term ‘third world’ has become
synonymous with a less economically developed country. Its use in today’s
language has increasingly shaped its image, to be that of widespread poverty,
over-population and mass unemployment. However if we take a look at the history
of the word itself and its origins, we see a completely different view and
meaning of the term. Yet surprisingly the phrase, ‘third world’, became completely
altered to mean something else in the 21st Century. By looking at
the history, we can clearly see whether this term has any validity in today’s

the Cold War, a three-world model evolved that would be used to divide the
world’s nations into three categories. The ‘First World’ represented the United
States and its allies and was commonly used for countries within the North
Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). The ‘Second World’ consisted of members of
the Warsaw Pact, China and their allies. The ‘Third World’ became synonymous
with countries part of the Non-Aligned Movement. This included countries with
colonial pasts that were located in what we know as the ‘Global South’ such as
Latin America, Asia and Africa. Historian Alfred Sauvy actually coined the
term, when he wrote, ‘This third world
ignored, exploited, despised like the third estate also wants to be something’,
which was published in the French magazine L’Observateur, on August 14th,
1952. Sauvy’s use of the term was for countries that were not part of the
Communist Soviet bloc or the Capitalist Western bloc. In doing so compared
these countries with that of the peasants of France who were part of the Third
Estate, that were opposed to the First and Second estate during the French
Revolution. However even during these times the term had no clear or
agreed-upon definition.

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the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Cold War ended which resulted in the
initial meaning and context of the term, ‘Third World’, to become
interchangeable with that of economically poor or non-industrialized countries.
This kick-started the stereotype that ‘third world countries’ are poor. The
reason for this change and conversion of the term was because with the end of
the Cold War the ‘three worlds’ classification scheme became utterly meaningless.
This was because the ‘Second World’ completely perished as the collapse of
Communism meant that Western Liberal Democracy had triumphed. However as the
term ‘Second World’ lost its applicability, the definitions of the First World
and Third World changed slightly, while generally describing the same notions. Even
today there are some relevance to these terms such as, sometimes the President
of the United States is known as the Leader of Free World. The term Free World
was generally used by the Western bloc to describe First world countries.

we go on to explain whether the notion of a ‘Third World’ is relevant anymore
it’s important to distinguish between the ‘third world’ and ‘Third Worldism’. Third Worldism is an
ideology that came out of decolonization. It transpired into a political
movement that believes for unity between neutral nations and were against all
forms of colonialism and neo-colonialism. From this ideology the Non-Aligned
Movement was born, mainly to ensure ‘the
national independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and security of
non-aligned countries’. Why this is important is that this movement is
still active and currently has 120 members. The members of this organisation
referred to themselves at the time as third world nations and leaders like Gamal
Abdel Nasser followed Third Worldism. So seeing as how this movement is still
active it must mean that the notion of a ‘Third World’ is still relevant in
today’s world.

The insignificance
of the term ‘third world’ is due to the current criteria of the word in which
it is associated with. Andrew Heywood describes third world countries as ‘economically dependent and often suffered
from widespread poverty’. This is what the main public opinion of the term
third word constitutes. Labelling ‘economic dependence’ or ‘widespread poverty’
as a defining criteria of whether a country is part of the third world or not,
is what is making the term no longer applicable. This is because there are many
anomalies in this criteria that Heywood has created. For example there are
certain countries like Brazil and India, who are part of the ‘BRICS’ nations, which
completely go against what makes a country third world or not. This is because
countries like India and Brazil have experienced reductions in poverty and strong
economic growth. The World Bank president Robert B. Zoellick stated that ‘If 1989 saw the end of the “second world”
with Communism’s demise, then 2009 saw the end of what was known as the “Third
World”. We are now in a new, fast evolving multipolar world economy’. This
tells us that many people, especially those in prominent positions also believe
that such a concept is out-dated and irrelevant, especially in today’s world.

though there are strong advocates for the irrelevance of the third world, there
are those that do believe the term does hold a place in today’s vocabulary.
According to theorist Nico Smit, ‘The
arguments that will be presented here in defence of the concept of the Third
World are grouped around three major themes: namely, geopolitics, the Third
World as a reference point for development in global politics, and what Arif
Dirlik refers to as “global modernity”‘.  Smit goes on to explain that in geopolitical
terms ‘it nevertheless remains both
illuminating and relevant when the emphasis is on geopolitical relationships
and process’. What Smit means by this is that a third world country is in a
state of underdevelopment and has untapped resources which is not being used
for the betterment of the state. The other two subjects Smit is referring are
more to do with Modernization Theory. Modernization Theory is a theory used to
explain the process of modernization that a nation goes through as it transitions
from a traditional society into a modern one. Regarding this topic what
Modernization theory suggests is that the Third World is a segment of the
international community that was in effect left behind in the race towards
development which usually is due to the fact that they were all former colonies
and that this hindered their path to development. What Smit is trying to say is
that taking this into account using the term Third World highlights the
inequality there is in the world and that there needs to be some sort of action
that can allow third world countries to progress into becoming equal status
with that of First World countries.

makes the notion of third world valid is that it’s being continually used. Its
continued use shows us that the belief that a third world exists is still in
people’s minds. With this use of branding developing countries, third world, we
can see that even though the term has become inapplicable it has not yet ceased
to exist due to the term still bearing some sort of meaning in certain
contexts. The theorist Tomlinson actually states that ‘over the last few decades, the term Third World has been used
interchangeably with the ‘Global South’ and ‘Developing Countries’ to describe
poorer countries that have struggled to attain steady economic development…this
usage however, has become less  preferred
in recent years’. From this we can assume that the term may have declined
but its notion to mean something else is still alive.



Third World emerged during the backdrop of the Cold War. It was employed to
mean a country that was not a part of the two superpower blocs that had been
created after the end of the Second World War. However, the end of the Cold War
along with the break-up of the Soviet Union and thus the disappearance of the
Second World, called into question the relevance of the concept of a Third
World. From what I have gathered I can say that the notion of a Third World
remains alive to both academics and the public. With that, the changing of the
very meaning of, Third World, helped keep the phrase still active in
International Politics. My personal belief is that the Third World is simply a
relic of the Cold War however the term itself can mean what anyone wants it to
mean as it does not have a clear definition. 

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