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Developing countries—generally referring to the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America—is a term that was inspired by Walt Whitman Rostow’s classic work, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto (1960). Rostow argued that all countries go through a series of stages of economic development from “underdeveloped” to “developed”; that the United States, Western Europe, and Japan had reached the “highest stage” or “developed-country” status; and that those countries that were not mature, developed capitalist countries were in the process of “developing” and moving through the required stages.
A variety of terms have been used to refer to these “developing” countries. These include less-developed countries, underdeveloped countries, undeveloped countries, backward countries, Third World countries, and newly industrializing countries. Except for Third World, which was advanced in the late 1960s and early 1970s to refer affirmatively to countries that were politically independent of the United States and the Soviet Union, these terms are more-or-less pejorative. Newly industrializing is more specific than the other terms, in that it refers to a limited number of countries that have begun industrializing since the 1970s.
Implicit in the term developing countries is the suggestion that things will improve over (some unforeseeable period of) time. However, this terminology has been used to hide the exploitation and oppression of people in the so-called developing countries—exploitation by corporations headquartered in the developed countries, by dictators installed or supported by the U.S. government or its allies, or by the governments and militaries of the developing countries themselves.
As hinted at by its subtitle, Rostow’s work was designed to support the U.S. imperial project and aimed not only to bypass but to supersede the Communist concept of imperialism. To Rostow—and to the U.S. government, for which he later worked—the Communist challenge in Southeast Asia was a serious one, especially because the region was deemed of strategic importance. Rostow argued that the lot of poor, exploited, and mistreated peasants in the developing countries would get better over time, whereas the Communists maintained that things could not improve under capitalism—that is, that revolution, not acquiescence based on “hope,” was the only path to a better life.
The upper echelon of the U.S. government saw its post–World War II (1939–1945) project to achieve political, economic, military, and cultural hegemony over the countries of the world—at least those outside of the Soviet Empire—as being threatened by various revolutionary struggles in the developing countries. In response, the United States designed a global strategy of counterinsurgency to undercut indigenous struggles to gain independence (Post 1990, pp. 1–41). Along with this went various forms of ideology and propaganda, a key component of which was the theory of modernization, of which Rostow was the primary proponent.
One of the first critical thinkers to analyze the true situation of the developing countries was Raúl Prebisch of the Economic Commission for Latin America, who argued that the relationship between developed and developing countries was exploitive. This perspective was further developed by Andre Gunder Frank, who introduced the concept of dependent development. According to Frank, development strategies promoted by the wealthy countries were designed to ensure that the “developing” countries remained in a subordinate position.
A more systemic and historical perspective was proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980, 1989). Wallerstein’s world-system theory holds that beginning in the sixteenth century, capitalists backed by “strong states” spread outward from Western Europe to control the world, obtaining cheap labor and raw materials through trade relationships that benefited those in the European— and later U.S.—“core” countries. Wallerstein posits three levels of economic development represented by concentric “rings,” moving from the advanced “core” countries to peripheral countries, with the “semi-periphery” located in between.
Despite having generated extensive research, Wallerstein’s conceptualization has a critical weakness: While it is quite perceptive, it is a static model. Once a country gets “located” in one of the three “rings,” worldsystem theory cannot explain how it can move from one ring to another. The case of South Korea is perhaps the most obvious example of a transition world-system theory cannot explain. Wallerstein’s model has other problems as well. Historical evidence does not support the existence of a singular world-system—at least before 1989. In addition, Wallerstein’s conception is overly economistic.
A much more interesting approach is that of Jan Nederveen Pieterse (1989). Nederveen Pieterse, who unfortunately did not have the “marketing” acumen of Wallerstein, never named his conceptualization. Yet his book Empire and Emancipation: Power and Liberation on a World Scale (1989) is the best explanation to date of relations between the European and, later, American nationstates and those referred to as developing countries. Nederveen Pieterse argues that to understand European global domination, one must begin by returning to the Crusades, out of which, he maintains, modern “Europe” developed. He carefully considers the processes of European development, taking a poststructural, processural approach instead of a static one. Nederveen Pieterse sees the domination of Europe and the United States as being imperialistic, but unlike Marxists, he does not give primacy to economics: He recognizes imperialism as (1) being a process of domination; (2) being characterized by interaction between economics and politics; and (3) always harming the people in the dominated countries. Interestingly, Nederveen Pieterse does not confine his understanding of imperialism to the nation-state level. Instead, he argues that imperialism is the domination of one political community over another, encompassing not only states, but also supra-states (e.g., the United Nations), subnational communities, and even organizations, such as the AFL-CIO.
Nederveen Pieterse is not satisfied, however, with focusing his analysis on domination alone; he argues that one must also analyze and theorize historical resistance to domination. Thus, he recognizes the Haitian Revolution and its key role in world history, the struggles of Native Americans against Euro-American settlers, and other efforts to resist domination.
Neocolonialism and Postcolonialism
With only a few exceptions, such as Ethiopia, Iran, and Thailand (formerly Siam), most of the world’s developing countries were formerly colonies. While formal colonization has largely ended, either through the granting of independence or through wars of liberation, many formerly colonized countries have continued their earlier political-economic relationships with their former colonial master. The reason for this is easy to understand: Colonization involved structuring the economy of the colonized country to serve the needs of the colonizing country and its corporations. Local administrators trained during the colonial period know little else, and therefore the old relationships have continued, only under new leadership (the color of the faces is usually all that has been apparently changed, but usually violence against formerly colonized peoples has been drastically reduced, if not ended). This continuation of earlier colonial politicaleconomic relations is generally referred to as neocolonialism. Neocolonial relationships have been encouraged by both the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Both have promoted neoliberal development programs. This neoliberal economic model has resulted in what Kim Scipes’s study of the Philippines from 1962 to 1999 calls “detrimental development” (Scipes 1999).
Perhaps the most interesting phenomena of the late 1990s and early 2000s is the development of postcolonial states. These are states that have decided to develop their respective economies in ways that challenge the hegemony of the U.S.-controlled IMF and World Bank. Great progress has been made by several postcolonial countries, including South Korea, which went from the periphery to the core (using Wallerstein’s terminology) in less than thirty years. Venezuela, a major oil-producer, is also currently showing success at developing its economy independently.
Postcolonial development models differ widely. South Korea’s rapid industrialization, as impressive as it was, was in large part achieved through extreme exploitation of young women. Venezuela, on the other hand, has set a slower pace of development, and the government of President Hugo Chavez is trying to find ways to improve the lives of Venezuela’s people through diverting some of the country’s oil profits into social programs. How far Venezuela can go in meeting the needs of the people, especially in light of U.S. intervention in its domestic affairs, remains to be seen. However, Venezuela’s mobilization of large masses of the population to address their own problems—that is, development from “below,” as opposed to the imposition of state “plans” from above—is an exciting process that holds out the promise of development without oppression.
- Nederveen Pieterse, Jan P. 1989. Empire and Emancipation: Power and Liberation on a World Scale. New York: Praeger.
- Post, Ken. 1990. The Failure of Counter-Insurgency in the South. 4 of Revolution, Socialism, and Nationalism in Viet Nam. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
- Rostow, W. W. 1960. The Stages of Economic Growth: A NonCommunist Manifesto. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Scipes, Kim. 1999. Global Economic Crisis, Neoliberal Solutions, and the Philippines. Monthly Review 51 (7): 1–14.
- Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974, 1980, 1989. The Modern WorldSystem. 3 vols. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
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