The Causes of Underdevelopment in the Third World And Possibility for Human Development

Economic development is a complex process. There are many indicators to be taken into consideration and many conventional means that must not be taken into consideration. The following is a discussion of the indicators that can be used to define economic development and their plausibility as credible benchmarks of the achievement of economic development.


Changes in Gross Domestic Product

Change in GDP is a way to measure economic development. Positive change in the GDP means the same in the case of income. GDP per person, therefore, is a measure to calculate the average standard of living. But this idea may prove deceptive because almost none of the people of a country receive the average income. Some receive more and most receive less. In many cases, most part of the increased GDP goes to the wealthiest of the country, and the poorest receive so little. A very alarming case all over the world is that the gap between the rich and the poor is only increasing in most countries. Therefore an increase in GDP rarely means an increase in the standard of living of the people. A case study on this is the Indira Gandhi Canal Project in India, where the project stemmed an increase in the overall GDP but failed to ameliorate the conditions of the marginally poor and centralized land and capital in the hands of a newly prosperous landowning class who were successful to buy off or control the peasantry by other methods who were originally endowed with the land by the government. Therefore, while the change in GDP can be an indicator for economic development, it is only partial and not the most reliable one.



Sustainability is an important indicator of real economic development…Increasing numbers of people are calling for sustainable development: development that protects its environmental base so that it can be continued into the indefinite future. According to this way of looking at the issue, economic growth that fails to protect the environment is not true development, because it cannot be sustained while Isbister only concerned about the environmental effects as a measure for sustainability, increase in average GDP per person, and standard of living is surely another one.


Because if the economy fails to produce enough buyers for the product it produces, it would fail to sustain the development it achieves in the short run. We find the truth of this case in studying Brazil where the poor grew in number and not in the standard of living, the economy being unable to buy the products that the economy produced.


Income distribution

Income distribution is an important benchmark that provides sustainability to economic growth. Although this was ignored by many economists in the past, this idea is growing more prominent by the day. The trend for the new century is bridging the gap between the rich and the poor and creating a middle class that can consume the products that the economy produces.


Human development and the achievement of basic needs

The establishment of the World Bank as an international lending organization changed the definition of economic development to a great extent. In the 1970s, Bank President Robert S.McNamara and his associates directed attention to the needs of the absolute poor and directed economic development towards basic needs. The basic needs are sufficient food, adequate shelter from the elements, decent clothing, protection from disease, and elementary education. The United Nations Development Program advanced the basic needs approach a step. Further by constructing a human development. It acts as an alternative to the GDP expansion approach to economic development because part of the HDI is also the expansion of the GDP expansion per person and also includes the achievement of basic needs. This gives us a newer outlook in viewing economic development. Under the HDI approach, China does better than it does under the GDP approach because it has been largely successful to provide the basic needs of its people. Some countries like Brazil show results that are just the opposite and these performances directly relate to the standard of living in the people residing in these countries.


Therefore, keeping all the aforementioned conditions in mind, an acceptable definition of economic development is the expansion of the economy measured by the expansion in the GDP that is sustainable and provides proper income distribution among the people of the economy resulting in a better standard of living as measured by the achievement of basic needs and a better ranking.

read more Gender-based Racism: a social evil in the context of Asia


Economic Underdevelopment

The idea of economic underdevelopment is a very important one. A strict definition of this is absolutely in a dispensary before starting a discussion on this topic. Because, underdevelopment is not simply the opposite of development, it is actually a special condition that has arisen in the post-colonial third world that creates a hindrance to the path to development, keeping the nations from achieving their developmental goal. The effect of colonialism and neo-colonialism gave birth to these special phenomena.

The definition of underdevelopment by Smith(2013) will be used in this article which is the following: Underdevelopment refers to a continuing relationship of exploitation where, at any one level in the chain, the full economic surplus is not available for reinvestment. Another explanation of this definition can be, economic underdevelopment is a condition where for a set of the reason an economy is not able to reach its full potential of growth and existing relations hinders change towards a state of economic development.


The Third World

The working definition of the third world for the purposes of this article will be a direct excerpt from Smith(2013) which is as follows: The third world will be defined as a group of countries that have colonial histories and which are in the process of developing economically and socially from a status characterized by low incomes, dependence on agriculture, weakness in trading relations, social deprivation for large segments of society, and restricted political and civil liberties. (p.11, Chapter one)


Causes of Underdevelopment and Development

There are three main schools of scholars that discuss the reasons of underdevelopment in the third world and they also try and provide specific frameworks for overcoming those problems and heading towards a developed state. The main schools of theorists are­ the dependency theorists and the modernization theorists. For the purposes of this paper, dependency theorists and Marxist theorists will be viewed as a single entity as much of the revolutionary ideas from the socialist faction of the dependency school and Marxists overlap almost indistinguishable. There proposed reasons for underdevelopment and direction for development are summed in the following discussion.


