The origins of the Third World
In the 19th century the world was largely divided into several empires, each of which possessed a “civilized” center and peripheries that were more or less considered primitive or even “barbaric.” It is unlikely that the citizens of what is now often called the "Global North" ("developed" or high-income countries) would have given much thought to the inhabitants of what was to become known as the Third World, and now, the Global South, also called "developing" or low-income countries. When they did, most would have considered these peoples to be inferior in some way, by virtue of being non-white, less educated, or even “primitive.”
This began to change, including through the work of Colin Clark (the PhD supervisor of the late Max Neutze AO, one of my own PhD supervisors) who in 1940 published “Conditions of Economic Progress,” which showed the world to be, as one reviewer commented, “a wretchedly poor place.”
The term "the Third World" was coined in 1952 by the French demographer, anthropologist, and economic historian Alfred Sauvy, who compared it with the Third Estate, a concept that emerged in the context of the French Revolution. (First Estate refers to the clergy and the monarch, Second Estate to the nobility, and Third Estate to the balance of the eighteenth-century French population—as much as 98 percent.) The Third World, as a phrase, also achieved acceptance because it usefully contrasted the poor countries to the First World (the non-Communist, high-income, “developed” countries) and the Second World (Communist countries, which though not as wealthy as those of the First World, were then characterized by greater order, higher incomes, and longer life expectancies.)
Opposition to domination by the First World (colonization) also grew through increasing migration and travel, including that stimulated by the two World Wars. Many troops who had participated in these wars, particularly on the allied side, were from what was soon to be called the Third World. In addition, many Europeans served in Asia, and their exposure to conditions in the colonies may have helped to erode the resolve of the colonial powers to keep their empires unbroken.
The 1970s was a period of foment in the developing countries. Many improvements in living standards and life expectancy rates had been achieved in the 1950s, but by the 1970s these advances were stalling. Impatience in the Third World was growing. In 1973 OPEC substantially raised the price of oil, triggering the first global oil crisis. This had a major adverse economic effect upon the non-oil-exporting countries of the Third World, and revealed a lack of solidarity within the Third World overall. Parallel to this, the developed countries (prior to the discovery and development of the North Sea oil fields) were becoming increasingly dependent on the Third World for energy, due to the decline of U.S. oil reserves.
It is unlikely to be coincidental that the terms the South and the North were first widely used around this time. These terms appear to have entered common usage as an alternative to the long-standing geographical and cultural partition of the world into West and East. The new names avoided the stigma associated with the term the Third World, and created the hope that a new world order—one in which the North would be fairer to the South—was underway.
In recent years (since my encyclopaedia entry was published) the South is now generally called the "Global South", to reduce confusion with the South of the US, a confusion which I noticed with some of the editorial staff of the Encyclopaedia in which a version of this was originally published.
Arnold, Guy. 1993. The End of the Third World. London and New York: St Martin’s Press.
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Hosle, Vittorio. 1992. The Third World as a Philosophical Problem. Social Research 59 (2): 227–262.
Kahin, George McTurnan. 1956. The Asian-African Conference. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Rothbarth, Erwin. 1941. Review of The Conditions of Economic Progress, by Colin Clark. Economic Journal 51 (201): 120–124.
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