What Does the Third World Mean?

The term "Third World" is no longer used the way it was originally intended to be.
The term "Third World" is no longer used the way it was originally intended to be.

The term "Third World" emerged throughout the decades of the Cold War to describe countries who were neither on the side of the US or the USSR. In recent years, it has erroneously been used to refer to developing countries.


The term "Third World" was first coined by French historian and anthropologist Alfred Sauvy in 1952. The term specifically referred to the countries which maintained a neutral stance during the ongoing Cold War. It is a direct reference to the French term “Third Estate” which arose during the French Revolution for classes which opposed or remained neutral to the conflict between the nobles and clergy which were called first and second estates respectively. Sauvy referred to the Allied faction as the First World and the Communist faction as the Second World.


Almost all Third World countries are either colonies at present or have a colonial background. A lot of these countries subsequently gained independence. The countries in question went on to develop such stark differences that it became virtually impossible to attribute the term “Third World” to a single country. This was an expected consequence of nationalization and different policies which led to a difference in the economies of the previous Third World countries. Some prospered while other countries witnessed stagnant progress. Over time it has now become impossible to formally define the term “Third World” as it means a myriad of different and often contradictory statements.

Evolution of the Term

A large majority of Third World countries were poor or underdeveloped at the time the term was first used. Over time, it has become synonymous with developing countries because of the many similarities observed in the underdeveloped economies. The challenges associated with a developing economy became synonymous with their status as Third World countries. A striking exception to this general assumption is South Africa which has emerged as a developed country in the poverty-stricken continent of Africa. The development and progress of South Africa can be attributed to a variety of reasons but it stands out as an anomaly.

Post-Cold War Usage

After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the term “Third World” lost its true meaning as originally intended. The fall of Soviet Union marked the end of the Cold War which also marked the beginning of a new definition for this decade old term. When we refer to a country as part of the Third World now, it automatically means that it faces some form of challenges which place it in the tier of developing countries which may face a plethora of problems hindering their development and placement into the higher tiers of development. The Human Development Index is a clear indicator of whether the country may rank as a third world country or not.


The term "Third World" has lost its original meaning and means something totally different in context in the modern language. While it was originally used to refer to the countries which stayed neutral in the Cold War, it now refers to the common feature in most original third world economies. Third World economies are now correctly referred to as developing countries.


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