What Is Third World?

"Third World" is a phrase frequently used to describe a developing nation. Despite its current usage, the phrase emerged during the Cold War to identify countries whose views did not align with NATO and capitalism or the Soviet Union and communism. The First World described countries whose views aligned with NATO and capitalism and the Second World referred to countries that supported communism and the Soviet Union.

Third World countries referenced the nations, mostly in Asia and Africa that were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union. The United States was considered a member of the First World, and Russia was considered a member of the Second World. Now, because the Soviet Union no longer exists, the definition of "Third World" is less precise and, thus, more open to interpretation.

Key Takeaways

  • A Third World country is a developing nation characterized by poverty and a low standard of living for much of its population.
  • The term developing country is a preferred term when referring to economically developing nations. 
  • The WTO provides certain rights and assistance to countries that declare developing country status.

Developing Nations and Third World Countries

Third World countries are typically poor with underdeveloped economies. In these countries, low levels of education, poor infrastructure, improper sanitation, and limited access to health care mean living conditions are inferior to those in the world's more developed nations. There is no agreed-upon definition of "developing nation." The terms Third World country and developing nation have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. The World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, has no exact definition for a developing country although it recognizes the United Nations' list of least-developed countries, which include Afghanistan, Haiti, Uganda, and Yemen, among dozens of others.

World Trade Organization members self-declare whether they are developed or developing countries. Certain rights come with developing country status with the WTO. For example, the WTO grants developing countries longer transition periods before implementing agreements that aim to increase trading opportunities and infrastructure support related to WTO work. While a country can self-declare its developing status with the WTO, other member nations can challenge that member's declaration. Should this happen, it would threaten the declaring member's ability to use the WTO provisions provided to developing countries. The Human Development Index (HDI) is a metric developed by the United Nations to assess the social and economic development levels of countries. The HDI measures and then ranks a country based on schooling, life expectancy, and gross national income per capita.

Real World Example

Alfred Sauvy, a French demographer, anthropologist, and historian, is credited with coining the term Third World during the Cold War. Sauvy observed a group of countries, many former colonies, that did not share the ideological views of Western capitalism or Soviet socialism. "Three worlds, one planet," wrote Sauvy in a 1952 article published in L'Observateur.

Sentiment exists that the term Third World is not politically correct because of its association with poverty. The Associated Press style guide recommends the use of developing country over the Third World when referring to economically developing nations of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.