What is a Third World country? The answer to this question varies depending upon when in history one asks the question. The meaning of "third world" has evolved considerably since it was first introduced more than half a century ago.
Originally coined by French historian Alfred Sauvy in 1952*, "Third World" was part of the "three worlds" label system used to describe a country's political alliances. The "First World" countries were the largely democratic NATO countries such as the United States, Japan, and much of Western Europe. The "Second World" countries were the Communist Bloc countries, including the Soviet Union, China, and their allies. Finally, "Third World" countries were countries that remained neutral and allied with neither side.
However, the meaning of Third World changed after the fall of the Soviet Union (and the end of the Cold War) in the early 1990s. "Third World" lost its political root and came to refer to economically poor and non-industrialized countries, as well as newly industrialized countries. Under this modernized definition, Third World countries are those that display economic, social, political, and environmental issues such as high poverty rates, economic instability, and lack of essential human resources compared to the rest of the world.
This shifting definition has led to significant confusion as to which countries could correctly be called Third World today. For example, going by the historical definition, nations such as Finland, Sweden, Ireland, and Switzerland were not aligned with either NATO or the Communist Bloc, and so were Third World countries. However, all four countries are economically prosperous today, and as such would not be considered Third World under the current modern definition of the term.
Adding insult to inaccuracy, when used in its modern context, Third World is considered to be a derogatory term that degrades countries which are developing and/or poor. This combination of confusion and disrespect has made Third World a largely obsolete term.
Instead of describing countries as Third World, most modern speakers and writers favor more accurate, inoffensive terms such as "developing countries" and "least-developed countries" (calculated by the United Nations Human Development Index) or "low-income countries" (based upon World Bank data).
The United Nations Member States Monaco, Nauru, North Korea, and Somalia are typically excluded from the Human Development Index. Were they to be included, all but Monaco would likely rank as developing or least-developed countries.
*Some sources dispute Sauvy's statement that he invented the "three world" system and its related terms. A few sources claim Charles De Gaulle said it first, while others maintain that the United Nations had already begun using the terms in 1945 to describe the economic development of various countries.
|Central African Republic||0.404||0.407|
|Papua New Guinea||0.558||0.56|
|Republic of the Congo||0.571||0.574|
|Sao Tome and Principe||0.618||0.619|
There are 152 developing, also known as third-world, countries in the world as of the time of this writing.