The Need for a Revival of Third Worldism and the Continued Relevance of the Concept of the Third World

Research Paper (postgraduate), 2010

27 Pages, Grade: 76%









The end of the Cold War, some have argued,[1] has dealt the three worlds classification scheme a fatal blow and the break-up of the former Soviet Union and the associated disintegration of the Second World has to a large extent diminished the rationale which underlay the concept of the Third World.[2] Furthermore, from its heyday in the 1970s, Third Worldism has been on a path of terminal decline due to a number of factors, such as disproportionate economic development among Third Worldist states,[3] political differences and the failure to establish a “common programme for international economic and political reform.”[4] Within the literature relating to Third Worldism, the concept of the Third World itself, and the three worlds scheme, there is a lively debate with some arguing that the concept has become an anachronism,[5] others maintaining that the concept maintains significance in the contemporary era. Furthermore, while there is general consensus within the literature that Third Worldism has experienced a declining trend, some argue that there is both the need and space for a revival of Third Worldism.[6] This essay will argue that the concept of the Third World maintains relevance within the contemporary era, and that there is indeed a need for a revival of Third Worldism. To this end, the essay is divided into four parts, part one provides a discussion of the emergence of Third Worldism as well as that of the term Third World itself. In part two, focus shifts to the decline of Third Worldism and a number of critiques of the concept of the Third World are put forward. The third part argues for the continued relevance of the concept as well as for the need to revive Third Worldism, and part four concludes.


The term third World first appeared in a 1952 article entitled, ‘ Three Worlds, One Planet’ by Alfred Sauvy[7], in which he argued that reference is often made to two words in a state of confrontation, and that there is in fact a third world which is generally overlooked – and that this third world is the most significant, and in fact, in a chronological sense it is the first world.[8] The term Third World is used as both a category and a concept – emerging first with Sauvy, as mentioned above, the “phrase used was tiers monde,”[9] and within a decade of its inception, the term had gained widespread acceptance and was employed extensively.[10] Since the early 1960s, the term has frequently been used as a “synonym for such phrases as ‘underdeveloped world’, ‘developing countries’, ‘less developed countries’, ‘former colonies’, ‘Afro-Asian and Latin American countries’, ‘the South’ (of the North-South division) and so on.”[11]

The concept emerged in the context of the Cold War,[12] and as used initially, carried “specific political and power connotations,”[13] and embraced notions “political powerlessness, economic poverty and social marginalization.”[14] The concept was roughly understood and used as an expression analogous to that of the ‘Third Force’ that referred to and described the group of Nonaligned African and Asian countries, psychologically united in common opposition to imperialism and colonialism.[15] Within the Cold War context of ideological bifurcation, the Third World referred to that group of states “that represented the third component in the operation and dynamics of a bipolar global balance.”[16] This Nonaligned Group “necessarily occupied a political space between the First World capitalist states and the Second World socialist states,”[17] and it was through this nonalignment that this group of states attempted to maintain independence and a distance between the two opposing superpower blocs and if and when possible, to benefit from this division.[18] The term Third World emerged as part of the three worlds classification scheme, which while it retained currency seemed compelling as it served a dual function, namely “a hegemonic conceptualization of the world, and of struggles against that hegemony.”[19] The three worlds idea itself emerged as an unintended consequence of “modernization discourse in Euro-American social science,”[20] which was developed in the 1950s as a response to the “entanglement of colonialism and anti-colonial movements in an emergent Cold War that impelled the globe to division between two major power blocs.”[21] In political terms, modernization discourse aimed to ensure and prolong Euro-American hegemony, as it was a representation of Euro-American cultural, political and social paradigms – “the paradigms of capitalist modernity – as the ultimate paradigms of progress.”[22] However, it is ironic to note that once the idea of the Third World emerged, it was enthusiastically adopted by “radical advocates of liberation from Euro-American colonialism and hegemony”[23] who perceived it as both a mobilizing idea to accomplish the missions of decolonization and as a mechanism by which to reorganize global relationships.[24]

