Module 4: Historical Perspectives on Development and Under-development

Why are some communities more or less developed than others? While this may seem like a fundamental question that must have some fundamentally clear answer, it is a subject that has been tossed around and hypothesized about by many individuals involved in development work. While many would argue that it doesn’t matter how countries came to exist in their current state, that we should just focus on how to move them past such squalor and misery, there is something to be said about investigating why rich and poor countries’ paths diverge.

In Development and Underdevelopment: The Political Economy of Global Inequality, editors Mitchell A. Seligson and John T. Passé-Smith explore some of the most accepted, most controversial theories analyzing economic disparities between industrialized and developing nations. There is much reason why this topic has garnered a large amount of attention. The income gap between rich and poor countries has increased dramatically in the past several decades. In 1980, per capita incomes in poor countries averaged to only $245; the figures in industrialized countries, on the other hand, averaged to $9,648.(1) In 2008, the poor in low-income countries were making $523 in gross national income, whereas those in high-income countries were making $39,688.(2) In addition, there is a growing gap between rich and poor citizens within developing countries. Thus, the poor in developing countries find themselves economically disempowered by two phenomena simultaneously.(3)

Why is this suddenly a pressing concern, if many years of untamed discrepancies have led to the current state of affairs? Domestic deprivation and chronic inequality are dangerous determinants of civil strife and international disputes. Seligson and Passé-Smith even go as far to say that if these root causes are not addressed effectively and soon, global terrorism will thrive.(4) The world is also perplexed by the rapid growth of statistically impoverished “miracle countries” like India and China, whose expansion rates rivals those of even traditionally modernized nations.(5) In a swift effort to produce answers, specialists from a broad sampling of fields—anthropology, economics, psychology, sociology, and political science—have contributed their speculations and notions to the ever-widening breadth of literature about the differences between the haves and the have-nots.(6) Here are some of the leading postulations about why rich countries are rich and poor countries are poor.

Geographical Serendipity

Perhaps the deepest historical analysis is that of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.(7) Diamond is described as a “prehistorical determinist,” an evolutionary biologist/anthropologist who started thinking about the ancient precursors to wealth and prosperity when a native New Guinea inhabitant asked him why Diamond’s society was so significantly more successful than his own.(8) In his book, “environmental endowment” is introduced as the primary antecedent to enhanced development propensity.(9) Diamond purports that the geographical features of a society’s natural setting determined historical patterns of animal and plant domestication; idea and technology dissemination; epidemiological experience and disease resistance; and ultimately, path to modernization (or lack thereof).(10) He claims that the single most definitive factor that allowed Eurasian societies to excel over their southern counterparts was their favorable position on the East-West axis—an orientation that offered climactic, ecological, and logistical advantages. Diamond asserts that longer days were more favorable to genetic variation of vegetation.(11) He also maintains that Europe surpassed its Asian counterparts because its topography was more conducive to political fragmentation and, consequently, more formidable and competent governments.(12) While many critics point to holes in his reductionist declarations, most are able to praise the book’s scope and “compelling illustration that human history is embedded in the larger web of life on earth.”(13)

Jeffrey Sachs and his colleagues at Harvard University’s Center for International Development also contributed their perspective on geography’s role in economic development. They make a clear-cut observation in their article “Geography and Economic Development” that “nearly all countries in the geographic tropics are poor, and almost all countries in the mid- and high latitudes are rich.”(14) They further clarify by pointing out that “the coastal, temperate countries of the Northern Hemisphere have the world’s highest GDP densities. Four of these areas—Western Europe, northeast Asia (coastal China, Japan, and the Republic of Korea), and the eastern and western seaboards of the United States and Canada—are the core economic zones of the modern world.”(15) They report that this is true for several reasons. First, compared to temperate regions, tropical climates are characterized by higher disease burdens and thwarted agricultural productivity. Coastal regions (or regions linked to the coast by sufficient transportation and communication infrastructure), relative to hinterlands, are strongly favored in development because ocean-navigable waterways and ports are essential for healthy, lucrative international trade relations.(16) Thus, Sachs and his colleagues exhibit a view akin to that of well-known economist Paul Krugman, who also blames geographical predestination and “the capricious role of chance” for the frustrated economic development of developing countries.(17)

Paul Collier also throws his viewpoint on geography into the mix in his book The Bottom Billion.(18) In his chapter “Landlocked with Bad Neighbors,” Collier further explores the role of a country’s landlocked status in its development. His research has shown that all countries, landlocked or not, benefit from their neighbors’ growth.

“The global average was that if a country’s neighbors grew by an additional 1 %, the country grew at an additional 0.4 %. So nice neighborhoods, in the sense of fast growth, are pretty helpful to everyone. Globally, resource-scarce landlocked countries seem to make a special effort to piggyback on the growth of their neighbors—for the landlocked spillover is not 0.4 % but 0.7 % … Being both resource-scare and landlocked, along with having neighbors who either do not have opportunities or do not take them, pretty well condemns a country to the slow lane.”(19)

Collier’s discussion is different than that of Diamond and Sachs in that it engages ideas about how countries can better cope with their disproportionate geographical fortune. He proposes improving economic reciprocity between neighboring countries, investing in transport infrastructure and coastal access, and encouraging remittances.(20)

Residue of Imperialism and Institutions

“Colonialism,” according to the authors of The Process of Economic Development, “entailed more than the plundering of a militarily and economically weaker culture by a more powerful nation. Colonialism often resulted in severe demographic crises.” Take Spain’s conquests in Latin America during the 16th and 17th centuries, for example. Between 1540 and 1690, the indigenous population was utterly decimated—declining from approximately 70-90 million to 3.5 million due to overwork, introduction of European diseases, and inept battle proficiency relative to their menacing adversaries.(21) How these events influenced regional attitudes about change, technology, and industrialization for future generations can be explained by scrutinizing the concept of “path dependence.”

