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Third World

  The concept of the Third World was initially a political idea and has subsequently been used, rather inappropriately, as an economic one. In the 1950s, there were two opposed geopolitical blocs: the NATO alliance of liberal democracies (the First World) versus the Soviet bloc of state socialist countries (the Second World). There was also a growing number of newly independent countries eager to separate themselves from the colonial powers. The idea of the Third World was at first used to describe those countries which were not part of either bloc, but there was also an active ‘non-aligned movement’ intended to promote the interests of the Third World. This movement was a loose one, partly because leading members tended to fall into one or other of the opposing camps, partly because the Third World was very heterogeneous and partly because decolonization quadrupled the number of countries from the initial 30.

Although the initial definition was in terms of political affiliation, it was also true that the countries of the First World were economically the most developed, that those of the Second were industrialized, though at a lower level of prosperity, and those of the Third were much poorer. The term soon began to be used, along with rough equivalents such as underdeveloped, less developed or developing, to refer to economic status. As the Cold War reached its height and then began to thaw the term Third World became primarily a description of economic development.

The division into three worlds was always problematic: for instance some countries were difficult to classify and, as already mentioned, the Third World was and is culturally and economically very diverse. China, with a fifth of the world\'s population, was initially counted as part of the Second World, but after its split with the USSR it was simultaneously communist, undeveloped and non-aligned, and consequently differently classified by different people. More serious were the internal variations, which grew as some Third World countries developed in certain ways. Again, there are different classifications, but there are now huge differences between oil-exporting countries (some of which have an income per capita similar to the First World), newly industrializing countries (some of which began to close the income gap in the 1970s), middle developing countries (those neither conspicuously successful or unsuccessful), and least developed countries (countries with an average income of only a few hundred dollars sometimes known as Fourth World countries). The 30 or so countries in the latter group, including China and India, comprise half the world\'s population and produce about a twentieth of its wealth. Even omitting the dubious case of China, the Third World as a whole has half the world\'s population and half its land surface, but produces only a fifth of its wealth,

It has long been argued that the term Third World is outmoded. If a broad description of economic development is needed ‘more versus less developed’ is a preferable term, because it suggests a continuum rather than sharply separated groups and accords more comfortably with the concept of uneven development. The collapse of the Second World makes the original concept of three worlds a nonsense and provides an ideal opportunity to adopt different terminology. However, there are still great differences between more and less-developed countries, and there could be a renewed emphasis on the division between North and South, as defined by the Brandt Report. Divisions between North and South have been apparent in recent negotiations over GATT and global warming, but the concept of sustainable development is designed to reduce the differences between countries as well as to solve environmental problems. PS

Further reading B. Crow and , A. Thomas, Third World Atlas.



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