just to give you some examples, former Communist states such as Afghanistan (1978-1992), and North Vietnam (1945-1976) were considered part of the 3rd World post WWII despite there political and economic leanings. The term “Third World was much more of an arbitrary distinction than you made it out to be.

    Furthermore, the term “Third World” isn’t even used anymore to characterize nations on any formal level. The World Banks and International Monetary Fund replaced it with the term “Developing Countries”, which is just as difficult to understand in terms of the criteria used to determine it. Brazil, one of the most rapidly developing countries in the world and the 8th largest economy in the world, is identified as “Developing”, as is Chile, Russia, India, China, and Saudi Arabia.

  • I recall hearing, long ago during a bygone century, that there was Old World, New World, and Third World.

    Whatever the origin, common usage always wins, so if everyone agrees that Third World means poorer underdeveloped countries, than that’s what it means.

  • I have to agree with Jed and Christina, thrid world countries may have been described as “everybody else” after the cold war but now in the modern day the common term for ‘third world’ is a poorer, underdeveloped country.

  • I don’t know that people’s ignorance of the true meaning changes the definition… Although you are right that many misuse the term now. The true meaning is an “Up for Grabs” country after WWII in the Capitalist/Commie fight to indoctrinate under developed nations…

  • The term “3rd World” is something that always confused me. See, I’m from what some would call a 3rd World country – South Africa. And it confused me because people would think we’re poor and “backward” and all that jazz but I’m typing this on a computer that’s connected to the internet (high speed). At the mo, I’m listening to music through my iPod contemplating whether I should chill on the beach or check out some bands tonight.
    Not busy gathering wood to make a fire to cook or chilling in a mud hut.

    So for those who think “3rd World” or “Developed Countries” as they are called now are all backward and poor, not so. It’s actually just as the author put it here.

  • I’m going to have to agree with most of the other commenters. The word “third world” only had this meaning during the Cold War. A more accurate title would reflect the origin of it’s use, as it’s current use is to refer to nations with developing economies.

  • Irene Naitawang

    International politics and classification of the World into three as we see. The notion of The ‘Third World’ cannot be only referred basing on their non alignment in the Cold war but it seems to be attached to the economic and political level in the World System. Those states that are still under dominant of the develop countries are the Third Word because Cold War is long gone and the World system is unipolar.

  • pitchernick samuel

    Please enlighten me on the issue about Post-Colonial era and Macro-Economic endowment.

  • halira alhassan attah

    Just like some scholars opined. Third world is deregatory to refer it to backwardness. It simply doesnt count. But put on the political and economic structure it can be true to say that third world nations are not super powers because they have been exploited far way too long and this is a hindrance to development. Theories can be confusing but what i know as a Nigerian is that third world does not connotes backwardness

  • Queenesther Whence Frank

    Arguing on the notion that, whether third world still exist or not, or if is now referred to as “developing countries” or not should not be the issue or center of argument, and of course is not the solution to the question of underdevelopment.
    The question we should be arguing about is, is the “third world or developing countries” really underdeveloped as believed by many scholars, advanced countries? etc. or does it have any sense of development which is not materialized (lie waist, yet to be exploit)? if so, what do think should be the solution to underdevelopment of the developing countries and how, when?