The term Third World applies to those nations in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and the Western Hemisphere that mostly secured independence from the imperial powers after World War II. In the cold war construct the First World, dominated by the United States, also included Western Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
These nations were wealthy, highly industrialized, urban, largely secular, democratic, and had capitalist economies. The Second World consisted of the Soviet bloc, dominated by the Soviet Union.
These nations were industrialized but not as wealthy as the First World; they were secular, authoritarian, and had socialist economics. The Third World nations, consisting of two-thirds of the world’s population, were poor, rural, and agrarian, with traditional societies.
After the breakup of the Soviet bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the terms no longer applied and because most of the nations of the Third World were south of the equator the term Global South came to be used as a collective label for these nations.
The gap between rich and poor nations grew in the 20th century. As the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru commented, "The poor have to run fast just to keep up". Third World countries were caught in a cycle of poverty, with low incomes and low production. After independence many became dictatorships and attempted to improve their economies, usually unsuccessfully, by adopting socialist systems on the Soviet state capitalist model.
Economists often referred to the poor developing nations as low-GDP (low Gross Domestic Product) countries, meaning they produced little in the way of goods and services. Countries in the Global South adopted a wide variety of methods to break out of the cycle of poverty.
In China Mao Zedong led a socialist revolution and mobilized the masses, but only with privatization after his death did the Chinese economy begin to take off. India, the world’s most populous democracy, adopted a capitalist approach; India also successfully applied the technology of the Green Revolution, the use of hybrid seeds to increase agricultural productivity.
At the beginning of the 20th century, India suffered major famines but by the end of the century it was exporting foodstuffs. India and many other poor nations also invested heavily in education. In Southeast Asia educated workers became the backbone of industrialization and the development of high-tech firms.
Other nations built huge development projects, such as the Aswan Dam in Egypt and the Three Gorges Dam in China. Following Western advice in the 1950s and 1960s, many Third World nations concentrated on industrialization, to the detriment of the agricultural sector. That, along with ecological changes, droughts along wide bands of Africa, civil wars, political corruption, and instability, contributed to large famines and mass starvation in many African nations.
In the Middle East oil-producing nations joined a cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), to gain increased revenues from their major resource. They then used the new revenues to build modern infrastructures. Kuwait was able to provide a complete welfare system from cradle to grave for its small population.
Other countries, such as the "little dragons" in Southeast Asia (Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore), attracted foreign businesses and industries. Many nations in South America and Africa also borrowed vast amounts of money from private and public Western banks, such as the World Bank, to bring much-needed capital into their countries.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) also provided assistance in welfare, food, education, and healthcare. Brazil used foreign loans to create new industries and provide jobs, but it, along with many other countries, became ensnared in a web of indebtedness that was impossible to repay.
By the 1990s rich nations promised but often failed to deliver increased foreign aid and to forgive or restructure the debts of these nations, especially the poorest in Africa. Other nations had some modest successes in adopting appropriate technology to establish small, inexpensive grassroots projects.
Population growth also contributed to economic problems. In Kenya the population doubled every 18 years and in Egypt every 26 years, compared to every 92 in the United States. By 2000 the world’s population had exceeded 6 billion, from 1 billion in 1800. It was expected to reach 9 billion by 2054.
In poor countries high infant mortality contributed to the desire to have many children in hopes that at least some would survive to adulthood and be able to care for their parents, especially their mothers, in their old age. To limit its population China adopted a draconian one-child policy and strictly enforced it through its totalitarian system.
India adopted numerous approaches in attempts to limit population growth; these were often accepted by urban elites, but peasants continued to value large families. In societies where women had low status, having children, especially boys, brought status and the hope of some security.
The educational status of many improved, and literacy rates improved, although in many countries boys enjoyed higher rates of education than girls. While programs to empower women were often successful, they were also resisted by traditional and religious leaders.
Women’s work continued to be undervalued and underpaid. Child labor was yet another problem. Globalization and privatization in the late 20th century actually caused some nations to become poorer as prices for agricultural goods and raw materials dropped.
In some Global South nations, such as India, a few people became millionaires, but most remained desperately poor. In the 1990s, incomes in 54 nations actually declined, and in Zimbabwe life expectancy fell from 56 to 331, compared to over 80 in the United States and Japan. Disease, especially AIDS, contributed to further economic and social problems, particularly in many southern African countries.
At the 2000 Millennium Summit, world leaders agreed to institute programs aimed at cutting in half the number of people living on under $1 a day and at halving the number of people suffering from hunger by 2015. Five years later the commitments of the donor nations, especially the United States, had fallen short of the promises made, and it remained uncertain whether the goals would be met.