The term Third World is European in origin, but analysts have yet to agree on its genesis. Some believe it came about through the search for an explanatory "third way" to the dualism of capitalism and socialism as analytical frameworks among European political scientists in the 1920s. This challenge became even more urgent in the 1950s as colonies increasingly gained independence and sought legitimacy as states and international actors in their own right. Others situate its birth with the classification of the world by the industrialized West into First (Western Europe and Japan), Second (the Soviet Bloc and its satellites), and Third (the rest) worlds. Still others have traced the term to 1940s and 1950s France, linking it with the "Third Estate" in French politics—the rising but underrepresented bourgeoisie in the French Revolution of 1789—who capitalized on the quarrel between nobility and clergy. Similarly, the Cold War provided the political opportunity for the "third way" in international politics, under the guidance of the newly independent developing countries. Whatever its origin, the idea of the Third World rapidly became embedded in the discourse and diplomacy of international relations, and those claiming or claimed by it were able to make the concept synonymous with radical agendas in liberation struggles and the clamor for more participatory and just international relations through new world orders.
Historical, intellectual, and ideological context.
Despite various appropriations or attempts at domesticating the concept, Third World has always been an uneasy, controversial, and polemical concept, especially to the increasingly sensitive, critical, and rights-hungry intellectuals and elites of the postcolonies. Over the years, there have been efforts to coin new terms to replace "Third World." From a communist revolutionary perspective, Mao Zedong formulated a theory of three worlds in which the First World consisted of the then-superpowers (Soviet Union and United States), whose imperialistic policies, as he felt, posed the greatest threat to world peace. Mao placed the middle powers (Japan, Canada, and Europe) in the Second World. Africa, Latin America, and Asia (including China) formed the Third World. Others have dismissed the notion of three worlds as inadequate, and have asked for four or more worlds. To some, the Fourth World should comprise currently underrecognized and underrepresented minorities, especially the indigenous "first" peoples of various states and continents. Still to others, only bipolar divisions along lines of physical geography and locality make sense, regardless of the differences and inequalities that may unite people across physical boundaries or divide those within the same borders.
To others, the whole notion of worlds is misleading for various reasons. First, it implies an essential degree of separation between different parts of the globe that is simply not realistic in a globalizing world marked by multiple encounters and influences. Second, despite the efforts to stimulate and sustain Third World unity in the struggles against various forms of subjection, current obsession with belonging and boundaries have fueled the conflicts undermining Third World solidarity and action. Third, the increased degree of polarization within a global economic geography, along with the collapse of state socialism, and the insertion of capitalist social relations even among the communist giants of the world (Russia and China), suggest not a reduction but a multiplication of worlds, including the production of material conditions characteristic of the Third World even within First World societies. Fourth, the emergence of newly industrializing countries represents a form of dependent development and a further differentiation of the global economic geography. If globalization is producing Third World realities in First World contexts, it is at the same time producing First World consumers in Third World societies. In certain contexts, globalization has generated levels of poverty and victimhood that best justify the qualification as Fourth World.
Movements associated with the Third World.
During the Cold War, the term Third World or Thirdism inspired what came to be known as the "non-aligned movement" (NAM) a counterweight to the two rival Cold War blocs, and a kind of international pressure group for the Third World. NAM was founded on five basic principles—peace and disarmament; self-determination, particularly for colonial peoples; economic equality; cultural equality; and multilateralism exercised through a strong support for the United Nations. From the 1960s through the 1980s the movement used its majority voting power within the United Nations to redirect the global political agenda away from East-West wrangles over the needs of the Third World. However, in practice, with the exception of NAM's anticolonialism, about which there could be strong agreement, the aim of creating an independent force in world politics quickly succumbed to the pressure of Cold War alliances. By the 1970s, NAM had largely become an advocate of Third World demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), a role it shared with the Group of 77, the caucusing group of Third World states within the United Nations. Through NIEO, the Third World argued in favor of a complete restructuring of the prevailing world order, which they perceived to be unjust, as the only enduring solution to the economic problems facing them. At the level of UNESCO, Third World scholars waged a war against unequal cultural exchange through calls for a New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). In general, the Third World wanted a new order based on equity, sovereignty, interdependence, common interest, and cooperation among all states. Given the economic weakness of the Soviet Union, these demands were essentially directed at the West.