Modernization Theory

The modernizations think of today‚Äôs third-world societies as being largely traditional. They believe that life under the traditional system is not linear but cyclic where there is very little space for innovation and change. Nothing is innovative and there is no attempt to make someone‚Äôs conditions than the current state. The modernization theorists are not dismissive of the traditional lifestyle of the third world and do not commonly view it as negative. But from the economic perspective, it is a poor, subsistence life, a life that has no hope of accumulation, income, or wealth. Historians in the modernization school argue that about five hundred years ago, most people in the world were poor, living under the traditional social arrangements. Sparks of scientific discovery and higher yield in crops gave birth to the ripples of change into the society that could evolve into something new. The modernizations argue that the failure of development in the third world is simply the failure of societies to kindle similar sparks of creativity. Their diagnosis of the causes of the underdevelopment of the third world is the failure of dismantling the traditional society and creating a capitalist society where upward mobility is possible.¬†¬† The direction for development provided by the modernization theorists is described by¬† Isbister(2006) as following: The transformation to modernity requires a breaking of these ways of thought the creation, for example, of a ‚Äėneed for achievement‚Äô, to use psychologist David McClelland phrase¬≠ a celebration of individual success as opposed to group affiliation. […] What is needed is a class of entrepreneurs who will mobilize the country’s wealth for productive investment, to create the technology and the capital needed for growth. However, this change might seem unnecessary since it is too risky for the people of the third world from their own perspective. Therefore the transformation requires low-risk opportunities and incentives to be provided to people so that they can opt for higher productivity and incomes (Isbister, 2006, p. 39, Chapter Three).¬† The impetus for this change can come from within the society or from outside of it. For proper sustainable development, the change must come from inside of the society from a people who can help sustain their achievement. It can come from a few people that were outside of the power structure or it can come from people who were formerly disposed of their power in an older power structure.


The modernization school, however, does not exempt the developed world from the burden of promoting growth in the underdeveloped world. They argue that it is mutually beneficial for the two worlds to help each other develop. The third world can benefit from acquiring the knowledge and technology from the first world and the first world can create a new consumer base for their products in the third world by helping them develop economically. (Isbister, 2006, p. 40, Chapter Three)

The modernizations, however, believe that the growth of the first world is indispensable for the growth of the third world. The creation of capital to be employed in developing the third world will be impossible without it, they argue.


Dependency Theory

One of the predominant theories coming especially from the voices of the third world leaders themselves is the dependency theory. Dependency theorists believe that the growth of today‚Äôs rich countries has impoverished the third world and that the forces of international capitalism still block its progress. John Isbister describes it in the following excerpt: To those in the dependency school, however, underdevelopment is a process.¬† Underdevelopment is not just the failure to developÕĺ it is an active process of impoverishment. Aidan Foster¬≠Carter put it nicely when he described Andre Gunder Frank‚Äôs use of underdeveloped.¬† B.C. Smith provides the following definition for underdevelopment from the perspective of dependency theorists: Underdevelopment refers to a continuing relationship of exploitation where, at any one level of the chain, the full economic surplus is not available for reinvestment. According to dependency theorists, the underdevelopment of the third world is a process started by the colonialists. An economic explanation of imperialism is the voracious demand of the industrialized countries for raw materials and for food imports from the world‚Äôs tropical areas. Imperialism shaped the economy of the third world which even today leaves the vast majority in desperately poor conditions. The imperialists destroyed the traditional economic systems of the third world and replaced them with a production system that produced well for their own consumption. The colonies were turned into a vast production system for sugar, cacao, tobacco, wheat, cotton, meat, fish, jute, coffee, coconuts, rubber, wool, palm oil, rice, bananas, groundnuts, indigo, tin, gold, silver, bauxite, copper and many more products

The dependency theorists see a fundamental difference between their views and the views of the Modernizations. They say: The modernization school sees the rich countries as being the main obstacle to the well¬≠being of the poor. […] Modernization theorists are by and large liberal and pro-capitalist, whereas dependency theorists are socialist and frequently revolutionary.

