Whether in best-selling books or casual dinner conversations, we use the term “Third World” much more than we should. Today, the term is synonymous with poor countries, while the “First World” refers to more advanced economies. Second World isn’t as common, except in history textbooks. If you remember your Cold War history, the Second World included the Soviet Union, China and their allies.
And that’s my point. First, Second and Third World are Cold War era terms that denoted political alliances. First World was the United States, the UK and their allies. You already know Second World, and the Third World was any unaligned country. Notice there is no reference to economy.
Over time the term morphed. “Second World” fell out of use, while First and Third World became more of an economic characterization of countries. But, as you can see from the map below, some poorer countries, such as those in southern Africa, were “First World” countries (colored blue). Other poorer countries were “Second World” countries (red). And more confusing, some richer countries, take Switzerland as a prime example, were “Third World.” Today, it seems “Third World” simply refers to “other,” or not advanced, or not developed.
Over time, the terms “developed” and “developing” came into use in international development circles. But, these have their own loopholes. Ask anyone in the United States if the economy was “developing” in 2009 during the so-called Great Recession. The word “developed” denotes some sense of termination, that the process of “developing” is complete. Aren’t all economies in a constant state of transition and fluidity? In essence, aren’t all economies still developing?
I say this because how we characterize countries (and therefore people) means something. Most of all, some terms confer judgement. And it’s these judgements that form our perceptions of the world, of what’s possible and not possible. As long as we continue to view some countries as “unaligned” (the Third World) to the prevailing norms of the world (the First World), our hopes for progress will remain fragile.