What does 'Third World' mean

"Third World" is a phrase frequently used to describe a developing nation. Despite its current usage, the phrase "Third World" arose 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.

BREAKING DOWN 'Third World'

Third World countries referenced the nations, mostly in Asia and Africa, that were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union, which are considered to be in the First World and Second World, respectively. Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists, the definition of "Third World" is not as precise and, thus, more open to interpretation.

Developing Nations and Third World Countries

Third World countries are largely characterized as poor and underdeveloped. In these countries, low levels of education, poor infrastructure, improper sanitation and poor access to health care mean living conditions are seen as inferior to those in the world's more developed nations. As a result, the terms Third World country and developing nation have become increasingly interchangeable in recent decades. There is, however, no agreed-upon definition of "developing nation" either. The World Trade Organization (WTO), for example, has no exact definition for "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. There are certain rights that come with having a developing country status with the WTO. For example, the WTO grants developing countries longer transition periods before implementing agreements, measures 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 a member's decision to self-declare as a developing nation, which would threaten that member's ability to make use of the 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.

Additional Characteristics of Third World Countries

One of the earliest known iterations of the phrase "Third World" comes from French demographer Alfred Sauvy, who's credited with coining the term during the Cold War. At the time, Sauvy observed a group of countries, many former colonies, that didn't share the ideological views of Western capitalism or Soviet socialism. "Three worlds, one planet," wrote Sauvy in a 1952 article published in L'Observateur.

There is some present sentiment that the term "Third World" isn't politically correct due to its association with poverty. The Associated Press recommends the use of "developing country" over Third World when referring to economically developing nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. 

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