What is a Third World Country? - Definition & Examples

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

This lesson explains the term Third World country, originally a political term from the Cold War era of the 1950s. Both the original meaning and the more common economic usage are discussed.

Origin of the Term Third World

Sally is taking a class on different types of societies. Her teacher, Mr. Blunt, is beginning a unit on Third World countries. What are they, and why does she need to know?

Mr. Blunt starts by showing how the terms First World, Second World and Third World came into use during the Cold War conflict between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and their allies. The capitalist powers became the First World, and the communist powers became the Second World.

It's unclear if Alfred Sauvy or Charles de Gaulle should get the credit for coining the terms, but either way, it was a representative of the First World country of France that first used the terms sometime in the early 1950s.

Mr. Blunt goes on to explain that the term Third World was originally defined as all those states that didn't involve themselves in the Cold War conflict of ideologies. This loose conglomeration of countries included most of Africa, almost all of Central and South America, most of the Baltic States and the Middle East, most of the southern Asian countries from Afghanistan to Thailand as well as most of the island nations between Australia and southern Asia. These varied states included rich and poor nations and also communist and capitalist nations.

Current Usage and Definition

After reading her assignment, Sally understands there have been many shifts and changes in the geopolitical world since the 1950s. 'Everyone else' now includes many countries that have become industrialized and some quite wealthy states. So much has changed in the intervening decades that most sources today use the original political terms to describe the level of economic and industrial development of a country.

The First World countries are those that are the rich, developed nations, which would include the richest and most powerful nations from both sides of the Cold War conflict. Second World countries have a fair degree of development and wealth (but not as much as the richest nations), and the Third World countries are undeveloped or underdeveloped and poor.

Although there are certainly nations that have moved from Third World status to Second or First World status given this change in definition, many of the Third World countries still lie predominantly in the same regions using either definition: South America, Africa, and southern Asia.

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