If I said the country Kenya, what term would you use to categorize that country? You may call it an “African country” but most likely you’ll refer to it as a “Third World country.” 

Have you ever wondered: Are there “Second World countries”?

The short answer is yes… and no, but first let’s look at the rationale you made when you refer to a country as “Third World.” 

When someone says “Third World”, we understand that to mean an impoverished country; we think of pictures of starving children and the AIDs outbreak. This is in contrast to what we think of America and European counties, as wealthy “First World” countries. The common understanding is that the degree of “world” implies its relative economic status, and so a common assumption is that if there is a Second World, maybe it’s some of those poorer countries, but aren’t like, THAT poor, like Mexico. That is actually a true example given to me when I was living in Mexico as a child, that Mexico is a Second World country, since there were still a lot of poverty, but also many well developed cities. 

The True Definition

What really is the definition of a Third World Country has nothing to do with poverty or economic status. In fact, it was a political definition used back during the Cold War to distinguish which side a given country was aligned with. This meant that generally the countries part of the NATO Treaty were considered the First World countries, but this could include countries, like Japan & Australia as well. It was just the countries that were more capitalistic in economic structure, but ultimately were opposed to the Soviet Union. Thus the Second World countries were in fact all the Soviet Union countries, like Russia, Poland, & Kazakhstan. Third World countries were meant to identify those who did not support either side, and were also referred to as the Non-Aligned countries. While this primarily were comprised of African in Latin American countries, technically, countries like Sweden, Finland, and Ireland were not politically aligned with the NATO countries and thus were also considered Third World.

Thus the three-world description was originally meant to be a dichotomy between First World & Second World countries, with Third World being those who did not engage with either side. But as time went on, and with the Cold War ended, the three-world concept became irrelevant, since there was no longer a Soviet Union, and as a result, there are no more Second World countries.

By definition, the term “Third World” is as antiquated of a term as referring New York as a “Colony.”

But one thing that also happened during that era was a strong correlation between the countries that did not partake on either First World or Second World sides also lost out on globalized trade. As First World countries continued to have large economic expansion, and the Soviet Union countries also continued to develop, many of the Third World remained quite stagnant. This stagnation led to disproportionate economic comparisons with Third World countries to either First World & Second World. And thus, Third World countries started to be observed as poor countries as well. 

Why does it matter?

It matters because words have power, and the convenience of saying “Third World” also implies their separation from us. We are the “First” world, the civilized world, the rich world, the humane world, while the Third World is the “others”. It’s us vs. them, and they are inferior to us. We know what is right and they don’t, so why don’t we just go over there and fix their problems? By using the phrase Third World, we mentally place them in a box that leads to dehumanization. If these Third World countries are poorer than us, then they may not be as hard working as us; they may not be as smart as us; they may not be as civilized as us; they may not be as human as us. So then why should we let any people from these “sh*thole” countries in here? 

Maybe this isn’t much of a concern to you, since it’s just a word, but as someone who has spent a lot of time studying economic interventions and seeking solutions that can help curb much of the unnecessary human suffering that is still unresolved, one of the common failures of well-intentioned projects is outsiders coming into a situation without treating the suffering as complete people. Have you ever had a doctor or a teacher or a manager talk down to you, and treat you like a child? It’s frustrating and it’s counterproductive. You become resentful as you’re seeking solutions, but those with the resources aren’t really listening to you, and just go on thinking they know best. Ultimately the intended objective is never achieved as the supplier becomes frustrated that the subject isn’t following through, and the subject is frustrated that the supplier won’t listen. 

What should we say?

So if “Third World” is not only an obsolete and inaccurate term, what should we call countries that are poor? In modern Development Economic discussion, the distinction between richer and poorer countries has generally been “Developed” & “Developing” countries, that states countries that have more established economic and political infrastructure, when compared to those that are still working towards that. However, I think that it still creates too much of a seperation between the definitions since, who says we’ve achieved “Developed”? Have we achieved all that we aim to achieved? 

My Development Economics professor taught me that we should take this a step further and use terminology like “More Developed” and “Less Developed” to differentiate, since America is more developed than Kenya, but they are still on the same plane of being developed in some capacity pharmaciepourhomme.fr. For instance, in Kenya, they do not have a well established telephone landline network. You won’t see many telephone lines along the streets, but what you will find is that almost everyone has a cell phone. This is because their development track was delayed behind America, and thus they skipped the whole landline network and just started putting up cell towers instead. Since almost every Kenyan had a cell phone, a service came to the market called M-Pesa, which was a SMS-based money transfer system and essentially a quasi-banking system (https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2015/03/02/why-does-kenya-lead-the-world-in-mobile-money). Essentially, Kenyans had Venmo a decade before Americans did.


While I did want to write a simple trivia note that there really was something called “Second World” countries, I wanted to take it a step further and shine a light into development theory. We need to understand that we all have unique stories to tell, and to be lazy and categorize people as us and them does a disservice to all involved. We need to do a better job at seeing others as complete beings, and the differences between ourselves them does not make them less-than.

We all need to do a better job at listening, since that’s what illuminates the path forward together.