Dependency Theory of Development

According to dependency theory, the flow of resources from a “periphery” of impoverished states to a “core” of affluent nations results in the latter’s enrichment while sacrificing the former. This pioneering concept, advanced in the late 1950s by Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, significantly escalated in influence during the 1960s and the 1970s. It also emerged as a pivotal framework for comprehending economic underdevelopment and the limitations imposed by the global economic and political arrangements.

At its core, the theory asserts that impoverished nations are mere sources of raw materials, inexpensive labour, and markets for wealthier countries. Similar to theories such as the Low-level Equilibrium Trap or Vicious Circle of Poverty, the Dependency theory attempts to explain the reasons behind the underdevelopment of certain economies.

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The genesis of dependency theory can be traced back to 1949 through seminal works by Hans Singer and Raúl Prebisch. In these works, they highlighted degrading terms of trade for underdeveloped nations compared to their developed counterparts. Concluding from these observations, Prebisch further postulated that underdeveloped countries needed to adopt protectionist trade measures to transition towards a self-sufficient development trajectory. He argued that focusing on import-substitution industrialization (ISI), as opposed to a reliance on trade and exports, would be the most effective approach.

Widespread recognition of dependency theory unfolded primarily in the 1960s and 1970s when it emerged as a rebuttal to modernization theory. It was deployed to elucidate the phenomena of overurbanization in the developing world. Additionally, dependency theory underscores the critical role of the international labour division. It outlines a schema where skilled labourers concentrate in the core nations, disproportionately benefitting from the labour of the unskilled classes residing in the periphery.

Other influential thinkers, like Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, also extended the dependency model to Africa. In his 1972 work, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” Rodney highlighted European imperialist exploitation. Dependency theory, gaining popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, further emerged as a robust critique of modernization theory.

Dependency theory soon became pivotal in explaining the shortcomings of conventional liberal development methods, especially in mitigating widespread poverty. It points to the constraints stemming from the global political and economic landscape. These insights continue to influence discussions on development and international relations.

Dependency theory posits that global resources funnel from the economically disadvantaged “periphery” to the prosperous “core,” diluting the former’s wealth. It asserts that this wealth transfer mechanism significantly marginalizes poorer nations while bolstering the rich, as they leverage the global economic system.

Core and Periphery in Dependency Theory

Core and Periphery

Describing the global economic landscape, dependency theory delineates core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral countries. Core countries stand as affluent, industrialized entities leading the world’s economy, whereas peripheral countries represent economically dispossessed counterparts reliant on the core. Semi-peripheral countries occupy a nuanced position, blending attributes of both core and peripheral nations.

This theoretical framework also argues that core countries perpetuate their advantage over the periphery through economic, media, political, and cultural hegemony. Additionally, such mechanisms engender a cyclical dependency, inhibiting peripheral countries’ autonomous economic growth and necessitating their reliance on core nations for sustenance and political backing.

Core CountriesSemi-Peripheral CountriesPeripheral Countries
Wealthy, industrialized nations that dominate the global economyMix of core and peripheral characteristicsPoorer, less-developed nations that are dependent on the core
Maintain dominance through economic influence, media control, political manipulation, and cultural dominationExhibit a combination of core and peripheral traitsRely on the core countries for economic and political support

The core-periphery dynamic is pivotal in dependency theory, also elucidating the skewed structural benefits within the global economic architecture. This insight holds critical implications for the formulation of international relations strategies and the endeavour for equitable, sustainable worldwide economic progress.

Terms of Trade

Dependency theory posits a complex web of causes behind the unequal relationships between nations. It identifies a dynamic through which the ‘core’ (consisting of affluent nations) extracts and accumulates wealth from the ‘periphery,’ comprised of poorer, exploited states. Subsequently, the less affluent countries provide the core with essential natural resources, and inexpensive labour, and act as markets for outdated technology, thereby entrenching a cycle of dependency.

The principle known as the Prebisch-Singer thesis, foundational to dependency theory, also asserts that trade terms for underdeveloped nations have grown increasingly unfavourable in comparison to developed countries. As a result, this perspective advocates for the adoption of protective economic measures to steer these developing nations towards a sustainable path. This theory diverged significantly from the then-dominant modernization theory’s view that all societies advanced uniformly.

Role of MNCs and Technology

The theory draws attention to the crucial role of external actors, such as developed nations and multinational companies, stressing their impact on maintaining an inequitable global economic order.

Dependency proponents highlight the peril of unchecked international economic entities and domestic agents’ political authority, further attributing them to the extensive economic disparity within the global capitalist system. These theorists underscore the importance of technological advancement, hence, noting the periphery’s reliance on core nations for innovations as a substantial point of vulnerability.

The framework of dependency theory asserts a global economic system structured for the systematic exploitation of “peripheral” by “core” countries. This unequal dynamic yields profound impacts on both the core and periphery, also shaping the world’s economic and social fabric.

