How has the development of the First World shaped the underdevelopment of the Third?

Constance Frohly
By Constance Frohly, Development Correspondent

As the wealthiest 1% of the planet detains more resources than the rest of the World’s population, we are facing a record-high level of inequality today that correlates with mass-poverty and underdevelopment. The consequences of not using resources to their full socio-economic potential, according to Frank [i], are very similar to the characteristics of poverty (wide inequalities, unhealthy balance of trade and social needs) [ii]. In response to the concept of underdevelopment, economists have conceived the role of ‘overdeveloped countries’ that benefit from excessive consumption in the North. What connections are there between some countries’ ‘overdevelopment’ and others’ ‘underdevelopment’? To what extent has the development of the First World spread poverty in the Third World? As the economy of the South is conditioned by the development and the expansion of the North, the sociologist T. Dos Santos defines those bonds as ones of dependency [iii].

Since the first phase of colonialism in the 15th century, the ‘First World’ has interfered in the ‘underdeveloped countries’. They first brought religions and institutions, whilst modernising the country they began to trade with. Settlers also began organising societies, similar to the inclusive institutions they knew in their ‘developed home countries’ – or simply to exploit ‘underdeveloped countries’. Inclusive institutions helped countries to develop economically, while the ones colonised for their resources still struggle to enter the global market. As a matter of fact, the process of colonisation set an unequal balance of power that modernisation and dependency theories try to explain. The modernisation theory, based on the sociologists Weber and later Parsons research, described modernisation as moving forward on the path of development [iv]. Thus, the First World tries to push underdeveloped countries towards urbanisation and industrialisation. This theory set a dominant paradigm until the middle of the 19th century; in 1949, two economists came up with another theory: dependency.

Prebisch and Singer argued that modernisation theorists failed to understand there is no common path of development for the North and the South, because of their ignorance of the South’s history. Developed countries might have been undeveloped in the past, but never underdeveloped, so the efforts of the North to include the South in global trade did not suit their needs. According to the dependency theory, ‘peripheral countries’ – also called ‘satellites’ – are included in the global economy to provide resources for the needs of a (more developed) ‘metropole’. Frank hence describes a “chain of metropoles and satellites” that form a world-system according to the Marxist theory (Wallerstein), and uses this concept as a unit of social analysis. The US, Europe and Australia are therefore core countries, developing countries are semi-peripheral ones and some landlocked countries mainly in Africa are considered to be extreme satellites. This theory is based on a division of labour common to one area, and the added value of the labour force. Frank observed that if the bonds between metropoles and satellites increase, the development of the periphery decreases; and it increases when ties to the metropole decrease. This analysis describes the key role of cities that can be both a metropole and a satellite of other cities. New markets are thereby integrated to the world economy by core countries that make profit, mainly thanks to the capitalisation of the economy by multinationals. In Africa, almost all economic activities are organised and controlled by private entrepreneurs, motivated by profit making at the expense of the local governments and communities’ rights. This loss of sovereignty was denounced by the leader of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, in 1965 [v]. The power of the State is also weakened by the political pressure exerted by the North in the name of the ‘post-political’.

According to Catney and Doyle [vi], the concept of sustainability respectful of the environment for future generations is yet another example of the domination of the South by the North. The authors ask whether the welfare of the ‘future citizen’, aka the future white shareholder, is more important than the welfare of present citizens of the global South. The First World dominates the debate on environment, however fails to recognise the differences between global Northern and global Southern development, economy and people. The Third World is not able to face environmental challenges in the same manner as the First, and this is partly due to their interactions.

The South is rich in natural resources, especially strategic energy and mineral resources in Africa. During colonial times, companies from Europe conducted expropriation and slavery to increase their profits in global trade. With neo-colonialism today, multinationals keep taking advantage of the labour force, like Avocet mining did in Burkina Faso by unjustly firing workers in December 2014 [vii]. The main consequence of industrialisation and trade with ‘underdeveloped countries’ is the dependence of the people and the government toward the economic activity granted by multinationals at the expense of community.

This economic activity benefits multinationals, governments of the First World, and tax havens. “First world nations actively, but not necessarily consciously, perpetuate a state of dependency through various policies and initiatives” wrote Amadi in 2012 [viii]. The UK government in particular had major interests in sending FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), promoting free trade and banning protectionism in new markets (Africa mainly). The bonds between the government and the private sector are particularly close in Great Britain: for example, according to the War on Want charity, “Lord Kerr of Kinlochard was in the UK Diplomatic Service and worked at the Foreign Office, and was a non-executive director of Rio Tinto from 2003 to 2015 and deputy chair of Royal Dutch Shell plc from 2005 to 2012” [ix].

To conclude, colonialism set an unequal balance of power in the global economy that enabled multinationals to profit through economic activity from the resources of the global South, supported by some interventions of governments. According to Escobar [x], “the construction of the poor and underdeveloped as universal, reconstituted subjects” justify these interventions. From these statements arise the questions of what is necessary and to whom – and who is qualified to answer those questions.

Header Image: Photo by kinsey on Unsplash


[i] Frank A. G., “The Development of Underdevelopment,” Development: Critical Concepts in the Social Sciences (2005)

[ii] Report of the Conference of FAO. 4th Session. Washington, D.C., November 1948

[iii] Santos, T. (2011). Imperialismo y dependencia. 1st ed. Caracas, Venezuela: Fundación Biblioteca Ayacucho.

[iv] Huber, J. (2008) “Pioneer countries and the global diffusion of environmental innovations: Theses from the viewpoint of ecological modernisation theory” Elsevier Global Environmental change 18 360-370

[v] Nkrumah K., (1965) Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism

[vi] Catney, P., & Doyle, T. (2011). ‘The welfare of now and the green (post) politics of the future’. Critical Social Policy, 31(2), 174–193.

[vii] War on Want (2016). The New Colonialism: Britain’s scramble for Africa’s energy and mineral resources.

[viii] Amadi, L. (2012) “Africa: Beyond the “new” dependency: A political economy” African Journal of Political Science and International Relations Vol. 6(8), pp. 191-203.

[ix] ‘Lord Kerr of Kinlochard’, biographies/lords/lord-kerr-of-kinlochard/3708 War on Want

[x] Escobar, A. (2012). Encountering development. 1st ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

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