Chapter Summary

Learning Objectives

After reading this chapter, students should be able to:

  • Define underdevelopment
  • Describe the history of global development
  • Describe the economic, social and political characteristics of underdevelopment
  • Identify and classify different theories explaining the causes of underdevelopment

Chapter Summary

Throughout this text the situations of three individuals will be used to illustrate typical challenges faced by people in developing countries: eight-year-old Nathalie from a rural village in the Democratic Republic of Congo; Priya, a twenty-eight-year-old wife and mother living as a squatter in Mumbai, India; Cheng, father of a teenage son, lives in a populated suburb outside the Chinese city of Wuxi.  

All three hypothetical individuals are inhabitants of the less developed world under study in this book. What does it mean to say some countries are less developed than others? Underdevelopment refers to the fact that most citizens of these countries face significant difficulties in satisfying basic material needs. These areas of the world can be referred to as less developed, LDCs, developing countries, underdeveloped countries or the global south, even though each of these labels has its own shortcomings. Most of the global population resides in these countries.

Generally these countries share certain economic, social and political characteristics. Economically, these countries are not only poor, but suffer from low productivity, inadequate infrastructure, large informal sectors and economic activity concentrated in the primary sector. Lack of social development in these countries is characterized by insufficient educational and healthcare resources as well as the systematic exclusion of important ethnic, racial, religious or gender groups from power. Finally, the political characteristics the LDCs relate to insufficient development of democracy and overall lower state capacity to both deliver services and enforce policy.

The history of economic development can give an important perspective on today’s situation. The Agricultural Revolution, 10,000 years ago allowed for sedentary farming and the consequent production of surplus food gave rise to new specializations and divisions of labor within increasingly sophisticated societies. Still, even by the early 1700s, the overwhelming majority of people were farmers. There was relatively little inequality between societies, with the richest societies’ incomes being about three times the income of the poorest societies. The Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century increased the productive capacity of certain societies so quickly that large gaps between rich and poor within and between countries grew. By the middle of the twentieth century the income differential between rich and poor societies had increased from 3:1 to 40:1. This description of economic development and underdevelopment, however, does not help to explain why some countries are wealthy and others experience underdevelopment.

To be able to explain underdevelopment, three sets of theories must be examined. These theories are the basis of the organization of this text. One set of theories lays blame for the impoverishment of the LDCs on the West by citing international factors that European nations and the US perpetuated: the slave trade, colonialism, globalization and aid dependence. These are discussed in Part II of the text. A second group of theories cite factors internal to LDCs such as leadership, institutions, laws, policies, culture, ethnic heterogeneity, corruption, etc. These theories are discussed in Part III of the text. A final set of theories focus on natural factors to explain underdevelopment in LDCs. This would include explanations based on geography, physical environment and climate. These explanations are discussed in Part IV of the text.

In reality, no single theory can explain phenomena as broad as underdevelopment in an area as diverse as the Global South. China, India and the Democratic Republic of Congo have different histories, physical resources and political systems. Additionally, while this three-fold classification of theories seems attractive, in reality theories may cut across this system: ethnic conflict may be caused by inadequate institutions, but also colonially-drawn boundaries may have created the problem initially. Indeed a brief case study of the Democratic Republic of the Congo reveals the interplay of internal, colonial and natural forces in contributing to underdevelopment.