While many organizations and governments were employing the term Third World as a means towards stimulating “politico-diplomatic unity”[25] in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Oceana and the Middle East, the concept also became crucial to European and North American attempts to control those areas of the globe which lay beyond the soviet bloc.[26] Modernization theory has, since 1945, imposed a romanticized and idealized account of Western European and North American history on the Middle East, Asia and Oceana, Africa and Latin America.[27] This is an approach which, enjoys continued hegemony at the policy and popular level, and in a number of academic circles, postulates a ‘developed’ and modern Western Europe and North America, where the “problem of ‘development’ had been solved,”[28] as opposed to an ‘underdeveloped’ and ‘traditional’ Third World. With regards to this, Berger refers to the argument made by Arturo Escobar, that by representing the Third World as ‘underdeveloped’ one is not making a statement about ‘facts’, but rather establishing a regime of truth by means of which the Third World is inescapably known, managed and intervened on.[29] During the past four decades or more, knowledge and information have been extracted from different parts of the globe and “filtered through an array of intellectual and policy processes dominated by the so-called First World, the effect of which has been to contribute to the managing of the Third World.”[30] Like approaches which preceded it modernization theory was “committed to a period of tutelage”[31] and emphasized the requirement of cultural transformation of the Third World as a precondition for the achievement of modernity. The theory focused on the ‘entirety’ of change, and perceived “modernization as a process, often called ‘diffusion’, which spread throughout a society affecting economics, the type of government, social structure, values, religion and family structure.”[32] Proponents of this approach saw “underdevelopment in the Third World”[33] as the consequence of shortcomings which were internally specific to the underdeveloped societies under investigation – underdevelopment was perceived as rooted in their pre-colonial history rather than a consequence of their colonial past. Modernization theory was built on a homogenous vision of the Third World inevitably following the Western European and North American path.[34]

It has been shown above, how the concept of the Third World was appropriated by modernization theory to maintain Western European and North American hegemony, focus will now shift to another theoretical approach which also made use of the concept of the Third World, namely dependency theory, but which approached the question of development/underdevelopment from a different perspective. The US-driven task of modernizing the Third World, had by the latter part of the 1960s, increasingly come under challenge by economic nationalism and revolution in Asia, Africa and Latin America.[35] Within these conditions “distinct radical discourses”[36] relating to the Third World surfaced to dispute and contest the dominant policy and academic discourses.[37] To a large number of radical critics, the ideas of modernization theory, and policies of the US government that were based on these ideas, “seemed to mask a narrow political agenda that sought to justify the dominance of three-market capitalism as a model and mechanism for economic, social and cultural development.”[38] One significant response to this agenda was the argument that “dependence on the West”[39] had as a consequence the distortion of social and economic conditions in non-western states, resulting in shared experience of historical change in the peripheral areas of the global economy.[40] This was the result of a “situation in which the economy of certain countries (and hence their social and political structures) is conditioned by the development and expansion of another economy to which the former is subjected.”[41] Accounts such as these provided the building blocks for a large literature on ‘dependency’ and ‘underdevelopment’ during the 1960s and 1970s, which questioned the notion that Third World states would ever realize developmental goals “while they remained subject to the global reach of the advanced capitalist economies of the West, and also suggested that their experience of exploitation within that system might give them a common cause.”[42]

Although never a unified voice, the dependency school contained important differences of opinion relating to the question of whether or not development was at all possible within the prevailing international economic system – with some scholars emphasizing the “structural barriers to development that followed from the division of the world economy into ‘core’ and ‘periphery’.”[43] Other writers focused on “associated dependent development,”[44] and argued that this was possible under “appropriate local political encouragement.”[45] A significant aspect of the ‘underdevelopment’ approach stemmed from “frustration with the activities of states economic planners in Third World countries,”[46] and the ties between these and “the activities of regional and international development organizations,”[47] that was experienced by academics and progressive intellectuals on the edges (ideological and literal) of such institutions. It is from this frustration that a sense of shared identity grew around the “plight of those suffering from underdevelopment both in the periphery and in some radical opinion in core countries.”[48] Although not necessarily making up part of underdevelopment theory, this “identification of a homogenous condition of dependency – which was not very different from the homogenous view of the Third World that modernization theory constructed[49] - but ideas such as these certainly provided a basis for a number of its popular variants, and “fed into a perception of the inhabitants of Third World countries as victims rather than agents of their history.”[50] One such effect was a rapid increase in the use of the term ‘Third World’ during the latter stages of the 1960s and the 1970s which has been associated with the “emergence of a growing consciousness among the peoples of different Third World Countries themselves that they shared common problems and experiences in relation to other countries.”[51]

The above discussion has focused on the concept of the Third World, its emergence and the ends to which the concept was employed by the discourses of modernization and dependency theory. The remainder of this section will focus on the emergence of Third Worldism. Mark T. Berger traces the roots of Third Worldism to the “complex milieu of colonialism and anti-colonial nationalism in the early 20th century,”[52] and locates the “overall consolidation of Third Worldism”[53] as rooted in the post-1945 context of the Cold War, national liberation and decolonization. The term Third World had its genesis in the notion of a ‘third way’ or ‘third force’ in global affairs, and as has been mentioned, Alfred Sauvy is credited with the first use of the term.[54] The 1955 Bandung Conference, which brought together delegations from newly independent states or nationalist movements from Africa and Asia,[55] was the first attempt at the creation and establishment of such a third force in global politics, and is generally seen as the moment marking the emergence of the Third World.[56] As has been mentioned, the term Third World was adopted to refer to a self-defining group of nonaligned states,[57] caught between the ideological bifurcations of the Cold War, who found within their shared experiences a rally point from which to resist Western European and North American hegemony and complete the project of decolonization, as well as a mechanism by which to reorganize global relationships.[58]


