Theory Bites: Development, Underdevelopment and Dependency

The contemporary common language of development divides the world between developed and underdeveloped countries. This common-sensical classification also guides us to think of the two groups as rich and poor. Or even further, that the developed world, despite its imperfections, is “fine” and its people are happy—they represent the way human society should generally be—while the underdeveloped, for whichever reason, has just fallen behind—its people suffer and are not an example of what we’d like to see for humanity. The assumption is that everyone would prefer to live in a city, drive their car to work, and enjoy air conditioning and washing machines, since humans can and should “achieve” much more than washing their clothes by hand or farming for their own survival.

By looking at the world today, be it through the media or even through travelling, many people take a position of solidarity and altruism towards the underdeveloped world. As a consequence, billions of people become seen as unfortunate—they simply failed to develop, failed to take the same route as the United States and Europe. Therefore, not only in people’s minds but also in what is believed to be the practice of development (i.e. that done by NGOs and charity organizations), the goal is to look forward, and in this case, look North.

However, only looking forward might limit the prospects and possibilities of the underdeveloped world, which seems to often be thought of as simply “undeveloped”. Therefore, looking at the history of the relations between the two groups (the developed and the not developed) can allow us to problematize the efforts and good intentions that are being done to “help the poor”. One analysis of this history was done in the 1960s and 1970s, often by scholars from the ‘undeveloped’ world, mostly from Latin America, through what is known as dependency theory. Its origins lie in the works of such thinkers as the German-American economist Andre Gunder Frank and1 Argentinian economist Raúl Prebisch, and its ideas were made famous by the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano2 in his notorious book “Open Veins of Latin America”.

The main claim of dependency theory is that the developed world would not have developed without other parts of the world becoming underdeveloped. And here the term underdeveloped fits better than undeveloped, since it gives a sense that these countries were made like that; They were prevented from developing since the beginning of their relationship with colonial Europe. Thus, wealth and affluence of the developed countries were dependent on the poverty of others. This happened mainly during the colonial system, in which much of the resources (raw materials, labour, and capital) that were used to develop Europe were appropriated from Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

This system structured the world in a way that we cannot expect the underdeveloped to just follow the path of previous colonial powers such as Europe. One simply wouldn’t argue that Africa has to acquire colonies to solve its poverty and backwardness. Further, even though colonialism as it was doesn’t exist anymore, the structures it created still do. The developed world is now industrialized, and that represents an advantage to it. Interestingly, in the modern world, dependency can be seen to work the other way too: the underdeveloped is increasingly dependent on the developed for most of its imported finished products. And often this dependency has taken place not only around manufactured goods, but around food, such as in cases where underdeveloped countries had to specialize so much in the production of one or a few goods (e.g. cotton, minerals, tobacco, coffee) that they couldn’t feed themselves. By looking at the history of this relationship, also called North-South relations, we can conclude that there is no level playing field for development. There was no equality of opportunity and there still seems not to be.

Thus, what dependency theory allows us to do is to look at the history of the development and underdevelopment of the world and question the mentality of the poor having to “catch up” with the rich, as if poverty was a result of bad management and bad choices. But this questioning is not enough. Even if a level playing field was created today, it seems to be wrong to even want the old colonies to become what their old masters are now; environmental degradation and climate change shows us that the kind of development that is seen as the development model is destroying the planet, and the economic crisis of 2008 and the current European crisis can suggest that this model might not quite be the one we want to rely on.

Do you think that development theory is valid and there can never be catch up without levelling of the development playing field? Leave a reply below.

Allan Spessoto is a Research & Communications intern at the Institute for Advanced Development Studies (INESAD)

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For your reference:

1Reid-Henry, S., 2012. Do resource extraction and the legacy of colonialism keep poor countries poor? The Guardian, [online] 22 October. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 October 2012].

2Glennie, J. and Hassanaien, N., 2012. Dependency theory – is it all over now? The Guardian, [online] March 1. Available at: <> [Accessed 29 October 2012].


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  1. This is surely a well researched article.The “Developed world” has a conspiracy to keep the underdeveloped world in that viscous cycle.I always question the logic of investing in foreign policy programs as aid by countries that are also economically sick.But I this this is partly because they don’t want to lose the grip on the under developed world where they easily drain cheap resources.

  2. Nice article! I remember us going through the same discussions back in university. In fact, the ‘dependency school’ or ‘dependentistas’ (like Prebisch, Cardoso and Singer – less so Frank; as well as World Systems Theorists like Wellernstein and Amin) were my personal inspiration for entering this particular field of study.

    Yet there is something about the school that is rather over-pessimistic and ahistorical at the same time. If anything, the rise of Latin America of late should serve to negate the dependentistas’ ‘can’t do’ mindset, just like the rise of Asia and Africa does. Moreover, even if one region is ‘dominant’ (and less so as time goes by) in this historical juncture, the fact that other regions were centres of power before this era, coupled with the fact that much of the rest of the world is on the rise again now, should point to the lack of a historical perspective in the dependency school.

    If there is a secret to this trend, I suspect it’s there in one of the statements in the article above, namely: “The developed world is now industrialized, and that represents an advantage to it.” Turns out, the rest of the world has caught up or is catching up in industrial development. Technology may be the secret.

    A more convincing ‘roast’ of ‘development’ may be in the following question: How have countries that have been open to and enjoyed high levels of aid over the past 5 decades or so performed versus those that haven’t receive much development cooperation aid?

    • Dear Massoud,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Perhaps we could throw a challenge back at you and invite you to Guest Roast on the topic of “How have countries that have been open to and enjoyed high levels of aid over the past 5 decades or so performed versus those that haven’t receive much development cooperation aid?”



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