Third World Research Paper

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The term third world was coined by the French economist and demographer Alfred Sauvy to apply to the developing countries that belonged to neither the American nor the Soviet bloc during the cold war. Countries of the “first world” included the United States, its European allies, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Countries in the “second world” referred to the Soviet Union and its East European allies. The third world comprised the rest of the countries.


From its very inception, the term third world has proven problematic. During the cold war, states such as the Philippines and Cuba, closely aligned to one or the other superpowers, nevertheless were considered third world. Even after the conception of the term broadened to include economic backwardness, poverty, and lack of power, confusion as to its meaning persisted. Included in the third world during the cold war years were states that are among the richest in the world (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait), states whose militaries were larger than those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) powers (Vietnam and Iran), and countries that were major powers in their own right (India). Nevertheless, the term stuck, referring loosely to the countries of Africa, Latin America, and Asia, with Israel, Japan, and China usually omitted.

The third world has always been associated with other groupings of states that share “third world” characteristics. One of the most prominent of these is the non-aligned movement, begun in 1955 by the leaders of Egypt, India, and Yugoslavia to advance the interests of countries that sought to avoid entanglement in East-West issues. Another prominent organization was the Group of 77 established in June 1964 to promote the economic demands of poorer countries. The Group of 77, now numbering some 130 countries, is a prominent player in international institutions, particularly the United Nations, where it often clashes with the group of developed states known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). While the nations that make up these and other groups overlap with the third world, their focused agendas gave substance to what was otherwise an ambiguous term.

Once the cold war was over, whatever meaning third world had was further eroded. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought about the end of the second world, making the term third world especially difficult to justify. Making matters worse, many saw the term third world as pejorative, which in part explains efforts to use other terms, such as developing countries, the South, and LDC (for least or less developed countries).

Despite all these problems, the use of third world persists. In large measure this is because of the belief that the term is usefully descriptive of a class of countries that share similar characteristics. While not all third world countries manifest these characteristics to the same degree (or at all), enough do to consider retaining the category of third world.


The first characteristic of third world countries is that they are relatively young. Unlike countries outside the third world that have evolved over centuries, most third world states were artificially created by others. The great majority of third world states are ex-colonies. Outside powers created states where none had existed. Although the degree to which the newly formed boundaries coincided with the boundaries of indigenous societies varies in the third world (e.g., high in Southeast Asia, low in Africa), in all cases a formal division replaced what had been a flexible demarcation. Because of the arbitrariness of their borders, many third world states began as and remain more artificial constructs than coherent units.

The artificiality of the third world states and their colonial heritage has created a situation in which groups owe allegiance to and act for interests other than the national interest. Policies by colonial powers of “divide and rule” and the destruction of existing political entities made integration and a sense of nationalism all but impossible. Instead of identifying with their states, individuals identify with ethnic, religious, or regional groupings. This narrow seeking of interests perpetuates itself by preventing the formation of a national consciousness.

Rather than transcending the differences among these different groups, the state is often simply the representative of the group that holds power in the capital.

Legitimacy is likely to be weaker for third world leaders than for leaders elsewhere. Many regimes in the third world are narrowly based, came to power through force, and use suppression to remain in power. In part this legitimacy stems from a lack of national identity. When people cannot agree on what constitutes the state, they are unlikely to agree on what constitutes legitimate uses of power within the state. Developing states often lack effective institutions for mediating political disputes, intensifying the internal conflicts that frequently arise. Most third world states are not liberal democracies. Despite the rise of nationalism, meaningful political participation and the acceptance of basic rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, toleration of minority rights, and an independent judiciary, are not found in the majority of third world countries.

The power of the third world states, as in other states, derives from the ability to distribute goods. The state in the third world is distinctive, however, in that it controls a much greater degree of wealth and power than any other group in the society. Gaining control of the state is the only means for the ambitious to meet their needs. Hence a major vulnerability of the state is that it controls a much greater degree of wealth and power than any other group in the society. At the same time those in power will mightily resist attempts at replacement because they do not want to relinquish their only opportunity for wealth and influence and because they fear for their lives.

Third world states are also characterized by economic underdevelopment. It is generally thought that third world countries’ citizens are poor, ill educated, and lack access to quality medical care. The World Bank and the United Nations, which categorize nations as to income and other indicators, confirm this view. The World Bank divides countries into four categories: high income, upper-middle income, lower-middle income, and low income. Third world states make up all the low income states and none of the high income ones, with the exception of oil rich Arab countries. Moreover third world countries tend to rank low on measures of human development, such as literacy, access to education, life expectancy, and infant mortality.

One can categorize third world states by means of their self-identification. If a state considers itself to be a third world country, it is likely to have a set of attitudes and goals that are defined by its “third worldness.” For example, third world states overwhelmingly supported the huge price increases in Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) oil in 1974 despite the horrendous economic effects they caused. Third world solidarity has also been displayed in votes at the United Nations, where countries seen as third world tend to vote similarly. It is possible to speak of a third world therefore because member states do and because they act in at least some ways in terms of their self-identification.

These generalizations are not set forth to suggest that all third world countries share these characteristics equally. Different states manifest different characteristics. Nor do these generalizations apply only to the third world. As demonstrated by the collapse of the second world in 1989, states outside the third world also suffer from problems such as weak legitimacy. What some say justifies considering the third world as a category is that whatever combination of factors may exist in a particular third world state, their cumulative impact makes virtually all third world leaders more vulnerable to overthrow—particularly by internal threats such as coups and rebellions— than other leaders.

Finally, the third world is not a static category. Countries formerly considered to be in the third world have left that status behind, while other states that had been second world countries find themselves increasingly being considered third world. Countries such as Taiwan can become more politically stable, or previously stable countries can plunge into chaos, as occurred with Yugoslavia. Some states, such as South Korea and Singapore, have achieved impressive levels of economic development, while others, such as many of the former Russian republics have descended into “third world” levels of poverty and despair.

There is little question that third world is a messy, ambiguous, and vague term. For those who demand rigor in their definitions, the category of third world has long lost its utility. And yet the persistence of the term indicates that it satisfies a need for many in describing the condition of states and peoples that is not met by any other categorization. As long as poverty and instability exist, so too will the relevance of the category “third world.”


  1. Ayoob, Mohammed. 1995. The Third World Security Predicament: State Making, Regional Conflict, and the International System. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  2. Clapham, Christopher. 1985. Third World Politics: An Introduction. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  3. David, Steven R. 1991. Choosing Sides: Alignment and Realignment in the Third World. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
  4. United Nations Development Programme. 2005. Human Development Report 2005. New York: United Nations. Worsley, Peter. 1979. How Many Worlds? Third World Quarterly 1 (2): 100–108.

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