Why Underdeveloped Countries Are Underdeveloped

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This essay examines the theoretical paradigms, historical narratives and sociological variations to explain why underdeveloped countries are underdeveloped.

The essay first examines issues of underdevelopment through an exposition on the Marxist theory, Two-tier Dependency theory, World Systems theory, Modernization theory and the Globalization theory.

Then the aspect of Realism and the effects of the Cold war on underdevelopment are explained.

Having discussed the theoretical aspects of international relations theories and their linkages to underdevelopment, the essay then examines the effects of the environment and socio-cultural values on underdevelopment and why underdeveloped countries are affected significantly by these factors.

The issue of religion is also included in the examination before summarizing the entire findings in the conclusion.

Even a cursory examination of the thematic world map depicting human development indices (placed at Appendix ) produced by the United Nations Development Programme reveals that large parts of the world remains underdeveloped. Development or lack thereof, in different parts of the world have numerous reasons that are far more complex than just a simplistic formulation such as ‘Western Imperialism’. This essay examines the theoretical paradigms, historical narratives and sociological variations to explain why underdeveloped countries are underdeveloped.

The Marxist Theory explains that under-development occurs because of Capitalism. Karl Marx viewed the Capitalist system as exploitative class, the bourgeoisie exploiting the working class, proletariat and that industrialization increased the divide between the rich and the poor and shackled the poor to the chains of servility and penury. Engels amplified that despite the growing wealth of the rich, the workers were “sinking into pauperism”1. Thus those who were being exploited continued to remain underdeveloped because the Capitalists needed that disparity to continue reaping profits. The reasons why the Western countries were able to overcome the problems of underdevelopment within their own countries so rapidly has been attributed to Imperialism and Colonialism. European countries could source cheap labor, raw materials and sell their manufactured goods at competitive rates because of their colonies that provided the resources. Thus, the resources of lands almost three or four times the size of the imperial country were made available in the homeland that helped overcome the gap of urbanization and underdevelopment.

The Marxist theory gave rise to the Two-tier Dependency Theory to explain why underdevelopment happens. According to this theory, Capitalism encourages the empowerment of the few over the many and that resources get exploited to enrich the cities and not the rural countryside. This resulted in a ‘dependency’ in which the urban center dominated “the extraction and terms of utilization of the resources of the immediate hinterland”2. Thus the urban centers became the dominant core while the outlying hinterland became the underdeveloped areas. This ‘Two tier dependency’ theory was extended to comprise state relations wherein rich states grew richer at the expense of the poor states.

Yet another theory called the ‘World-System’ theory posits that the world system consists of the economically dominant, the underdeveloped and the intermediate semi-periphery states. This theory draws its strength from the example of the East Asian ‘Tiger economies’ that have prospered between the tussle of the rich and the underdeveloped countries. According to Ginsburg and Koppel, Taiwan’s sustained growth with equity has been made possible because of “the effectiveness of both the population strategies and national development policies”3. The same rationale is used to describe the prosperity of South Korea. Social theorists have argued that these intermediate periphery countries have been successful because unique geopolitical space had been created for them due to Cold War dynamics and thus they could exploit both the Blocs to their advantage. So while the intermediate periphery countries have managed to come up, the underdeveloped countries continue to languish because there is no ‘space for them to grow.

The Modernization Theory posited that technological changes and economic advancement could lead to change in cultural behavior and outlook of people and bring about social progress. Thus advanced countries could help the underdeveloped countries by aiding them through introduction of technology and modern methods of conducting economics. Such a progress could be only through successive stages. What this implied was that the developed states would decide the speed of ‘modernization’ at which the underdeveloped countries could progress. In practice, the modernization theme gave rise to traditional imperialism.

Globalization Theory provides further rationale why underdeveloped countries would continue to remain underdeveloped. The developed countries, having had a head start on the road to modern economic development and modern infrastructure maintain the advantages which do not accrue in underdeveloped countries that remain handicapped on not having such institutions4. On their part, the developed countries maintain their control through a combination of economic policies and geopolitical machinations. These include control over all global financial institutions, trade barriers, protectionism and veto power so that the leverage over the underdeveloped counties is never lost. Coupled to this truism, is the enduring belief in Realism where all states strive for survival in an anarchic world where national interests reign supreme rather than ethics, morals and ideals. Realism also means that it is alright for the powerful states to decry ‘terrorism’ where a suicide bomber kills say a hundred people but glosses over the fact that developed militaries drop bombs that kill hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians as was done by U.S. forces during the invasion of Iraq. It therefore comes as little surprise that those countries at the bottom of the heap are often forced to remain there under a world system where the strong strive to maintain their balance of power and the weak survive by living under their shadow.

A typical example of such great power politics was the Cold War. The Cold War waged by the two chief protagonists; the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century was in many ways responsible for underdevelopment to persist in large parts of the world. In the ideological struggle between the ‘Free world’ and the Communists, entire countries especially the underdeveloped world were converted into battlegrounds ranging from the Far East, South East Asia, Africa, Eurasia and Latin America5. The lasting effects of the Cold War are still lingering in many of the Cold War era proxy war zones. Societies which already had deep internal divisions became even more polarized because of outside influence, money, arms and ideology and thus even when the Cold War has ended, the wars in Africa continue using the resources accumulated over the period.

Underdevelopment is also dependant upon the environment of that place. Some countries are resource rich and thus have a better chance of developing than countries that do not have adequate natural resources. Preponderance of only one type of natural resources usually results in skewed growth where the country may seem to have sufficient money but the overall development is poor. This is typical in oil rich Middle East and African countries, where other than oil revenues, the countries produce very little manufactured goods and are to a great extent dependant on agricultural imports to sustain their populations in a desert environment.

Environment also shapes the cultural map of a region. According to Steward, the natural landscape forced the human inhabitants to adopt certain practices that could help them cope with their existence better6. These practices became ‘culture’ that had a core and a periphery. Both the core and the periphery have distinctive characteristics that are unique to the region and play an important role in the development or under development of a community. The deterministic role of culture thus is an important factor. This theory of cultural determinism aptly explains the Bedouin culture of the Middle East where tribal loyalties preclude development of democratic ideals and developmental steps that go hand in hand with modern practices.

Yet another example is Africa. Undoubtedly, Colonialism and slave trade robbed Africa of its human capital. However, it is the cultural landscape of Africa which has been partly responsible for its inability to raise itself above its present state of underdevelopment. Ethnic and tribal loyalties dominate almost all of Africa which inhibits the growth of modern developmental structures. For example, Somalia, since colonial times has had a history of warlordism. Despite a shared Sunni Muslim ethnicity, the various clans who control various parts of the country have always been at odds with each other and fighting has remained endemic. When Siad Barre was the dictator of Somalia, he ruled ruthlessly and that was the only time that that the country ever had some sort of a government. Lack of economic opportunity and stability in Africa has forced large scale migrations to developed countries wherein the migrants now sustain their families back home through remittances. In 2004, $14 Billion were remitted to North Africa and $ 4 Billion to Sub-Saharan Africa by the African Diasporas7. Most of the remittances flow from America and Europe to Africa. The amount of inflow is significant for example “in 1990, remittances by Senegalese in the Diaspora were US $ 132 million, while French aid to Senegal was US $250 million”8. In some African countries, many areas subsist completely on remittances from abroad and this dependency offers corrupt governments the leeway not to spend monies on development of the state. In such cases, underdevelopment becomes endemic.

The factor of population adds to the underdevelopment paradigm. The world human population is slated to grow exponentially to 8.3 billion by 2025 which could lead to numerous problems and challenges. Human population explosion in various parts of the world has led to over-exploitation of resources leading to environmental degradation, reduced crop production forcing countries to import food leading to economic hardships and civil unrest. For example, the population of Bangladesh, one of the most under-developed countries, far exceeds the carrying capacity of the land leading to epidemics, civil unrest, food riots and illegal immigration. Similarly, population explosion in Africa has led to civil wars, forced migration of millions of Africans from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and much of Sub-Saharan Africa. In this case underdevelopment cannot simply be blamed on ‘exploitative West but rather on certain socio-cultural factors.

Family planning critical for the overall human development if applied in a skewed manner can lead to underdevelopment on other indices of development. A good example is China, which has a one- child family planning policy since 1979, a measure that has helped China to reduce their total fertility rate. This has also helped China to grow economically at an unbelievable pace where today it is one of the largest economies in the world. Yet China remains relatively underdeveloped on account of its huge population and single minded approach of the government to achieve economic success. This untrammeled growth is causing air pollution and water pollution at a gigantic scale where thousands of Chinese are being adversely affected. The concept of ‘Development at any cost’ and ‘Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics’ is propelling China into an ecological, demographic and sociological maelstrom.

Religious beliefs too can fuel underdevelopment. Capitalism emphasized the centrality of profits and the free market system, where every other aspect of human affairs was secondary. This rush to make gains at all costs, impinged on the social, cultural and ethical values of certain societies. In more traditional Muslim and Eastern societies, capitalist values were rejected by those societies even as their governments tried to imbibe the Capitalist system. Middle eastern societies have become more polarized as a reaction to Capitalist modernity which many view as corrupting, soulless and ungodly. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia is a typical example of a religious based conflict that occurred between groups from different civilizations within a state especially between Muslims and Non-Muslims as was the case in Bosnia. It is this adherence to religious dogmas and age old beliefs that have been responsible to some extent in ensuring why large parts of the Muslim world remain underdeveloped. The treatment of women in Islamic societies is a case in point. Emancipation of Women worldwide has been taken up by the western democracies as a cause that is prominently auctioned by international organizations and non-governmental organizations. These organizations try to change the culture of societies that consider it immoral for women to step out of the house or do anything else other than raise children. Violent reaction was sure to happen as is exemplified by the rise of religion based terrorist groups such as the Al Qaeda. Western culture is as much an ‘enemy’ as western imperialism and both issues are combined by militant Islam to harness its followers in underdeveloped countries to fight against the West.

In conclusion, it can be reiterated that the reasons why underdeveloped countries are underdeveloped are numerous and complex. The traditional explanation of imperialism and capitalism as being the root cause as propounded by the Marxist theory is augmented by the Modernization theory, the Dependency theory, the World System theory, and the Globalization theory all of which point to the real difficulties faced by underdeveloped countries in their quest for prosperity and progress. The continued relevance of Realism as the main approach governing international relations adds to the degree of difficulty for progress by the underdeveloped countries. Religion too is an important cause for continuation of conflicts that then reduces the chances, opportunities and resources for development. Coupled with this, are other variables such as ethnicity, socio-cultural factors, and environmental constraints that make progress in underdeveloped countries a difficult proposition.

Annotated Bibliography

Flanagan, William G. Contemporary Urban Sociology. Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1993.

Flanagan’s book looks at the sociological factors that govern human affairs. The book offers a clear insight into theories of cultural determinism, of how social values affect the economic progress of countries. Flanagan believes that rapid urbanization is leading to fragmentation of social and moral values which has a deleterious effect on human progress. Flanagan also explores the effects of sociological factors on issues of underdevelopment to state that the two are linked.

Ginsburg, NS, Bruce Koppel, and TG McGee. The Extended Metropolis. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1991.

The authors in their book examine the issues of urban development across Asia concentrating upon China, India, Japan and Indonesia exploring a vast number of disciplines such as Geography, sociology, planning, administration and economics. The authors clearly explain their thesis through an exposition of the World systems theory to explain the dynamics of development in Asia.

Labini, Paolo Sylos. Underdevelopment: A Strategy for Reform. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Labini’s work details the causes for underdevelopment and what plan is then required to overcome underdevelopment. Labini explores the globalization theme in its entirety and offers the analysis that globalization has only accentuated the divide between the rich and the poor and if underdevelopment has to be tackled, it would require a certain amount of concessions from the developed world for the greater cause of overall human prosperity.

Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, Samuel Moore, and Gareth Stedman Jones. The Communist Manifesto. NY: Penguin Classics, 2002.

Moore makes reading the Marxist theory of Marx and Engels easy. The Marxist theory remains the backbone of IR theories that blame western capitalism, imperialism and colonialism for the ills of the world. The authors argue that it is Capitalism with its primary focus on profits and not people that ensures exploitation of the underdeveloped countries and their continuance in that state for perpetuity.

Sikod, Fondo, and Tchouassi. “Diaspora Remittances and the Financing of Basic Social Services and Infrastructure in Francophone Africa South of the Sahara.” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, Vol 3 issue 3, 2006: 239-255.

The authors through this article clearly bring out the importance of remittances to African economies and how the continuance of such remittances are essential for the development of this underdeveloped part of the world.

Steward, Julian. “Cultural Ecology.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol.4, by Macmillan ed., 337-344. NY: Macmillan, 1968.

Cultural ecology is an important discipline to study as it fills in the gaps in information as to why underdevelopment persists. Steward’s exposition of a cultural ‘core’ and a ‘periphery’ aptly explains certain dyanamics of development-underdevelopment and how these fit into the larger picture.

Stewart, Francis. War and Underdevelopment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Stewart’s treatise is a clear exposition of the theme that War has been responsible for much of the underdevelopment that occurs in the world today. This rather simplistic looking thesis is given a full scholarly treatment with detailed historical explanation tracing the history of warfare and its debilitating effects on human development.


Human Development Indices World Map
Human Development Indices World Map.
Source: UNDP Website

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