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What Do You Call A Third World Country

What do you call a third world country I typed the phrase “third world country” in a previous entry on this travelogue. I looked at what I wrote. I remembered an obtuse lesson in political correctness that I received in my college days: “There is no such thing as a third world country, there is [...]

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What do you call a third world country

I typed the phrase “third world country” in a previous entry on this travelogue.

I looked at what I wrote. I remembered an obtuse lesson in political correctness that I received in my college days:

“There is no such thing as a third world country, there is only one world. To differentiate between first and third world countries, we say northern and southern.”

I just nodded my head in agreement with the college activists who was speaking in front of a group of unquestioning youth:

“Yup, yup, there really is only one world, there is no such thing as a third world country, yup, yup. We are the good guys, yup, yup, we use polite words, they are the bad guys yup, yup, they say third world.”

The pursuit of understanding can often turn a man stupid, to read words literally is to blind yourself to their meaning. How else could I explain away the fact that I nodded my head in unison with a group of 20 something robots who cared more about self-righteous political correctness than concrete matters of physical geography? For how else could I attest to the fact that Australia is one of the most southern inhabited continents on the globe, while at the same time being one of the highest developed? Or that South Africa is the most southern country of the African continent but is also the most economically advanced? Not to mention Argentina or New Zealand?

But when humans think and act in groups matters of obvious fact are often reduced to mere trifles, as it is the collectively believed myth that takes precedence over all logic or cartographic proof. We boasted of our valor for unraveling the falsity behind the term “Third World” while ignoring the falsities that we were creating. We were directed that we should call first world countries “northern” and third world countries “southern,” and this is what we did.

We also used the term “Western” rather than First World to indicate countries of high economic development — which seemed very much at odds with the fact that Japan and Taiwan appeared to be positioned pretty far to the east on my maps.

Nearly a decade has past since the days I related to above, but the use of this directional terminology for referring to economic development keep rising up in politically correct conversation — even though it is in no way more correct than using the conventional standards of dividing the planet into developmental categories with the terms first and third worlds.

We are all one world . . . But Australia is definitely not Northern and Japan is definitely not Western

So I return to my original question:

What do you call a Third World country?

I often hear the phrase “developing nation” to indicate what the countries that came to fall under the “Third World” tag, but I must request someone to show me a country that is not developing? All countries, places, regions are constantly in the flux of development. It has always been like this — there are only gradient scales of development, and most countries have “developed” and “undeveloped” sectors that stand and drastic odds with each other. Therefore, I see no point at which a country can claim to be developed:

“Whoo, glad that we are done with that developing nonsense. We have now past puberty and can put a halt to all of this growing and changing bullshit, we are an adult country now, fully developed.”

No, all countries are developing in some capacity, this term, too, does not make any sense.

So I am back to using a First World/ Third World dichotomy to describe my world in bulk. In their abstraction, they are at least not complete geographical misnomers.

Where did the term third world country come from?

The divisions between first, second, and third world countries arose during the height of the Cold War. The term “First World” was used to indicate the United States, NATO, and its allies, “Second World” was used for the Soviet Union and Communist countries, and the only thing that the term “Third World” was initially meant to signify was that a country was left out of the Cold War.

But then the Soviet Union crumbled — making the First, Second, Third World designations that once divided the world nonsense — and this designation took on new meaning. It was perhaps noticed that certain other patterns besides political affiliation held First and Third World countries together as rough entities, and the nomenclature stuck — perhaps for the lack of another term.

The terms “First World” and “Third World” are now basically general terms to address a country’s economic and social development — the poor, mostly tropical countries of the planet are the Third World, the wealthier, more developed countries are known as the “First World.” This is what we know these terms to mean today — they have grown beyond their molds and found themselves filling a terminological hole left otherwise empty.

In point, there are marked similarities in material wealth, education, and the economies of First World countries — and the need for a blanket term to describe them altogether exists. As different as the USA and Japan are culturally, there is still a common thread that binds them as being part of the “First World.” This designation could begin with an analysis of economic and educational facts and figures but would soon fall down to the street, and similarities such as the availability and efficiency of municipal services, lack of garbage in the streets, better maintained roads, safer drinking water, etc would quickly rise to the surface.

By the same token, there are also similarities that bind together Third World countries that go far beyond their non-committal position in the Cold War. Many of the Third World countries are radically different from each other culturally and spatially, but there is an approach to living and an economic structure that is similar. Many of these countries also claim to be developing economically, they say that they are modernizing, globalizing . . . But the only continuous thread that holds all Third World countries together is that they request — and receive — economic aid from wealthier, First World, Northern, Western countries.

