What Are Third World Countries?

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Third world countries are underdeveloped nations where poverty is rampant. Third world countries also referred to nations that never sided with the policies of the United States or the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Third world countries are the less developed nations of Latin America, Africa and Asia. Some nations on these continents are also called developing nations, but “third world” usually refers to countries with the least amount of economic progress. Since many of these nations were predominately poorer than the former Soviet Union and the United States, the term “third world” also became synonymous with poverty. The United States and other western nations were referred to as first world nations, and the Soviet Union and its allies were fashioned as second world countries.

The term “Third World” originated after World War II when countries aligned themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union. Countries that aligned themselves with the United States tended to be developed, capitalist and industrialist nations and were referred to by the term “First World.” Countries who aligned themselves with the Soviet Union were called the “Second World”; these included Russia, Eastern European countries and China. “Third World” became the term for all other unaligned countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Traits found in most third-world countries include a high infant-mortality rate, low economic development, high poverty, underdevelopment of natural resources, dependence on industrialized nations, unstable governments, illiteracy, disease, lack of a middle class and foreign debt. Because many third-world countries share at least some of these traits, the meaning of “Third World” has shifted from “unaligned” to “underdeveloped” nations.

A couple of surprising third-world countries include Saudi Arabia and Greenland. Greenland was underdeveloped for a long time due to Denmark’s control, which limited its involvement in international trade. Saudi Arabia was not aligned after World War II, its oil was not discovered until 1938, and it was not developed until 1941. Prior to the development of the oil fields, Saudi Arabia was largely a tribal nation.