THIRD WORLD definition

by Gerard Chaliand


The economically underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America, considered as an entity with common characteristics, such as poverty, high birthrates, and economic dependence on the advanced countries. The French demographer Alfred Sauvy coined the expression ("tiers monde" in French) in 1952 by analogy with the "third estate," the commoners of France before and during the French Revolution-as opposed to priests and nobles, comprising the first and second estates respectively. Like the third estate, wrote Sauvy, the third world is nothing, and it "wants to be something." The term therefore implies that the third world is exploited, much as the third estate was exploited, and that, like the third estate its destiny is a revolutionary one. It conveys as well a second idea, also discussed by Sauvy, that of non-alignment, for the third world belongs neither to the industrialized capitalist world nor to the industrialized Communist bloc. The expression third world was used at the 1955 conference of Afro-Asian countries held in Bandung, Indonesia. In 1956 a group of social scientists associated with Sauvy's National Institute of Demographic Studies, in Paris, published a book called Le Tiers-Monde. Three years later, the French economist Francois Perroux launched a new journal, on problems of underdevelopment, with the same title. By the end of the 1950's the term was frequently employed in the French media to refer to the underdeveloped countries of Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America.


The underdevelopment of the third world is marked by a number of common traits; distorted and highly dependent economies devoted to producing primary products for the developed world and to provide markets for their finished goods; traditional, rural social structures; high population growth; and widespread poverty. Nevertheless, the third world is sharply differentiated, for it includes countries on various levels of economic development. And despite the poverty of the countryside and the urban shantytowns, the ruling elites of most third world countries are wealthy.

This combination of conditions in Asia, Africa, Oceania and Latin America is linked to the absorption of the third world into the international capitalist economy, by way of conquest or indirect domination. The main economic consequence of Western domination was the creation, for the first time in history, of a world market. By setting up throughout the third world sub-economies linked to the West, and by introducing other modern institutions, industrial capitalism disrupted traditional economies and, indeed, societies. This disruption led to underdevelopment.

Because the economies of underdeveloped countries have been geared to the needs of industrialized countries, they often comprise only a few modern economic activities, such as mining or the cultivation of plantation crops. Control over these activities has often remained in the hands of large foreign firms. The prices of third world products are usually determined by large buyers in the economically dominant countries of the West, and trade with the West provides almost all the third world's income. Throughout the colonial period, outright exploitation severely limited the accumulation of capital within the foreign-dominated countries. Even after decolonization (in the 1950's, 1960's, and 1970's, the economies of the third world developed slowly, or not at all, owing largely to the deterioration of the "terms of trade"-the relation between the cost of the goods a nation must import from abroad and its income from the exports it sends to foreign countries. Terms of trade are said to deteriorate when the cost of imports rises faster than income from exports. Since buyers in the industrialized countries determined the prices of most products involved in international trade, the worsening position of the third world was scarcely surprising. Only the oil-producing countries (after 1973) succeeded in escaping the effects of Western, domination of the world economy.

No study of the third world could hope to assess its future prospects without taking into account population growth. In 1980, the earth's population was estimated at 4.4 billion, 72 percent of it in the third world, and it seemed likely to reach 6.2 billion, 80 percent of it in the third world, at the close of the century. This population explosion in the third world will surely prevent any substantial improvements in living standards there as well as threaten people in stagnant economies with worsening poverty.

Role in World Politics

The Bandung conference, in 1955, was the beginning of the political emergence of the third world. Two nations whose social and economic systems were sharply opposed-China and India-played a major role in promoting that conference and in changing the relation between the third world and the industrial countries, capitalist and Communist. As a result of de-colonialization, the United Nations, at first numerically dominated by European countries and countries of European origin, was gradually transformed into something of a third world forum. With increasing urgency, the problem of underdevelopment then became the focus of a permanent, although essentially academic, debate. Despite that debate, the unity of the third world remains hypothetical, expressed mainly from the platforms of international conferences.

Economic Prospects

Foreign aid, and indeed all the efforts of existing institutions and structures, have failed to solve the problem of underdevelopment. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) held in New Delhi in 1971 suggested that one percent of the national income of industrialized countries should be devoted to aiding the third world. That figure has never been reached, or even approximated. In 1972 the Santiago (Chile) UNCTAD set a goal of a 6 percent economic growth rate in the 1970's for the underdeveloped countries. But this, too, was not achieved. The living conditions endured by the overwhelming majority of the 3 billion people who inhabit the poor countries have either not noticeably changed since 1972 or have actually deteriorated.

Whatever economic development has occurred in the third world has not been distributed fairly between nations or among population groups within nations. Most of the third world countries that have managed to achieve substantial economic growth are those that produce oil: Algeria, Gabon,

lran, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, Nigeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela. They had the money to do so because after 1973 the Organization of Oil producing Countries (OPEC), a cartel, succeeded in raising the price of oil drastically. Other important raw materials are also produced by underdeveloped countries, and the countries that produce them have joined in cartels similar in form to OPEC. For example, Australia, Guinea, Guyana, Jamaica, Sierra Leone, Suriname, and Yugoslavia formed the Bauxite International Association (BIA) in 1974; and Chile, Peru, Zaire, and Zambia formed a cartel of copper producing countries in 1967. But even strategic raw materials like copper and bauxite are not as essential to the industrialized countries as oil, and these cartels therefore lack OPEC's strength; while the countries that produce cocoa and coffee (and other foods) are even less able to impose their will. Indeed, among the countries that do not receive oil revenues, only Brazil, the Ivory Coast, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have enjoyed significant economic growth. And because the underdeveloped nations are collectively so weak, the so-called "new economic order" proposed by some of them will probably remain a phrase, and no more for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, the relationship between the underdeveloped and the industrialized countries has improved somewhat. In 1975 the nine-nation European Economic Community (EEC) concluded an agreement, called the Lome Pact, with 46 African, Caribbean, and Pacific (ACP) nations that exempted most ACP exports from tariffs. The Lome II Pact, signed in 1979 by the EEC and 57 ACP countries, consolidated and broadened the Lome I agreement-for example by guaranteeing income from agricultural exports.

Nonetheless, excepting only a few oil-producing countries with low populations, the economic crisis of the 1970'5 was more detrimental to the third world than to the West; and there did not seem to be much chance in the foreseeable future for any significant change in the relationship between the industrialized and underdeveloped countries. Nor did the prospects for economic development in the third world appear to be very bright: Between 1960 and 1980 half of the African countries had actually regressed. Almost the only countries to receive some of the capital needed for development were those lucky enough to have a significant amount of raw materials, especially oil, to export.

All international agencies agree that drastic action is required to improve conditions in third world countries, including urban and rural public work projects to attack joblessness and underemployment, institutional reforms essential for the redistribution of economic power, agrarian reform, tax reform, and the reform of public funding. But, in reality, political and social obstacles to reform are a part of the very nature of the international order and of most third world regimes.

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