Development & Under-Development

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After studying this section you should be able to:

  • define the key concepts of development and under-development
  • identify and illustrate the characteristics of development

Key concepts
World sociology is concerned with explaining the relationship and, specifically, the economic inequalities, between different regions and different countries of the world. Generally the term ‘development’ is used by Western sociologists to mean industrialisation, economic growth and the living standards associated with prosperity, such as increased life expectancy, health-care, free education, etc. Those countries that have not yet achieved these objectives are said to be ‘undeveloped’ and are often termed ‘less-developed countries’ (LDCs).

The problematical nature of ‘development’
However, some sociologists suggest that this definition of development is both loaded and ethnocentric – it reflects the view that Westernisation is the only worthwhile and desirable direction development should take. Not all sociologists agree with this definition of development. For example, some regard liberation from oppression as more important to progress than industrialisation. Others regard industrial development as a problem if it means increasing social and economic divisions within a country. Islamic societies regard development as constituting progress to becoming nearer to Allah whereas Westerners might regard this as a backward step.

It is also important to distinguish between ‘undeveloped’ and ‘under-developed’ societies. The former have not yet developed but there is no reason why they should not do so in the future. The latter have not developed because they have been prevented from doing so by richer countries. Their poverty may have been directly caused by richer countries exploiting them.

Until the 1990s, world sociology mainly focused on the relationship between the rich countries of the First World (consisting of the USA, Japan, Western Europe, etc.) and the Third World (consisting of most of Africa, South and Central America, the Indian subcontinent and most of East Asia). The Second World was a political entity made up of the socialist/communist societies such as the USSR, Eastern Europe, China, etc.

Today, the distinction between these three worlds is problematical for three reasons.

  • The Second World has largely collapsed – even China now has elements of free-market capitalism as part of its economic policy.
  • Some Third World countries have rapidly industrialised in the last thirty years, e.g. the so-called ‘Asian Tigers’ of South-East Asia (South Korea, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore) and South American countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. However, such development has tended only to benefit the political and economic élite. Nevertheless, there is no longer one single Third World.
  • It can be argued that we can no longer split the world up into distinct sections because of globalisation. Global communications, the easy movement of international capital, and the activities of multi- and transnational companies may mean that we live in one global system in which national and regional boundaries are less important.


The economic and social differences between developed nations and undeveloped nations

Despite these observations, the economic and social differences between First World and Third World or less-developed countries (LDCs) remain striking. In contrast with First World nations, LDCs display the following characteristics.

  • Their economies are based on production of cash crops and raw materials for export with little or no manufacturing industry.
  • They have low economic growth, little capital to invest, and high levels of unemployment and underemployment.
  • There is little, or no, formal education, with low levels of literacy.
  • There is famine and malnutrition, the latter being found in both rural and urban (e.g. shanty towns) areas.
  • There is a lack of basic health-care, with high levels of disease, high infantmortality and low life-expectancy.
  • There are poor or non-existent communications and transport networks