Why you should stop using the term "third world countries"

Why you should stop using the term “third world countries”

It is not uncommon for people to use the phrases “First World Country” and “Third World Country” to describe various parts of the world today. Interestingly, I almost never hear anyone describe a country as a “Second World Country”, ever wonder why that is?  Mostly this has to do with the history of the phrases and their true meanings. Amusingly when I set out to write this article I was under the impression that the original terms has nothing to do with economics or development and instead was based solely on socio-political lines on the globe. The truth is that shortly after the United Nations was born in 1945 it set about the arduous task of developing a manner in which to compare the wealth of nations. In doing so they created the terms “First World”, “Second World”, “Third World”, and “Fourth World” to describe both the economic and political landscape of the world [1]. Although at least one source I have reviewed states that the term “Fourth world was not coined until much later in the 1970’s [2].

Essentially, first and second world countries were the wealthy industrialized nations of the world.  First world countries were the democratic “free” countries of the world. Sometimes I have seen the first world descreibed as America and its allies during the cold war.  The second world countries were the socialist-communist countries of the world. Or, also sometimes described as the USSR and its allies throughout the cold war. The third world were all of those remaining countries that were unaligned.  Eventually the term fourth world was created to describe the indigenous people living within the borders of other nations who are not necessarily associated with the governments of those nations, for example Native American tribes and Aborigines.

Because of the nature of the Cold War, the primary distinction that was focused on in these characterizations in general usage was the political nature of the countries in each “world”.  Over time, as the cold war ended and the USSR fell, these distinctions lost their value and people began to focus on the more economic aspect of the separation of the nations.  However, again as time marched on, not only did the political nature of the countries of the world change (China was not a communist country in 1945 and thus was not a second world, or USSR aligned, country) but the economic development of nations have risen and fallen as well. China which is a generally wealthy and industrialized Communist nation should reasonably be classified as a second world country by the original classification but seems to be described as both a first world and a third world country depending on context and the region of the country being discussed about.  Other countries throughout south america while relatively wealthy and developed would technically be third world because they were unaligned during the cold war. Essentially, despite their continued popular usage the terms lost their descriptive value. Greenland and Saudi Arabia are technically third world countries as well despite their economic prowess/stability.

Eventually, the more politically correct terms of Developed, Developing, and Underdeveloped countries came about as a means of describing the relative wealth and industrialization of the countries of the world. However, these terms too have their setbacks. The make no account of countries in economic decline, which there has been a lot of in the past decade.  Most recently the  World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) group of the U.N. uses three broad categories to classify countries:  developed economies, economies in transition and developing economies [3]. Unfortunately it seems that political correctness is getting in the was causing ambiguous use of language as any country that is developing would necessarily be in a state of transition making the terminology more cloudy than it need be.  Further, the WESP itself recognizes that some countries could actually fit in multiple categories[4]. So in the end, unfortunately, while I would still make the case that you should not continue using the term “third world countries” to describe parts of the globe, I don’t actually have any good suggestions about what you should use in its place.

Let me know what you think and maybe I’ll take your suggestions!


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