Third World

Many authors concur that the third world is a term used to describe countries and nations who are poor, in political crisis, contending with pollution, and in debt. Berger believes these differences between developed and underdeveloped nations have also been described as a North-South conflict wherein the developed nations are the North and the underdeveloped are the South. It is assumed that the third world represents a stable set of countries, nations, and territories, but the geographic boundaries between first, second, and third world countries is vague. The third world, as a term, has also been used in political movements. Blauner suggests that during the anti-Vietnam War and civil rights movements, a number of organizations used Third World to identify themselves as liberation oriented, anticapitalist, and anticolonialist or postimperialist. Because there are many uses and connotations for the term Third World, this chapter attempts to clarify the origin of the term and identify how psychologists may better understand its function among individuals.

Originatlon of the Third World

In 1952, Alfred Sauvy, a French sociologist and demographer, coined the term Third World. Originally, the term was tiers monde, and was used to describe the “third estate” of commoners who aspired to be similar to the first estate, or society’s wealthy and elite. Hobsbawm posits that the notion of a third estate was later used to describe nations that did not belong to either the capitalist and postcolonial nations representing the first world or the socialist and communist nations comprising the second world. More specifically, Sachs shows that the first world represented countries that were either already industrialized as of 1945 or newly industrialized. These countries are generally described as capitalist or proto-capitalist. For instance, the representatives of the G8 (United States, England, Germany, Italy, France, Russia, Japan, and Canada) are considered the first world. The second world are either current or former communist and socialist countries and are characterized by state ownership of production, central planning, one-party rule, and economic connections with other second world countries.

In 1955, the Bandung Conference in Indonesia created the Non-Aligned Movement. During this conference, the term Third World became widely accepted to describe the members of the Non-Aligned Movement. The participants in the conference represented nations who considered themselves non-aligned with either the first or second world. These countries opposed colonialism and neocolonialism and were often newly emancipated from colonial powers. Representatives from countries such as China, India, Vietnam, Egypt, and Ghana agreed that they would develop economically through partnerships with each other, would nurture their own industries and infrastructure, protect and subsidize their businesses, refuse aid from foreign multinationals and countries, and limit international trade.

Although the original intent of these non-aligned countries was to become independent from first and second world hegemony, this vision of autonomy quickly evaporated. First, starting around the 1940s, global decreases in mortality rates due to such things as the use of DDT and pharmaceutical advances contributed to a population explosion in some countries. Historically, in some countries, high fertility rates were countered by high mortality rates; but as mortality rates decreased, birth rates did not decrease. Additionally, Hobsbawm shows that the population increases were often not matched with economic development in some third world countries.

Second, Sachs argues that by isolating themselves to global developments in technology, industry, and trade, some third world countries were unable to sustain themselves economically. To help their economies, some countries turned to assistance from the first and second world nations. As third world countries became less aligned and committed to each other, they became more reliant on political and economic assistance from first and second world nations. Consequently, third world countries became politically polarized and economically dependent. Chomsky shows that first and second world nations used third world countries as political proxies and sometimes increased political instability to meet political, economic, and military goals. A coup d’etat, for instance, came to symbolize political instability in many third world countries, and Latin American governments were often derogatorily referred to as “Banana Republics.” Additionally, many third world countries started to borrow monies, thereby increasing their foreign debt. Consequently, foreign debt came to be the single largest economic problem for many third world countries.

Third world development was often treated differently from European or Japanese postwar development. Rather than provide grants, as the Marshall Plan did for post-World War II Europe, many third world nations were given loans. The United States learned that European debt after World War I created a financial crisis that contributed to the Great Depression and indirectly to the rise of fascism and eventually World War II. But this lesson was not applied to the economic situation in many third world countries. Instead, loans were given to some third world governments that were corrupt and/or inept, and these countries incurred debts that were impossibly high and could never be repaid. For many countries, the only solutions are debt relief or forgiveness, combined with better free-trade agreements.

The Third World and Mental Health

For psychologists and other mental health care providers, the Third World is often used to describe conditions and settings of abject poverty or other settings of extreme deprivation. The term may be used to connote, even within the United States, situations of severe poverty, poor health conditions, and economic inequality. The term has moved away from describing nation-states, as originally coined. In current use, it communicates about people and situations with dire need and intervention by mental health care providers.

For mental health care providers, multiculturalists, and those interested in social justice, the Third World represents countries and those individuals who have experienced extreme deprivation. Along with economic inequalities, many of these individuals may have experienced poor treatments by these governments, such as jailing, torture, and other traumas. Comas-Diaz and Padilla believe that individuals from many Third World countries may have comorbid posttraumatic stress related to their experiences in their country of origin. Because many of these individuals are immigrants from other countries, mental health care providers need to be aware of the aggregate affects of migration, trauma, and poverty on the migrant or refugee. When working with these communities and individuals, acculturative stress related to the lack of psychological and economic resources may be especially acute. Along with being attuned to adjustment disorders, mental health care providers need to be conscious of other possible sequelae of migration from the Third World such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress.


  1. Berger, M. T. (2004). After the third world? History, destiny and the fate of third worldism. Third World Quarterly, 25(1), 9-39.
  2. Blauner, R. (1987). Colonized and immigrant minorities. In R. Takaki (Ed.), From different shores: Perspectives on race and ethnicity in America (pp. 149-160). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Chomsky, N. (1991). Deterring democracy. New York: Hill & Wang.
  4. Colburn, F. D. (2006, Spring). Good-bye to the “third world.” Dissent, 38-H.
  5. Comas-Diaz, L., & Padilla, A. (1990). Countertransference in working with victims of political repression. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 60, 125-134.
  6. Dornbusch, R., & Fischer, S. (1986). Third world debt. Science, 234, 836-841.
  7. Hobsbawm, E. (1994). The age of extremes: A history of the world, 1914-1991. New York: Pantheon.
  8. Irogbe, K. (2005). Globalization and the development of underdevelopment of the third world. Journal of Third World Studies, 22(1), 41-68.
  9. Randall, V. (2004). Using and abusing the concept of the third world: Geopolitics and the comparative political study of development and underdevelopment. Third World Quarterly, 25(1), 41-53.
  10. Sachs, J. D. (2005). The end of poverty: Economic possibilities for our time. New York: Penguin.
  11. Wiarda, H. J. (1990). The politics of third world debt. Political Science and Politics, 23, 411-418.

See also: