Why is Turkey a First World and Not a Third World Country? Explained by a Turkish

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In this article, I will explain classical definitions of first, second, and third-world descriptions and give information about how developed Turkey is compared to other first-world and third-world countries.

First world country was a term coined during the Cold War Era.

According to the understanding of the time, the USA and its NATO allies were First World Countries. The Soviet Bloc formed the Second World countries, and Third World countries were the non-aligned countries.

Turkey has been a US ally and NATO member since 1952. After the Second World War, Turkey has always aligned with Western countries and was never aligned with the Soviet Bloc.

Turkey is a first-world country with a functioning democracy, a capitalist economy, and a high standard of living.

Although Turkey is today one of the less developed first-world countries, Turkey is far more developed than third world countries.

Turkey is definitely not a third-world country because Turkish people enjoy high life expectancy, education, income per capita, and high human development, similar to less rich first-world countries.

For these reasons, Turkey was never classified as a second or third-world country according to the Cold War or modern-day definition of the term.

In short, Turkey’s situation is similar to football teams playing teams playing in the top league but has not been a champion for decades, but not falling to the lower tier league either.

Let me explain further.

1. Modern Definition of First World and Turkey

Today’s definition of a first-world country includes NATO countries, US allies with advanced economies and liberal values, and EU members.

The shared values of today’s first-world countries are democracies with developed economies based on liberal principles.

Turkey is also a part of the modern liberal world and a founding member of many institutions like the OECD, the European Council, and the G20.

1.1 Human Development Index Turkey vs First and Third World Countries

According to the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), Turkey enjoys a very high HDI score on par with developed countries. 

Human Development Index is an analysis that takes mainly 3 factors. These are

  • Life expectancy,
  • Education level,
  • Income per capita.
Darkest 1. Tier between 0.800–1.000 is considered very high Human Development. Less Human Development as the color gets lighter. As the Source Wikipedia (HDI index based on 2019 data, published in 2020).

In the 1990s, Turkey’s situation regarding Human Development was worse than Mexico, Ukraine, or South Africa due to economic crises.

After financial reforms, especially Kemal Dervis’s reform, Turkey’s standard of living has increased rapidly, reaching the standards enjoyed by first-world countries like EU countries and other wealthy countries. 

United States0.8650.8860.9160.9200.9210.9240.9250.926
Poland0.7180.7900.8400.8580.863 0.8730.8770.880
Ukraine0.6130.6850.7270.7560.7560.7610.762 0.765
South Africa0.6270.6310.6640.6930.7010.7050.7070.709
Source UN HDI Index

Turkey has a long road to achieving a level similar to the USA’s human development standard. Yet, in two areas, Turkey may match the USA’s standards: the health system and natural beauty. 

Access to the health system is seen as a human right in Turkey, and even private health services are affordable and subsidized by the government. 

2. Turkey is a Democratic Country and has centuries-old parliamentary experience

Turkey is a republic with a multi-party system, and Turkey has a strong tradition of democracy and fair elections.

Turkey has a more rooted tradition of democracy and a liberal economy than old second-world countries like Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary.

Even in the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey was a monarchy, elections were held to determine the parliament. 

Opening of Ottoman (Turkish) Parliament 1877 in Istanbul from a London Newspaper Source Wikipedia

To be honest with you, nowadays, Turkish democracy may live up to the best Western standards. Yet, every democracy suffers regression periods, and in history, even the US or UK has experienced such periods.

As we all know, liberal democracies have crises and then clean what is not working.

However, the most essential feature of democracy is present in Turkey. That’s the Turkish people’s will to live free.

In my university years, one of my law professors stated this fact very clearly.

You can change every law and regulation of a country, but if the nation does not know how to live freely, the country will not be a democracy.

If you compare Turkey with Sweden, the US, and Germany, you will find Turkey has many flaws.

Yet, if you compare Turkey with Mexico, South Africa, Brazil, and other Latin, Asian, and African countries, you would find Turkey is far superior and closer to the European system.

3. Turkey is a Developed Economy relying on Industry rather than Natural Resources

Turkey is a resource-poor country. Turkey has no oil, and Turkey is dependent on other international energy sources to fuel its industry.

Turkish economic structure relies on industry and services like other developed countries. Turkey covers the lack of resources with its advanced and diverse industry structure.

Turkey is the 20th (nominal GDP) and 11th (GDP by PPP) biggest global economy, depending on how you calculate its economy.

The average Turkish person earns 9,327$ (Nominal) and has purchasing power equivalent to $32,278$ (PPP). 

Turkey has a good and diverse economic structure, not relying upon one sector for all nations’ income.

Machinery, tourism, textile, electronics, construction, shipbuilding, autos, mining, steel, and food processing are the major industries of the Turkish economy.

Turkey has a unique historical development and is a major contributor to European culture. To learn more, please read Why is Turkey considered a European Country?

4. Turkey is a US ally with the second biggest army in NATO

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.

As a Nato ally, Turkey has always been a first-world country embracing Western values.

Turkey is the second-largest military force in terms of manpower in NATO after the US. The Turkish military has more active personnel than the manpower of Germany and France combined. 

Turkey also has a strong defense industry capable of producing advanced weapons like unmanned attack drones, battleships, and new technologies like railguns. 

Though Turkey has the technological capability of producing nuclear weapons, like most European nations, Turks decided on another route.

Turkey is entrusted with 50 US Nuclear Warheads under the NATO nuclear weapons sharing program.

5. Majority of Turkish People are Muslim, but Turkey is not an Islamic Country

Turkey is not an Islamic country. Being a Muslim-majority country is different from being an Islamic country.

For this reason, Turkey is often mixed with other Islamic regimes or Middle Eastern countries. Yet, the Turkish government is far different than your average Muslim country. 

First of all, Turkey is ruled on the merits of Law and Human Rights and not by religious principles. Turkish Civil Code, commercial code, and all minor and major legislations are in alignment with European regulations.

Second, Turkey is a Republic and is the only country with a Muslim majority and a secular constitution.

Our law relies on the same secular law principles of European countries, and our legal system is a fusion of Italian, Swiss, German, and French legal systems. I explain this a bit further below.

Turkish people do not like to be compared to other Islamic countries, and we can feel offended by you not knowing the difference.

Some political parties attending elections in Turkey are associated with the Islamic faith, but they are similar to conservative political parties like Christian Democrat parties in Europe.

Suggested Reading: Is Turkey in the Middle East? Why and Why Not?

6. The Turkish Legal System is built upon Western Principles

Turkey has always benchmarked itself to European principles and its laws.

As a Turkish lawyer, I can confirm that Turkish courts and legal rules are aligned with the European system.

For example, Turkey’s criminal law is based on the Italian Penal Code, Turkish Civil Law is based on Switzerland’s Civil Code, and Commercial Laws are heavily influenced by German Codes.

Lately, Turkish e-government systems used in legal proceedings have become so advanced that the software is exported to third countries.

Turkey is also a founding member of the European Council, and the top legal authority in Turkey is the European Court of Human Rights.

Besides being an international body regulating European affairs, the European Council is also responsible for monitoring European human rights.

The human rights agreed upon by the European States are far greater than the UN’s Human rights declaration.

Everyone in Turkey can appeal all human rights violations to the European Court of Human Rights, and Turkish courts must obey its rulings.

The European Court of Human Rights functions similarly to the US Supreme Court in Europe.

7. Gender Equality in Turkey is well-rooted.

Turkey is one of the first countries to accept Women’s Suffrage. Turkish women earned equal voting rights and social rights in 1930.

Western European countries like France (1944), and Italy (1945), Belgium (1948) followed the Turkish example a decade later.

Sabiha Gokcen is the first female fighter pilot in the world. The photo was taken on her Balkan tour in 1938. You may also know her from the airport named after her in Istanbul.

Turkish women work in many professions. They are political leaders, jet pilots, university professors, and judges.

There is no law banning women from becoming something in Turkey; Turkish women can become anything they like their modern Western counterparts.

Read Turkish Women – How and Why They Are Different? to learn more about Turkish Women and Gender Equality in Turkey.

Meral Aksener is the head of the 2nd biggest opposition party in Turkey. You can see Meral Aksener with my sister’s family in the picture.

9. UN Classifies Turkey as one of the Western Countries

According to the UN Regional category of countries, Turkey is in Western Europe and the Others group.

Western European Countries (like France, Spain, and the UK), the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Greece, and Turkey form the Western Europe and Others group.

Turkey is a country located in both Europe and Asia. For this reason, Turkey also attends the UN Asia and the Pacific Group but votes with Western countries in the UN.

UN Group of Countries. The brown color is the Western European and Others Group. Source

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8 thoughts on “Why is Turkey a First World and Not a Third World Country? Explained by a Turkish”

  1. Hello Efe bey , Zelis hanim and Lidya cigim ..I am moving to turiye and would like some guidance to where would be suitable to live Mah in mersin, I intend to buy a property in Turkiye and would like some tips if you would be so kind to help out…Thank you so much …Take care best regards

  2. Hi Mr Efe Genit,

    Your words are bravely and patriotically spoken, but you must be aware that Turkiye has slipped a lot in recent years. Inflation is at 69% due to naive government economic policies.

    Many thousands were detained without evidence or due process, following the failed army coup, while many more arbitrarily lost their jobs.

    Criticisms or opposition to the government often face criminal charges of insulting the President, and whilst you have elections, the governing political party controls most of the media.

    Press freedom in Turkiye is ranked at just 154/180 (South Africa 35/180) by Reporters Without Borders.

    Whilst the Stockholm center for democracy list Turkiye 103rd among 167 countries in Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index 2021 … The United Kingdom fell two places, from 16 to 18, while the US dropped one place, from 25 to 26.

    Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, has previously been accused of using the pandemic as a pretext to enforce restrictions on nightlife and entertainment in an attempt to impose a religious lifestyle.

    Frankly if the present government wins the next election Turkiye will be heading backward on many indices …

    • Yes, I am aware but countries with democracy sometimes experience periods with many flaws. Then they learn from their mistakes. You can name many periods in Western democracies similar Turkish democracy experiencing now. Yet despite all this, Turkish people overwhelmingly believe in democracy and I believe Turkish democracy will stand and thrive back.

  3. Thank you Mr. Genit! I was so pleased to find your article. I am a proud Turkish subject born & raised in the US. Over the years I have become increasingly interested in Turkish history & more importantly the current news. As a news junkie of international geopolitics I have often lamented the lack of support & understanding exhibited in the west & most specifically in the US towards Turkey. While there doesn’t seem to be significant propaganda defending modern day Turkey as is typical of most nations. Turkey instead appears to be putting their efforts into actual improvements rather than the propaganda to convince others. I do feel such an endeavor is definitely more important than trying to change peoples opinions. However, I have often wished more was done to make their case as their are so many nations are still intimidated or at least holding grudges over Turkish mite. Therefore, discovering this thorough article was indeed a wonderful surprise. Thanks you for the information! I didn’t believe it possible but I am even prouder of my Turkishness than before!!

  4. Hello Mr. Genit,
    Thank you for your blog. I’m an American who lived in downtown Adana, Turkey from Sep. ’83 until Oct. ’85. I loved living there and I loved the Turkish people. When I was there, Turkey was considered a Third World country (economically, not politically since it was in NATO). I’ve been thinking of visiting Istanbul and Adana again and have been looking online at videos, etc. I was amazed to see that most of what I’ve seen of Adana looks like any European city; it wasn’t like that 40 years ago.

    Even though it was poorer back then, I really loved it there. I was stationed at Incirlik AB but chose to live off base in Adana. I really loved the Turkish people. I had very little interaction with Turkish women then, but a lot with men. I was young, single and used to drink a lot at pubs in Adana. There was never any women in the pubs, only men. But they were all kind and hospitable. Sometimes, I’d drink too much and someone always saw that I made it back to my apartment safely (not that I ever felt unsafe in Adana). Adana is a major Turkish city and I would never feel safe late at night in some comparable American cities. Only one time in 2 years did someone try to rob me; it was late at night in Ataturk Park and someone grabbed me and tried to take my wallet, but 2 other men ran to us and grabbed him and yelled for the police (I say “police”, but I think they were military…they had rifles, and Adana was under martial law then).

    I also really love Turkish food. Turkish/Levantine cuisine is my favorite. I can’t get authentic Adana Kebab or borek where I live in Florida, so I’ve learned to make my own. Anyway, thanks for your blog explaining Turkey’s progression to First World status.

    • Thank you for your kind response. Adana region is more of a rural and conservative area for Turks. In 40 years, much has changed. Next time, please also visit Antalya, Izmir, Bursa and Istanbul, where most Turkish people live.

  5. Present dispensation is going towards Islamization of country ..may be that they are looking for old Ottoman empire glory . Is that true. I had a chance to meet one Turkish couple in Madrid , while the lady looked educated and smart , her husband was typical conservative , poor in communication and looked rather uncomfortable while the lady was communicative and comfortable.


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