Although there is a significant difference between the dependency theorists and the modernization theorists in the diagnosis of the problem, some of the dependency theorists choose the path prescribed by the modernizations. They propose to fight fire with fire, the fire being capitalism. They can use today’s capitalism to break out of its dependent state. The scholars of this school find examples in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, and Malaysia. However, most in the dependency school argue against this notion and say that capitalism is not a strategy that can work for the great majority of the world’s poor. They argue that it reproduces class tensions and inequalities that are found in economically advanced countries. Most of the dependency adherents negate the notions of liberalism and call for a full-fledged socialist revolution in the third world with an idea very close to Marxism. The only distinguishable difference between the Marxist analysis and the dependency theory analysis is that Marxists consider the class struggle that is the cause of underdevelopment as being internal whereas dependency theorists consider it to be external.  However, I would argue that the internal class struggle is nothing but an epiphenomenon of the global class conflict portrayed by the dependency school. And some adherents of the dependency school also agree with the Marxist analysis of internal struggle. Therefore I include Marxist analysis as a subsection under the dependency school and not an independent ideology.

The postcolonial overdeveloped state: a cause of underdevelopment and a prologue to the discussion regarding the possibility of human development the state in the third world has rarely if ever, developed as a politically neutral institution. It has frequently fallen under the elites from dominant ethnic groups as exemplified by Sudan, Kenya, and Malaysia. It has been exploited by the bourgeois as exemplified by the Latin American capitalist states.  Political democracy prevails across the continent but it lacks civil democracy where the rights of the citizens are scrupulously observed. The power of the government in the third world has never been equally distributed. Exemplified by Burma, Iran, and Nigeria where freedom of organization is suppressed.   The civil society in these countries is also underdeveloped and therefore cannot equally influence the government.  Third-world countries also show an overdeveloped bureaucracy. The colonialists overdeveloped these sections of the society to facilitate their rule but underdeveloped the civil society. Thus the bureaucracy sometimes became military and authoritarian in the post-colonial period. The private sector is weak and dominated by bureaucracy. Some other functions like party bureaucracies sometimes counter the power of bureaucracy as exemplified by Tanzania. The bureaucracy also can become a center of political competition has happened in Mali. The bureaucracy provides support for the rise of a meritocratic stable middle class sometimes the bureaucracy develops into an authoritarian state. The state eliminates competition and closely controls political participation. They see democracy as an obstacle to economic growth. This happened in Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.


The possibility of Human Development in the Third World

Original Analysis Defining human development as the achievement of the basic needs for the majority of the citizen of a given country, I think that there is a significant possibility of human development in the third world. The achievement of human development is possible if the following stages are observed by a third-world society.

Among the basic needs, education must be emphasized as the first step towards development. Education can be the most powerful tool against the traditional economic system and the circular lifestyle of the people of the third world as observed by modernizations. Education should be widespread, free, and career­oriented. Much emphasis must be put into making a) a trained labor force b) a trained class of entrepreneurs and c) a trained class of researchers. The trained labors will be eligible for a higher pay automatically granted by new businesses launched by a growing class of entrepreneurs. The researcher would invent new technologies and methods to create improvements for the industry and help create new revenue-generating industries for the economy. The education must be restructured so that it is not purposefully structured to create a class of bureaucrats but a class of risk-taking innovators and entrepreneurs. All other education must be seen as redundant.

The second stage of human development should be cutting down the bureaucracy and reallocating the budget towards aspiring entrepreneurs. It could be done through the public universities where the school authority may issue grants provided by the government to help students fund a startup business that can create jobs for society. The government should try to create publicly owned private enterprises where the management would be done through private sectors and the initial financial help should be done by the government through buying shares of promising companies and generating revenues out of the businesses.

The third stage is increased investment opportunities for national and international investors:  The governments of the third world should follow the model of newly developed East Asian countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Malaysia and open their market to national and international investors for increasing economic growth. The government should undertake monetary and financial policies to keep the economic environment favorable for investment.

The fourth stage provides a legal and fiscal framework, promotes human development, and enforces law and order. The state should enforce strict labor laws and ensure the implementation of labor rights. It should also strictly enforce property rights and provide the legal framework for business contracts to ensure economic growth. The government should increase welfare measures while reallocating the financial resources from the redundant bureaus and reallocate the resources to welfare programs such as sanitation, electrification, education, social security, etc. the fifth stage is to support NGOs in humanitarian activism: The state should support local and international non­governmental organization who genuinely help to improve the human condition in the state. The state may try to fund the organizations if possible. The state must provide full access to the NGOs and help them carry out the social projects which have been proven useful.

Sixth to Increase control over international trade and colonialism: as a final stage, when the state has become somewhat develop and can afford to exert political power, the state must endeavor to exert control over the interests of the international capital and as a sovereign entity in controlling neocolonial agendas and promote its self-interests on a global stage.



Anupam Debashis Roy

Student, Department of Political Science

Howard University, USA

[email protected]
Facebook Comments

Share your thoughts

One Reply to “The Causes of Underdevelopment in the Third World And Possibility for Human Development”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *