Definition, Features and Causes of Underdevelopment


Definition, Features and Causes  of Underdevelopment

Concept of Underdevelopment

Definition of Underdevelopment 

In more recent times, the phenomenon of underdevelopment has gained momentum in both national and international discourse. Maybe because, as the global wealth continues to increase in this age of globalization, only very few nations are gaining and progressing from such expansion, while others, many of whom are found in the Third World, have continued to experience underdevelopment. Despite the billions of dollars that annually go into the eradication of underdevelopment, it the under-utilization of their human and material resources, or a combination of both factors. Underdevelopment depicts an appalling situation where the human and socio-economic potentials of a given society have either been externally exploited to the detriment of its inhabitants, or have not been fully or optimally harnessed by the government for a better and quality living of its citizens.

Underdevelopment makes sense only as a parameter for comparing levels of development across the globe. Every society has developed in one way or another. Some societies have developed more by being able to master science and technology and deploy such superior knowledge in the production of tools with which they meet their needs, and even exploit, subjugate and dominate other societies that have “lesser” knowledge of science and technology, and this, directly or indirectly stagnates development process of the latter while accelerating the development of the former.

Underdevelopment is a consequence of Industrial Revolution. Many countries of the world have been experiencing underdevelopment for more than 250 years – since the Industrial Revolution. Before then, the level of development in all societies across the globe was relatively equal though there were little variations in some cases. Every society before then, have developed in one way or another at its own pace, and to address its own peculiarities. There was no naked exploitation of one country by another as such before then. Precisely, for centuries, great empires like those of China, India and what is today known as the Arab nations were the leaders in wealth and technology. But their technological innovations did not take off to become a revolution in the production of goods and services.

However, the Industrial Revolution took the globe like a storm and altered development equations across the world. The Industrial Revolution led to the use of machines in production, and this led to mass production which generated surplus value, and this led to capitalism which created the quest for profit maximization, and this led to imperialism (subjugation of other nations in search for raw material, cheap labour and markets for finished goods) which led to colonialism, and this led to neo-colonialism which is said to cause underdevelopment in the periphery. The transformation of production, thus embarked on, has helped the West stay the leader in new technological development. While the exploiting powers or the industrialized capitalist states (example, USA, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, etc) are described as “developed” or “core” or “metropole” or “centre of the periphery” or “rich” societies, the socio-economically exploited societies are described as “undeveloped” or “poor” or “periphery” or “satellite” or seems the problem instead of reducing, is increasing.

Underdevelopment is not absence of development, nor the absence of human and natural resources. It means the inadequate or insufficient level of development in the Third World as a result of the exploitation or “underdeveloped” or “Third world” or most recently, “developing” countries. The term “underdeveloped” is fast disappearing in international lexicon because it is considered derogatory, and it is being replaced with “developing” which is considered to be more polite and courteous.

However, the term underdeveloped is still closely associated with the Dependency School who believe that in the global economy, there are centrifugal forces at work, strengthening the already rich core, while keeping the periphery poor, and in a state of permanent underdevelopment.

The underdeveloped countries are found mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin-America (though with few exceptions following the recent socio-economic development in Brazil, China, India and Asian Tigers –Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand). Underdevelopment depicts the poor socio-economic conditions of the developing countries.

In his work - The Political Economy of Growth, Paul Baran argued that it was the search for the external outlet to invest economic surplus that indirectly led to underdevelopment. He defined economic surplus as the difference between society’s actual current output and its actual current consumption. Economic surplus can be saved and invested, but it can only be generated if a country produces more than it consumes. By producing more and consuming less, the industrialized capitalist nations generated and saved a lot of economic surplus, but without corresponding internal outlets for investing the accumulated surplus.

This compelled them to search for and create external outlets for the investment of the economic surplus. This led to imperialism and later, colonialism and neo-colonialism. That was why the ex-colonies (satellite states) were created and designed to serve as avenues for investments, and most importantly, as markets for finished goods from the colonizing powers (the metropole). Manufacturing which would later shape and define global economy was never encouraged in the satellite states. All these, individually, and in combination led to the underdevelopment of the productive forces which have continued to undermine development process in the Third World.

Features of Underdevelopment

Underdevelopment is a feature of underdeveloped states. These states have certain characteristics that mark them out from the developed nations of the world. These include the following:

      Imperialism, Slave Trade, Colonialism, Exploitation and Dependency

       Export of Primary Commodities (such as cotton, rubber, cocoa,  groundnut, palm oil, crude oil etc)

      Low Manufacturing Activities

      Corruption and Bad Governance

      Political and Social Instability

   Inadequate social infrastructure (such as electricity, potable water, good roads, well equipped schools and functional hospitals, etc)

      Weak Economy

      Weak Institutions

       Obsolete Technologies

      Low per Capital Income

      Low Standard of Living

      Low Life Expectancy

      High Poverty Rate

       High Unemployment Rate

      High Crime Rate


      Living on Charity

All these above stated problems are common to all countries of the world that are presently experiencing underdevelopment though their magnitudes vary from one country to another. At one point or another of their history, the underdeveloped countries were all annexed, enslaved, colonized and exploited by the industrialized capitalist states. Their economies were designed to be dependent; hence they could only produce primary products whose prices are often unjustly determined by the industrialized capitalist nations. This, combined with corruption and bad governance that later ensued, resulted in the non-provision of the basic amenities of life.

All these factors collectively weakened their economies, and the inequality and wars. Today, most of these countries depend largely on charity to eke out a living, or to even survive.


There is no doubt that imperialism, slave trade, colonialism and neocolonialism have been largely responsible for underdevelopment in the Third World, and internal factors such as corruption, bad governance, and political instability are also integral part of the problem and therefore, should always be taken into cognizance in the analysis of underdevelopment anywhere in the world.

Also read on: << Definition of development >>

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