The third world is the group of "underdeveloped" countries of the world. Many of these are located in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. They are often nations that were colonized by another nation in the past. The populations of third world countries are generally very poor but with high birth rates. In general they are not as industrialized or technologically advanced as the first world. The majority of the countries in the world fit this classification.
The term was coined by economist Alfred Sauvy in an article in the French magazine The Observer of August 14, 1952. It was a deliberate reference to the 'Third Estate' of the French Revolution. Tiers monde means third world in French. The term gained widespread popularity during the Cold War when many poorer nations adopted the category to describe themselves as neither being aligned with NATO or the USSR, but instead composing a non-aligned "third world."
Leading members of this original "third world" movement were Yugoslavia, Indonesia, and Egypt. Many third world countries believed they could successfully court both the communist and capitalist nations of the world, and develop key economic partnerships without necessarily falling under their direct influence. In practice, this plan did not work out quite so well; many third world nations were exploited or undermined by the two superpowers who feared these supposedly neutral nations were in danger of falling into alignment with the enemy.
When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union collapsed, the third world found itself suddenly no longer relevant to much of the world. All across the globe, many third world regimes that had stayed in power by playing one side against the other in the Cold War quickly crumbled from lack of support. In some situations corrupt dictatorships were removed, democracy was introduced, and the nations were able to make significant economic progress, creating several newly industrializing countries. In other cases the corrupt, outdated regimes remained, and their people soon became poorer than ever.
The dependency theory suggests that multinational corporations, the legacy of colonialism, and organizations such as the IMF and World Bank have contributed to third world countries relying on first world countries for economic survival. The theory posits that this dependence is self-maintaining because the economic systems tend to benefit first world countries and multinationals. Scholars also question whether the idea of development is biased in favor of Western thought. They debate whether population growth is a main source of problems in the third world or if the problems are more complex and thorny than that. Policy makers disagree on how much involvement first world countries should have in the third world and whether third world debts should be canceled.
The issues are complicated by the stereotypes of what third world and first world countries are like. People in the first world, for example, often desribe third world countries as underdeveloped, overpopulated, and oppressed by their lack of capitalist representative democracy. Third world people are sometimes portrayed as uneducated, helpless, or backwards. Modern scholarship has taken steps to make academic discourse more conscious of the differences not only between the first world and the third world, but differences among the countries and people of each category.