An acquaintance was grumbling about the deteriorating condition of streets in a neighborhood near his home. “It’s like a Third World country,” he said. I wondered aloud what it would take to improve that neighborhood to Second World status. He gave me a wry smile, as if to say, “Shut up, Tom.” It’s a reasonable question though, isn’t it? I mean, we all seem to have a mental picture of what a Third World country looks like, so — what is the Second World? And who established the rankings?
This particular Three World concept originated with some French historians and anthropologists in the 1950s. That was during the so-called Cold War, when the United States and its allies faced off against the Soviet Union, with both sides threatening to blow the planet into fragments just to teach the other guy a lesson. It was in that political context that Frenchman Alfred Sauvy wrote a think piece in which he designated the developed capitalist countries (U.S. and friends) as the First World, and the Soviet bloc as the Second World. If the author had been Bulgarian, first and second probably would have been reversed.
The Third World, in Sauvy’s arrangement, was the group of countries that were not politically aligned with either of the other two “worlds”, and didn’t have the financial resources to build mega-bombs of their own. That basically meant countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, most of which had been colonies of First and Second World countries.
Sauvy may have borrowed his Three World concept from earlier triple-tiered visions of society, such as the Three Estates of the Middle Ages. In that scheme, the First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate was the nobility, and the Third Estate was the people who worked for a living, and who were compelled to provide financial support for the first two estates. The French Revolution was an attempt to reorganize that arrangement.
At any rate, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the First World and Second World designations pretty much disappeared, but the term Third World is still around. It is currently used not in a political sense, but an economic one. Third World, as we know, is now a synonym for the poor countries of the world. I should point out that the term “developing country” is preferred, especially in developing countries, for the same reason that people would rather be characterized as “seniors” or “generously proportioned”, rather than “geezers” or “obese”.
Instead of Three Worlds, then, what we now have is developed countries, and we have developing countries. There are statistical tables that enable economists and social scientists to determine which countries fit into each category. From my own personal experience, though, here’s a handy rule of thumb: A developed country is one where the average person (Third Estate) has access to paved roads and flush toilets. A developing country is one that does not have telemarketers yet.