First World, Third World… What are the Second World Countries

If I say the words “Third World Country”, what image springs to mind? Most likely something out of a World Vision commercial: starving children, ramshackle villages of corrugated metal huts, dirty water, disease, corruption, human rights abuses, and war. Now, what about a “First World Country?” Well, if you’re watching this video right now, odds are you live in one of those: wealthy, industrially developed, and democratic. And finally, what do you think of when I say “Second World Country?”

If you’ve just drawn an enormous blank, you’re not alone. While the terms “First World” and “Third World” are part of our everyday vocabulary, the “Second World” that should logically complete the trio almost never comes up. Nor, for that matter, do the definitions of “First World” and “Third World”, the terms largely being used as convenient but vague stand-ins for “rich countries” and “poor countries”. So, what is the “Second World”, anyway? What actually makes a country “First World” or “Third World”? And who came up with this classification system, anyway? Let’s find out, shall we?

While today the terms “First World” and “Third World” are largely used to rank countries economically, originally these terms had nothing to do with economics and were instead entirely political categories. The term “Third World” first appeared in a 1952 article in L’Observateur magazine by French anthropologist Alfred Sauvy. Sauvy grouped the world’s nations according to their political alignment, with the First World comprising the western capitalist states like the United States and her allies in North America and Western Europe. The Second World, by contrast, comprised the communist-aligned nations such as the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Cuba. Finally, the Third World encompassed all the remaining nations who were unaligned with either east or west – an enormous bloc which included nearly all the nations of Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. In drawing these distinctions, Sauvy made a direct connection between the Third World and the “Third Estate” of the French Revolution – that is, the common people who opposed the Monarchy or First Estate and the Clergy or Second Estate. Just like the Third Estate, Sauby wrote:

This third world [is] ignored, exploited, [and] despised like the third estate [and] also wants to be something.”

As many of these non-aligned nations tended to be poorer, often post-colonial states, the term “Third World” gradually lost its political meaning and instead became a byword for economic underdevelopment and political instability. This became especially true following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which rendered the term “Second World” and the very notion of global political alignment along east-west lines largely obsolete.

Even during the Cold War itself, the designation of Third World status to nations was arbitrary at best. In the 1980s, economist Peter Bauer pointed out that the wide variety of economies and political alignments lumped into the Third World category made the term of dubious utility. Indeed, the only strong commonality he could find between the nations of the so-called “Third World” was that their governments demanded and received US economic aid. And as historian B.R. Tomlinson pointed out in his 2003 essay What Was the Third World:

Although the phrase was widely used, it was never clear whether it was a clear category of analysis, or simply a convenient and rather vague label for an imprecise collection of states in the second half of the 20th century and some of the common problems that they faced.”

Due to this complete shift in the meanings of these terms, many of the original “Three Worlds” groupings can seem downright bizarre today. For example, during the Cold War several western European nations such as Ireland, Finland, Austria, Sweden, and Switzerland remained neutral and did not join NATO – which, according to Alfred Sauvy’s original definitions, would technically have made them part of the Third World. Similarly, several African nations that are currently classified as Third World – such as Western Sahara, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, and Mozambique – were for many years included in the First World because they were either allied with the west or run as colonies of First World nations such as Spain and Portugal. On a side note, Angola and Mozambique actually became part of the Second World in 1975 when they overthrew their colonial governments and embraced communism.

Now, while today the Second World is hardly ever mentioned, even more obscure is the category of “Fourth World”, coined in the 1970s by Chief George Manuel of the indigenous Shuswap people of British Columbia, Canada. According to Manuel, the “Fourth World” comprises indigenous people and other cultural entities that exist outside of formal nation-state boundaries.

So, what does this mean for us today? How do we determine what makes a nation “First World” or “Third World”? Although these terms are still widely used in everyday discussion, many economists and global development experts argue that they are outdated, derogatory, and reinforce negative stereotypes. Today the preferred term used by the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Health Organization is developing country. The WHO and the United Nations further divide this category into developing and least developed, while other analysts use the categories low-income and lower-middle income or LMIC countries. Another popular term that has emerged in recent years is the Global South, referring to the fact that a large proportion of the world’s poorest nations lie south of the equator. However, this term is not 100% accurate, for several poor nations like Haiti lie north of the equator, while several wealthy, developed nations like Australia and New Zealand lie south of it.

But while such terms are intended to be less politically charged and judgemental than the old “Three Worlds” categories, some experts still see them as problematic. As social psychologist Shose Kessi of the University of Cape Town in South Africa argues:

I dislike the term ‘developing world’ because it assumes a hierarchy between countries. It paints a picture of Western societies as ideal but there are many social problems in these societies as well. It also perpetuates stereotypes about people who come from the so-called developing world as backward, lazy, ignorant, irresponsible…in my view, the developed-developing relationship in many ways replaces the colonizer-colonized relationship. The idea of development is a way for rich countries to control and exploit the poor. You can see this through the development industry where billions of dollars are spent but very little gets achieved. Come to think of it, actually, I hate the term!”

In response to such criticisms, some experts have come up with yet another alternative: the Majority World, a term which acknowledges that the vast majority of the world’s population lives in so-called developing countries, with 80% surviving on less that $10 per day.

Yet in spite of such debates over terminology, the general consensus among global development agencies is that developing or “third world” countries are those which suffer from the following: high poverty and income inequality; high child mortality; low economic and educational development, and low consumption of their own natural resources, making them vulnerable to exploitation by large corporations and developed nations. The education index – along with life expectancy and gross national income or GNI per capita – are used by the World Trade Organization and United Nations to calculate the Human Development Index or HDI, which is measured on a scale of 0-1. According to this measure, the 5th least developed countries on earth are Mozambique with a score of 0.456, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone at 0.452, Mali at 0.434, and Burundi at 0.433. Looking at Gross National Income per capita alone, the five poorest countries in the world are Malawi at $995 per person, Democratic Republic of Congo at $978, Central African Republic at $972, South Sudan at $884, and Burundi again at $783.

Another measure of a nation’s development is its record of human and political rights and civil liberties. According to the Freedom House Freedom in the World Index, the 5 least politically free countries on a scale of of 0-100 are Eritrea and Turkmenistan at 2, Tibet at 1, Syria at 0, and South Sudan at -2. Finally, according to Reporters Without Borders, the 5 worst countries with regards to freedom of the press are, with 0 being completely free and 100 being completely hostile: Saudi Arabia at 66.37, Egypt at 68.88, Eritrea at 72.36, China at 80.43, and Syria at 82.05.

What these numbers reveal is that – surprise, surprise – the world is a complicated place, and difficult to sort into categories as neat and tidy as First, Second, and Third World. For example, while supposedly First World countries like China are economically developed, they score low in terms of human rights and freedom of the press. And while many supposedly Third World countries are indeed economically underdeveloped, in many cases community ties and traditional social safety nets are far more developed than in First World countries. In conclusion, nations are made up of people, and if there’s one thing certain about people, it’s that they refuse to play by the rules.

Expand for References

Banton, Caroline, Third World Countries: Definition, Criteria, and Countries, Investopedia, June 8, 2022,

Countries of the Third World, Nations Online,

First, Second, and Third World, Nations Online,

Silver, Marc, If You Shouldn’t Call it the Third World, What Should You Call It? NPR, January 4, 2015,

Third World Countries 2023, World Population Review,

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