The defining characteristics of a Third World country are put forth below by Gerard Chaliand:

The underdevelopment of the third world is marked by a number of common traits; distorted and highly dependent economies devoted to producing primary products for the developed world and to provide markets for their finished goods; traditional, rural social structures; high population growth; and widespread poverty. –Definition of Third World Country

As the world further binds together economically and politically there arose a need for such overly general terms to denote economic and social development — such as First and Third World — terms that quickly describe, categorize, and organize together huge sects of the countries on the planet. Communication begs for the use of such broad terms, and although they may not prove to be literally correct, their need is attested to by how often they are called for in both written and spoken interaction.

All too often I find people pausing before using blanket terms such as Third World, Developing country, and Western — or at least they should pause, as there is not a good option that is understandable, correct, and makes sense. It is difficult to bundle together all of the countries of the world into neat packages, placing broad rules upon a world that refuses to be completely classifiable — but there are observable patterns and similarities that begs for generalized terms.

But the fact of the matter is that terminology does not need to make sense, it does not need to meet the standards of political correctness, or even stand up to the test of fact: terminology just needs to be understood within the groups that they are used.

I could very well call developed countries “peanut butter,” and Third World countries “jelly” if you would understand what I was talking about. The fact of the matter is that when I write the blanket term “Third World Country,” I am understood. Words are merely symbols with little inherent meaning, as a symbol only means something when a group of people agree on what it indicates.

In this pursuit of understanding I began questioning the meaning of words, I began demanding that terms make literal sense, and I undermined the very principles of human communication:

Words, terms, are just verbal symbols, they do not need sense to work.

So what do you call a Third World Country?

Third World, developing, southern, poor, tropical — in the end, they all work the same.

Filed under: Economics, Geography, Language, Politics

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3703 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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14 comments… add one

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  • Bob L July 28, 2010, 8:01 am

    Very well written and informative.

    I suppose we could call them Doner Nations and Reciever Nations…. That is how they refer to towns in my state relative to some goofy setup they have for financing state controlled education.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 28, 2010, 11:06 am

      Doner and reciever nations, this would probably the most accurate terminology — and would jive well with the ideological constructs of globalization. I would have figured that someone would have came up with an exact formula with exact terminology by now — the data is available. The map above comes close to showing the development layout of the planet — though I have a difficult time believing that some of those South American countries should be green. This is an interesting time to be studying the world — we are so mixed up and mashed together that nobody even know how to come up with terms to describe what is even readily observed.

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      • Bob L July 28, 2010, 11:35 am

        I suppose it depends on what the reviewer considers “Advanced”. Does crapping in a bucket and not owning a car, only a bicycle constitute underdeveloped, or very developed? Many people are going “Green” in the US and other places by getting rid of their car, using a bike to get around, and composting thier “waste” instead of dumping it into a sewer, eventually to go to the ocean. They are also getting smaller houses, or other living arangements etc.

        Those who are doing this would consider themselves very advanced. If you talk tell people in so called under-developed nations that working in a cubicle for 8 to 10 hours a day, 5 to 6 days a week, not to mention the 1 hour each way comute and only seeing your family for a short time before bed, and maybe on Sundays….. well, I don’t think many would consider THAT very advanced, now would they?

        It all depends on your perspective. Although, with most studies of any kind, it really only matters who is providing the money and what THEY want the study to show.

        Bob L

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 30, 2010, 3:58 pm


          Pure wisdom. Though I suppose advanced means “having the option,” as the self touted “advance” bucket crapping bicycle riders in the USA have the option to use toilets or access all of the amenities that the developed world offers — but they choose not to where it is not overly inconvenient.

          I suppose this also works in the “developing” world as working long hours answering phones in a call center and living in relatively expensive high rises is also seen as advanced because it demonstrates a choice: a choice to work in the corporate sector over staying in your family’s village farming or fishing.

          You analysis of “scientific” studies is also right on, as studies need money to function and this money all too often comes from places that have vested interests in the results. The art of ommission is a powerful and valuable tool to use, where there is a hypothesis there is often a drive to prove it. Humans have the amazing ability to not fully realize when they are looking the other way.



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          • Bob L July 30, 2010, 10:13 pm

            “Pure wisdom. Though I suppose advanced means “having the option,” as the self touted “advance” bucket crapping bicycle riders in the USA have the option to use toilets or access all of the amenities that the developed world offers — but they choose not to where it is not overly inconvenient.”


            Yes, that is an interesting way to put it. Some of the conversations relative to simple, inexpensive etc living and all the other “crap” (an all inclusive term of categorizing what we do to live happy”) A conversation going around is that those that most need to learn to live cheap (poor) don’t have the time to learn to live poor. That living frugal is almost a luxury that the poor don’t have time, energy and the training for.

            My (rather minimal) observations show that people that live like those you are living around know how to live well on what is available. City people seem to know how to live well in the city. Country people seem to know how to live well in the country. When Governments stay out of things, and when major disasters stay out of things, people find ways to survive in comfort. It is when people move from the country to the city, or when the Governments try to “fix” things or when things suddenly change or when people without “stuff” are shown how “great” life would be if they had more “stuff” that that people seem to become more unhappy. Understand that this is my HIGHLY biased wine induced opinion.

