We’re always hearing about the First World and the Third World. We often think of the “First World” as wealthy, fully developed nations with strong economic and political standings, and the “Third World” as developing countries that aren’t as wealthy or politically developed. But what about the Second World? Does the Second World even exist? And if so, what countries are a part of it? Let’s start by breaking down the three worlds model.
The Three Worlds Model
Developed by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, the Three Worlds Model was used to rank the development of countries and their economies during the Cold War. Keep in mind that this is different from Mao Zedong’s Three Worlds Theory.
Sauvy broke the countries of the world up into three categories: First World, Second World, and Third Word. And his criteria for each was pretty simple.
First World: NATO (or NATO-aligned) countries.
Second World: The Soviet Union and their bloc of other communist nations.
Third World: Non-aligned and neutral countries.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, many of these designations have shifted and evolved. For example, there are countries today that we might consider “First World” that aren’t actually part of NATO. Furthermore, not all “Third World” countries today are neutral. So let’s explore the modern usage of these terms a bit more.
While the term was initially used during the Cold War to describe countries that were in alignment with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and opposed to the Soviet Union, we use “First World” today to describe highly developed countries.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, First World countries are known as “the highly developed industrialized nations often considered the westernized countries of the world”. They’re typically considered those with low political risks, a high standard of living, a well-functioning democracy, and economic stability. They can be identified through various measures, such as life expectancy, literacy rates, GDP, GNP, and the Human Development Index.
Further reading: What is NATO?
During the Cold War, Third World countries were seen as those that were neither aligned with the Soviet Union or NATO. Today, our usage of “Third World” is a little more broad.
The dictionary defines Third World countries as “the aggregate of the underdeveloped nations of the world”. Today, they are commonly referred to as “developing” or “undeveloped” nations. While there isn’t one definition that’s been agreed upon universally, Third World countries can be identified by a low Human Development Index, an industrial base that’s not very developed, and a low GDP per capita in comparison with other nations. They can have various factors in common, such as high levels of pollution, low access to safe drinking water and hygiene, many road traffic accidents, low education levels, government corruption, and poverty.
But there are also countries that aren’t at the top in a political and economic sense but aren’t quite at the bottom, either. These countries are somewhere in the middle and are called Second World nations. We don’t use the term “Second World” very often, but as mentioned earlier these were originally defined as the socialist, industrial states that were under Soviet influence during the Cold War.
Second World countries are more stable and developed than the Third World, but aren’t quite on the same economic and political level as countries in the First World. They are also sometimes referred to as “emerging markets” as their economies are gradually developing and moving closer to developing First World status.
Test your knowledge with this quiz: Can you name the former Soviet states?
First, Second, Third World Today
Today, many see the Three World Model as an outdated relic of the Cold War. While the words still get used from time to time, there is no real consensus as to what countries fall within each group. As such, you don’t hear countries described as “First World” or “Second World” all that often anymore.
“Third World” is the one that seemingly gets used the most today. It’s become a blanket term for the developing world. Most credible scholars, however, prefer to use descriptors like “developing countries” or “lower-income countries” instead.
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