The Third World
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The Third World

The Third World may continue to exist, but the changing context confronts it with new challenges and opportunities

Post by on Wednesday, June 23, 2021

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The term ‘Third World’ has long served to describe countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America that have been seen to share relatively low per-capita incomes, high rates of illiteracy, limited development of industry, agriculture based economies, short life expectancies, low degrees of social mobility, and unstable political structures. The 120 countries of the Third World also share a history of unequal encounters with the West, mostly through colonialism and globalization.


During the Cold War (1945–1991), Third World referred to countries that were relatively minor players on the international stage, strategic though they sometimes were to the United States and the Soviet Union as these superpowers sought to maintain their balance of terror. The tendency was to essentialize, oversimplify, and homogenize complex identities and diversities in the political systems of the Third World by focusing too narrowly on the politics of bipolarity. Yet the so-called Third World countries always had many more divergences than similarities in their histories, cultures, demographies, climates, and geographies, and a great variation in capacities, attitudes, customs, living standards, and levels of underdevelopment or modernization.


Unilinear assumptions of modernization also encouraged pejorative connotations of the Third World as cultures and peoples trapped in tradition and custom, with a progressive few desperately seeking a ‘civilizing mission’ in order to graduate into the rights and freedoms that capitalism and its modernity promise individuals and communities. Deaf to the diversities in the history, politics, and economics of the countries in question, and to the cultural and intersubjective rationalities that give contextual meanings to development, the concept has failed to inspire a meaningful comparative analysis of development.



The term Third Worldis European in origin, but analysts have yet to agree on its genesis. Some believe it came about through the search for an explanatory ‘third way’ to the dualism of capitalism and socialism as analytical frameworks among European political scientists in the 1920s. This challenge became even more urgent in the 1950s as colonies increasingly gained independence and sought legitimacy as states and international actors in their own right. Others situate its birth with the classification of the world by the industrialized West into First (Western Europe and Japan), Second (the Soviet Bloc and its satellites), and Third (the rest) worlds. Still others have traced the term to 1940s and 1950s France, linking it with the ‘Third Estate’ in French politics—the rising but underrepresented bourgeoisie in the French Revolution of 1789, who capitalized on the quarrel between nobility and clergy. Similarly, the Cold War provided the political opportunity for the ‘third way’ in international politics, under the guidance of the newly independent developing countries. Whatever its origin, the idea of the Third World rapidly became embedded in the discourse and diplomacy of international relations, and those claiming or claimed by it were able to make the concept synonymous with radical agendas in liberation struggles and the clamor for more participatory and just international relations through new world orders.


Despite various appropriations or attempts at domesticating the concept, Third World has always been an uneasy, controversial, and polemical concept, especially to the increasingly sensitive, critical, and rights-hungry intellectuals and elites of the post colonies. In the past, there have been efforts to coin new terms to replace ‘Third World.’ From a communist revolutionary perspective, Mao Zedong formulated a theory of three worlds in which the First World consisted of the then superpowers (Soviet Union and United States), whose imperialistic policies, as he felt, posed the greatest threat to world peace. Mao placed the middle powers (Japan, Canada, and Europe) in the Second World. Africa, Latin America, and Asia (including China) formed the Third World. Others have dismissed the notion of three worlds as inadequate, and have asked for four or more worlds. To some, the Fourth World should comprise currently under recognized and underrepresented minorities, especially the indigenous ‘first’ peoples of various states and continents. Still to others, only bipolar divisions along lines of physical geography and locality make sense, regardless of the differences and inequalities that may unite people across physical boundaries or divide those within the same borders.


To others, the whole notion of worlds is misleading for various reasons. First, it implies an essential degree of separation between different parts of the globe that is simply not realistic in a globalizing world marked by multiple encounters and influences. Second, despite the efforts to stimulate and sustain Third World unity in the struggles against various forms of subjection, current obsession with belonging and boundaries have fueled the conflicts undermining Third World solidarity and action. Third, the increased degree of polarization within a global economic geography, along with the collapse of state socialism, and the insertion of capitalist social relations even among the communist giants of the world (Russia and China), suggest not a reduction but a multiplication of worlds, including the production of material conditions characteristic of the Third World even within First World societies. Fourth, the emergence of newly industrializing countries represents a form of dependent development and a further differentiation of the global economic geography. If globalization is producing Third World realities in First World contexts, it is at the same time producing First World consumers in Third World societies. In certain contexts, globalization has generated levels of poverty and victimhood that best justify the qualification as Fourth World.


Movements associated with the Third World

During the Cold War, the term Third Worldor ‘Thirdism’inspired what came to be known as the ‘non-aligned movement’ (NAM) a counterweight to the two rival Cold War blocs, and a kind of international pressure group for the Third World. NAM was founded on five basic principles—peace and disarmament; self-determination, particularly for colonial peoples; economic equality; cultural equality; and multilateralism exercised through a strong support for the United Nations. From the 1960s through the 1980s the movement used its majority voting power within the United Nations to redirect the global political agenda away from East-West wrangles over the needs of the Third World. However, in practice, with the exception of NAM’s anticolonialism, about which there could be strong agreement, the aim of creating an independent force in world politics quickly succumbed to the pressure of Cold War alliances. By the 1970s, NAM had largely become an advocate of Third World demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), a role it shared with the Group of 77, the caucusing group of Third World states within the United Nations. Through NIEO, the Third World argued in favor of a complete restructuring of the prevailing world order, which they perceived to be unjust, as the only enduring solution to the economic problems facing them. At the level of UNESCO, Third World scholars waged a war against unequal cultural exchange through calls for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). In general, the Third World wanted a new order based on equity, sovereignty, interdependence, common interest, and cooperation among all states. These demands were essentially directed at the West.


In their quest for a new world order, Third World governments found measured support among radical academics who elaborated and drew from dependency and center periphery frameworks to critique the basic tenets of modernization paradigms of development and underdevelopment. To these scholars, largely inspired by Marxism, the price of the development of the First World was the subjection to exploitation and dependency (or underdevelopment) that First World states and actors had brought to bear on the Third World through imperialism, colonialism, and globalization. Under the global capitalist system, the Third World can only play second fiddle to the real global decision-makers. This perspective explains both Third World economic underdevelopment and stalling democracy essentially in terms of the assimilation and exclusion logic of global capitalism, according to which only the handful of powerful economic elites in the Third World stand to benefit from its internalization and reproduction.


The Future of the Third World

Because the idea of the Third World was partly created and largely sustained by the logic of bipolarity that governed the Cold War era, some argue that in a unipolar world, in which the United States is the only global gendarme, to claim the same degree of existence for the Third World as in the past would be tantamount to a ‘fantasy’ with little conceptual and analytical utility. Still, some factors persist to make the Third World still relevant as a concept. In analytical terms, the Third World idea identifies a group of states whose common history of colonialism has left them in a position of economic and political weakness in the global system. In this sense, the recent alignment in global politics neither undermines the coherence of the idea nor justifies its abandonment. The Third World may continue to exist in this sense, but the changing context confronts it with new challenges and opportunities.


(Excerpt from: Stephan Satris ‘ Third World: Pros and Cons’)




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