            Bob L

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            • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 31, 2010, 4:13 pm

              Excellent point. People will adapt to their environments and live up to their means. Barring drastic impacts, most people in the world live well within their own sphere.

              I cannot buy the argument that the poor of countries like the USA don’t have time to live cheaper. It takes simple common sense and will power to save money, not time to read books or blogs. Though it is my impression that if people in the USA really did need to live frugal they would, but they don’t — so they spend their money on crap and whine about being poor. Back to your point: people live up to their means, they survive well in their own environment.

              Though this is the opinion of someone from “poor” stock. My parents worked hard, lived frugal, and made a life for themselves from scratch. They did not need time to learn to live frugal, they just realized that life is about choices: they could create a good home for their kids or they could buy cheesey poofs and beer and squander the little money they made. They worked hard, my mother went to college in her late thirties, my father went to trade school, they knew how to “live poor” and they left poverty behind.

              Just about anyone in the USA could do the same if they wanted to — but they don’t, and this is alright, too. Who wants to live like they are poor?

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    • Reddi Vid October 29, 2015, 1:14 pm

      Or even major polluters and minor polluters?

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  • Mike Crosby July 28, 2010, 7:37 pm

    You’re a wise man, my friend.

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  • Hotel Santa Monica August 1, 2010, 10:23 pm

    What a great look at one of the more sensitive subjects world wide.. Very very fair!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 4, 2010, 1:19 pm

      Thanks. It is interesting to note a movement in the third world where members of the upper/ educated classes make themselves upset at any broad definition an outsider uses to describe the region they are from. Political correctness has laid the groundwork for power plays the world over.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 4, 2010, 1:25 pm

      Thanks. It is interesting to note a movement in the third world where members of the upper/ educated classes make themselves upset at any broad definition an outsider uses to describe the region they are from. Political correctness has laid the groundwork for power plays the world over.

      I am from the countryside of western New York State in the USA of North America in the Western Hemisphere on planet earth. Any way of defining where I come from would be correct.

      Conversation often demands a certain resolution through which people communicate. If I am talking specifically about Ethiopia then I call the people Ethiopians, if I am speaking of Africa in general then I use the word, Africans, if I am speaking of the entire third world ultra-generally then I could choose any of the terms discussed above. All would be correct if used at the proper resolution.

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  • Thomas Robb October 11, 2010, 12:14 am

    In reference to First World (Donor) nations and Third World (Receiver) nations you could also say white nations and non-white nations. This is not totally correct but it is no more incorrect than the other terms suggested.

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  • David Neale August 24, 2011, 1:31 pm

    There are a number of very good points made here.
    What I cannot quite grasp is, why there has to be so called “Third World Countries”. Many of these countries are the proverbial gold mines of the entire world. They have varying degrees of wealth in their back gardens but unfortunately they do not receive the full benefit of their resources, if any at all. We in the so called first world reap the benefit by way of cheap goods/food. The rulers/governments within these counties also seem to gain great wealth, leaving a large gap between the rich and the poor. If we add to this corruption within governments creaming off the fat, the gap widens between the haves and the have not’s, poverty and political unrest is imminent.
    Most people in this world of ours are happy just to have a roof over their heads, enough good food and clean drinking water for their families. In the so called 1st world we want that and more. It is the “more” I am sure exasperates the 3rd world issues. There are those that do not know where “more“should end. There is only so much money that a person can spend in their lifetime. If there is a little extra to help your offspring on the ladder of life, then that has to be acceptable, as surely that is what life is about, procreating the species.
    My point is that I think the wealth and resources, currently available, within the” one world” are sufficient to satisfy everybody. The problem is the distribution. If distribution of wealth were to be more evenly spread, we may then only have to refer to ONE WORLD.
    My views are hopefully not taken as a political stand point. Although reading back I see a resemblance to a now defunct order. Not for me. I base my thoughts from a humanitarian point of view.

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    • Wade Shepard August 24, 2011, 5:10 pm

      Hello David,

      Good points!

      It is my impression that there are differentions between “first world” and “third world” countries as there are attributes of development, standard of living, and culture that are similar between the members of both groups. I.e. the USA, Australia, Japan, and England have many easily observable economic and social similarities and the same goes for Nicaragua, Laos, and Albania. It is my impression that, as of now, countries can still be grouped by such parameters.

      But this is all being flipped upon its head, as the historically poor countries of the world are becoming BOOMING economic powerhouses while the old guard are deep in recession. Colombia, Brazil, Thailand . . . are rising fast in the world of economics, and the standard of living in these places are rising proportionately. While the USA, England, Western Europe, Japan are falling.

      Soon we may have a one world system.

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