“The term ‘path dependence’ has been used to describe the important role which historical events and historically formed institutions have in determining the future range of possibilities for a nation. Once institutions have been formed, they tend to lock-in a certain evolutionary path for the nation. If the previously formed institutions are socially constructive, then the evolutionary path of the economy can be virtuous; the process of cumulative causation leads to an upward spiral of social progress. But if the institutional basis of a society has been formed through a long process whereby inhibiting institutions and social practices have become deeply entrenched, then it is more likely that the future evolutionary path will be one of vicious circles of cumulative causation leading to low levels of income and achievement.”(22)

Even historian David Fieldhouse, traditionally reluctant to blame colonial policies for a nation’s future underdevelopment, has stated,

“[C]olonial states constituted an arbitrary break in the historical process, sometimes splitting regions with some natural connection, elsewhere bringing together societies which had no capacity to co-operate; and in either case doing so at a speed that made it impossible for forces to operate satisfactorily. In this respect colonialism bequeathed an impossible heritage to the rulers of the new states.”(23)

The authors of The Process of Economic Development are quick to clarify, however, that although a history of colonialism plays a pivotal role in determining a nation’s disposition toward economic and social change, these countries are not necessarily “condemned mechanistically to repeat the processes and behavioral patterns established in the past.”(24) In other words, while colonialism is generally a detriment to development if policies of absolute depredation and despotism were used, it is not an absolute death knell to progress or growth.

Culture and the Future of Civilizations

There has recently been much speculation about whether culture (and, more specifically, ingrained cultural values) can partially explain the gap between rich and poor countries. While proponents of this position point to a sort of cultural determinism as the reason why the First and Third Worlds are on radically different planes, their contention is more flexible than the geographical deterministic philosophy of Diamond and others.

“According to the cultural thesis, punctuality, hard work, achievement, and other ‘industrial’ values are the keys to unlocking the economic potential of poor countries. Most adherents of this perspective believe that such values can be inculcated through deliberate effort.”(25)

Francis Fukuyama, a well-known American political economist, argues in his book Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity that trust (and the related aspect of “social capital,” to be explained in a separate course) is the foundation of development success. This makes it difficult for some Latin American and Asian societies—which are characteristically nuclear, inward-looking, family-focused, and in general distrustful of voluntary associations outside their bloodlines—to “feel a sense of responsibility to larger groups.”(26) According to Ted Fischer, author of Broccoli & Desire, this is deleterious to the goals of community development because hope in the future lies in the ability to envision a collective destiny in the present.(27)

Targeting cultural values as a cause of development or underdevelopment brings up ethical questions. Can culture be manipulated to produce desired results? Is it possible to incubate new cultural tendencies, like collaboration and voluntary association? What is the role of external agencies in mitigating “the cultural dimensions of the problem”(28)?

In short, while there are many theories circulating about how the gap between rich and poor countries came to exist, a historical understanding of the contours of destitution and deprivation is valuable in perceiving present implications, as well as proposing future courses of action.

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(1) “World Development Report 1980.” The World Bank. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980): 34.

(2) “Gross national income per capita 2008, Atlas method and PPP.” The World Bank. Posted 19 April, 2010. Accessed on 24 May 2010.

(3) Passé-Smith, J., and Seligson, M. Development and Underdevelopment: The Political Economy of Global Inequality. (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2008): 2.

(4) Ibid, 3.

(5) Ibid, 2.

(6) Ibid, 4.

(7) Diamond, J. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. (W. W. Norton & Company, 1997).

(8) Sprinkle, R. “Book Review.” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 20.1 (Winter, 2001): 174.

(9) McNeill, J.R. “The World According to Jared Diamond.” The History Teacher. 34.2 (February, 2001): 165.

(10) Sprinkle (2001), 174.

(11) McNeill (2001), 171.

(12) Ibid, 169.

(13) Ibid, 174.

(14) Gallup, J., Mellinger, A., and Sachs, J. “Geography and Economic Development.” International Regional Science Review. 22.2 (1999): 180.

(15) Ibid.

(16) Ibid, 184.

(17) Krugman, P. “The Role of Geography in Development.” Prepared for the Annual World Bank Conference on Development Economics in Washington, D.C. April 1998. Accessed on 25 May 2010.

(18) Collier, P. The Bottom Billion. (Oxford University Press, 2007): 53-63.

(19) Ibid, 56-57.

(20) Ibid, 58-62.

(21) Cypher, J. and Dietz, J. The Process of Economic Development. (Taylor & Francis, 2008): 78.

(22) Ibid, 79.

(23) Fieldhouse, D. Colonialism, 1870-1945: An Introduction. (Weidenfeld and Nicolson: 1981): 15.

(24) Cypher and Dietz (2008), 79.

(25) Seligson and Passé-Smith (2008), 5.

(26) Fukuyama, F. Trust: Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. (Simon and Schuster, 1996): 56.

(27) Fischer, T. Broccoli and Desire: Global Connections and Maya Struggles in Postwar Guatemala. (Stanford University Press, 2006).

(28) Fukuyama, F. “Social Capital and Development: The Coming Agenda.” SAIS Review, 22.1 (Winter-Spring 2002): 32.