Where on earth is the Third World?

I am curious about the origin of the phrase “Third World.” It is quite common in the mass media, and Seventh-day Adventists use it as well. What does it really mean?

The expression “Third World” (Tiers Monde) was coined by the French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952 to refer to the young nations of Asia and Africa that were moving toward independence from the European colonial powers in the aftermath of the Second World War. Sauvy saw in their aspirations similarities with the “third estate” of pre-Revolutionary France, which in the national assembly represented the common people in contradistinction to the other two minority but privileged groups—the clergy and the nobility.

After these young African and Asian nations began their independent lives, some of them tried to assume a neutral political stance vis-à-vis the “first world” of industrialized countries that followed a market economy and the “second world” of Communist nations with their government-controlled economies. Thus the meaning of “third world” began to shift from politics to economics. These were the newly independent countries that were struggling to feed, house, clothe, and educate their people while exporting primary products and battling with poverty, climate, and war as well as the lingering effects of colonialism.

As researchers and journalists popularized the label in the 1960s and 1970s, a further shift took place. “Third world” came to mean any non-white country whose social and economic instability placed them in the lowest category among other nations. Thus Latin America was added to the group of countries embraced by the term. Behind the dichotomy of the rich first world versus the poor third world, it was possible to detect feelings of national and ethnic superiority.

However, the uneven rates of industrialization among the “third-world” nations and the increasing prosperity brought to some of them by the petroleum-exporting business in the 1980s made the term almost meaningless. Are both Singapore and the Philippines “third-world” countries? What about South Africa and Mozambique, Haiti and Venezuela?

With the collapse and fragmentation of the Soviet Union and the movement toward democratic governments and market-driven economies in most Communist nations, the concept of “second world” has lost most of its political and economic meaning. In fact, currently there are as many regional and class differences within nations as there are between so-called “first” and “third” nations. Furthermore, illiteracy, high infant mortality rates, homelessness, decaying cities, and large national debts are no longer exclusive characteristics of “third-world” countries.

By now many well-informed persons have abandoned the use of this phrase due to its lack of precision. Christians, particularly, should reject expressions that categorize peoples and nations in purely materialistic terms or that foster feelings of condescension on the basis of the color of our skin. Such labels make us insensitive to the value and uniqueness of each individual in God’s sight. There is only one world and only one human family living in it.

Humberto M. Rasi, Ph.D., is editor-in-chief of Dialogue.