Effects on the Core Countries

For the core countries, dependency theory implicates a reliance on a constant influx of resources from the periphery. This reliance is central to maintaining their economic dominance and high standards of living. Core countries leverage this economic relationship to bolster their wealth, simultaneously impeding the advancement and prosperity of peripheral nations. The consequence, therefore, is the deepening divide in global economic parity.

Effects on the Periphery Countries

The impacts of dependency on the periphery are particularly harrowing. It highlights a flow of resources from peripheral nations to the core, perpetually enriching the latter while impeding the former’s growth. This imbalance leads to stark poverty, sluggish industrialization, and minimal economic diversification in peripheral regions. A poignant illustration is Nigeria, where over 40% of the populace lives below the poverty line, with this figure poised to increase. Subsequently, Nigeria shoulders a substantial debt of $3.45 billion to the IMF as of September 2020, underscoring the depth of these economic challenges.

The theory additionally asserts that the periphery is exploited not just by external forces but also by internal ruling elites. This exploitation serves to deepen economic and social disparities, also fueling a cycle of poverty and disempowerment. Dependency theorists posit that alternative resource allocation strategies are vital to address these issues and advocate for policies that promote self-sufficiency and economic sovereignty in the periphery.

Colonialism and Imperialism

The biggest example of dependency theory relates to the colonization of countries around the world by European nations. Colonized countries were economically exploited by developed and powerful nations. Natural resources were taken and exported back to the developed countries and were then used in the manufacturing process. Further, the manufactured products were sold back to the colonies or exploited nations at higher prices. This created a cycle of exploitation and dependency.

Debt, Aid and Political Dependency

The dependency of peripheral or underdeveloped nations leads to increasing problems of debt accumulation. African nations such as Nigeria are the most common examples of this phenomenon. Many African countries have huge outstanding debts and loans from developed nations. This makes it impossible for these nations to invest in their development. Moreover, they often have to rely on aid from international organisations or developed nations. This further worsens their situation because it increases their reliance or dependency on others instead of developing domestic resources.

Furthermore, debt and aid dependency often lead to political dependency. Huge debts are often accompanied by corrupt governments in the peripheral nations. This allows the developed nations to assert their political influence on the underdeveloped nations and take advantage of the debt dependence.


Advanced technologies are mostly concentrated in developed countries. This allows MNCs to set up in developing nations and, therefore, provide advanced technologies to underdeveloped peripheral countries. It does create employment opportunities, however, these MNCs take advantage of the labour and resources of the underdeveloped nations by giving low wages. Additionally, the developing nations become dependent on the MNCs and developed nations for these advanced technologies.

Addressing the challenge of dependency, theorists present strategies to sever the exploitation and unfair trade between core and periphery nations. These methods seek to dismantle the recurring dynamic of unequal exchange.

Protectionist Policies

Dependency theory has significantly contributed to the understanding of global economic relationships. The Prebisch-Singer thesis highlighted the diminishing ability of underdeveloped nations to purchase manufactured goods from developed nations, focusing on the exchange of raw materials. Raúl Prebisch and Hans Singer contended that underdeveloped countries must deploy protectionist measures to foster sustainable development.

Import Substitution Industrialization

One key proposal from dependency theorists involves the adoption of import-substitution industrialization (ISI). Based on the Prebisch-Singer thesis, this approach underscores the imperative for less developed nations to enact protectionist policies. They are urged to further foster their own industrial sectors rather than rely on exporting raw materials and importing finished goods.

Planning for Self-sufficiency

Furthermore, these theorists advise underdeveloped nations to steer towards self-sufficiency and limit their involvement in the global capitalist system, perceived as the core issue behind dependency. Such a shift may call for economic planning that prioritizes social welfare markers, like literacy and health, over conventional measures such as GDP.

Trade and Alliance between Developing Nations

They also recommend forming regional economic alliances and trade pacts between developing nations. Such collaborations are envisioned to enhance economic teamwork and decrease the grip of developed economies. This proposition fits with the dependency theory’s view that underdeveloped nations should forge their unique paths rather than replicate the strategies of advanced industrial countries.

In conclusion, the advocated solutions by dependency theorists aspire to fortify underdeveloped nations. This should lessen their dependency on the worldwide capitalist model. They aim to foster fair and sustainable growth by tackling the fundamental issues of dependency.

Dependency theory stands as a significant framework in examining the origins and results of underdevelopment. It underscores the limitations that global capitalism places on peripheral nations. By doing so, it challenges the very foundations of modernization theory. Moreover, it also presents different avenues for development.

The theory highlights the imbalanced trade interactions between developed and developing nations, leading to meagre economic advances. Peripheral nations face severe economic disparities, lack democratic processes, and see hindered economic advancement. Moreover, the dominance of industrialized countries in research and the push for inapplicable manufactured goods worsen the situation for these countries.

Despite facing critiques and scrutiny, dependency theory is a pivotal viewpoint in international relations and development scholarship. Its critical analysis continues to shape discussions and approaches aimed at rectifying the systemic disparities and power asymmetries that foster underdevelopment.

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