[1] Arif Dirlik, “Spectres of the Third World” Global Modernity and the End of the Three Worlds,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 131; Vicky Randall, “Using and Abusing the Concept of the Third World: Geopolitics and the Comparative Political Study of Development and Underdevelopment,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 43; Marc Williams, “Re-Articulating the Third World Coalition: The Role of the Environmental Agenda,” Third World Quarterly 14 (1993): 7; Mark T. Berger, “After the Third World? History, Destiny and the Fate of Third Worldism,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 10.

[2] Williams, 7.

[3] Berger, After the Third World, 11.

[4] Hans-Henrik Holm, “The End of the Third World,” Journal of Peace Research 27 (1990): 2.

[5] Dirlik, 131; Randall, 43; Williams, 7; Berger; After the Third World, 10.

[6] Hee-Yeon Cho, “Second Death, Or Revival of The ‘Third World’ in the Context of Neo-Liberal Globalization,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6 (2004): 501-3; Kinhide Mushakoji,” Bandung Plus 50: A Call for Tri-Continental Dialogue on Global Hegemony,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 6 (2005): 514; Rajeev Patel and Philip McMichael, “Third Worldism and the Lineages of Global Fascism: The Regrouping of the Global South in the Neoliberal Era,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 241.

[7] Dirlik, 133; Carl E. Pletsch, “The Three Worlds, or the Division of Social Scientific Labour, circa 1950 – 1975,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23 (1981): 569; Leslie Wolf-Phillips, “Why ‘Third World’?: Origin, Definition and Usage,” Third World Quarterly 9 (1987): 1311-2.

[8] Dirlik, 133; Pletsch, 569.

[9] S. D. Muni, “The Third World: Concept and Controversy,” Third World Quarterly 1 (1979): 121.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Dirlik, 133; Wolf-Phillips, 1313; Muni, 121; Mark T. Berger, “The End of the ‘Third World’?” Third World Quarterly 15 (1994): 259.

[13] Muni, 121.

[14] Caroline Thomas, “Where is the Third World Now?” Review of International Studies 25 (1999): 225.

[15] Muni, 121; Thomas, 226.

[16] Muni, 121.

[17] Thomas, 226.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Dirlik, 132-3.

[20] Ibid, 133.

[21] Ibid, 133.

[22] Ibid, 133.

[23] Ibid, 133.

[24] Ibid, 133.

[25] Berger, The End of the Third World ?, 259.

[26] Ibid, 259.

[27] Ibid, 259-60.

[28] Ibid, 260.

[29] Ibid, 260.

[30] Ibid, 260.

[31] Ibid, 260.

[32] Ibid, 260.

[33] Ibid, 260.

[34] Ibid, 260.

[35] Ibid, 260.

[36] Ibid, 260.

[37] Ibid, 260.

[38] B. R. Tomlinson, “What was the Third World?” Journal of Contemporary History 38 (2003): 310.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] T. Dos Santos, “The Structure of Dependence,” American Economic Review, 40 (1970): 231 quoted in B. R. Tomlinson, What was the Third World?” Journal of Contemporary History 38 (2003): 311.

[42] Tomlinson, 311.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Berger, The End of the Third World, 261.

[50] Tomlinson, 311.

[51] Kofi Buenor Hadjor, Dictionary of Third World Terms (London, 1992), 6 quoted in B. R. Tomlinson, What was the Third World?” Journal of Contemporary History 38 (2003): 311.

[52] Berger, After the Third World, 11.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Tomlinson, 309.

[55] Berger, After the Third World, 12.

[56] Berger, After the Third World, 12; Fouad Makki, “The Empire of Capital and the Remaking of Centre-Periphery Relations,” Third World Quarterly 25 (2004): 159.

[57] Thomas, 226.

[58] Dirlik, 133.

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The Need for a Revival of Third Worldism and the Continued Relevance of the Concept of the Third World
University of Cape Town
International Relations Honours
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Nico Smit (Author), 2010, The Need for a Revival of Third Worldism and the Continued Relevance of the Concept of the Third World, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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