How does a nation progress from the third world to the first? By what means did the first world arrive where it is today? And where should goals of development be placed from now on? These are questions that international development theorists wrestle with to comprehend what “development” means. Three main schools of thought have been proposed to define what has comprised development in the past and what it means for future goals of growth. Modernization theory proposes that a nation progresses through a series of stages of development, ever increasing its mastery of technology and changing its societal norms. Dependency theory argues that nations must develop along a single path of exploitation of others’ resources in order to advance their position in the global development arena. Bill McKibben’s more recent theory considers growth as less than desirable due to diminished marginal utility and the effects that unlimited rates of material increase have on the environment. While each theory has its strengths in assessing development, a greater understanding of development and improving the developmental process can be achieved by synthesizing the strengths of each model.
Beginning with the eldest of the three theories, modernization defines development as a progression of events that occur within a nation and is largely independent of outside influences. The first person to delineate the idea of modernization was W. W. Rostow. He asserted that every society began in the Pre-Newtonian stage and possessed primitive technologies and therefore had a severe limit to how much an individual could produce. In time, the society achieved greater and greater technological innovations, which in turn caused cultural shifts to adjust for lifestyle changes including increased national pride and acceptance of a governing authority. Eventually, agriculture was commercialized and marked escalation of investment allowed for diversification, specialization, and increased complexity of industries. Through this, the economy found its niche within the world market, as it had the “technological and entrepreneurial skills to produce not everything, but anything it chooses to produce” (Rostow, 1971). This growth allowed individuals to amass wealth and soon mass consumption of consumer goods and services became the capstone of economic endeavors. Instead of devoting energy to continued expansion of technology, the society began to invest in social welfare and security programs (Rostow, 1971). In modernization’s point of view, the first world has reached this stage of mass consumption and heightened security, while the third world has not progressed far enough to be considered “developed” because their Gross Domestic Product and levels of consumption have not risen to the rates of the United States or Western Europe.
Underdevelopment or Dependency theory was the next theory to be established in the dialogue of understanding development. It is similar to modernization theory in that it suggests there is a set path for successful development to occur. Dependency theory asserts that this path is a linear function; however it goes further in saying that development is a zero-sum game, with a few winners and a large number of losers (Mains Lecture, 09/10/2015). In this line of thinking, more-developed nations have many advantages today because they have exploited the resources of other countries in the past, and thus the development of one directly correlates to the underdevelopment of another. Historically, imperialism has been used as strong evidence for this argument, but the structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are more recent examples. These policies were advantageous to developed countries and tied the hands of the lesser-developed countries by opening their markets to global trade and thereby flooding them with international goods that local producers could not dream of competing with (Life and Debt). This example of international intervention through exploitive policies illustrates that as the rich get richer, the poor become more impoverished. The dependency theorist would assert that the underdeveloped nation could potentially rise out of this situation by making decisions to better itself at the expense of another developing nation (Mains Lecture, 09/10/2015). While there are clear examples of countries having benefitted through the exploitation of others, dependency theory is flawed in that it is extremely Western-centric, or more specifically, American-centric. It does not account for any possibility of a different manifestation of development to occur. If the country differs from western practices, whether industrial or societal, then it is assumed that difference corresponds directly to a hindrance in development that can only be overcome by not only assimilating, but completely adopting, western ideals within their own society (Mains Lecture, 9/10/2015).
The most recent theory of development has been proposed by Bill McKibben and defines development and growth in a very different perspective. McKibben asserts that development should not be measured through indicators of material wealth. He abandons the idea that advanced technology defines progress (modernization’s indicator) along with the idea of maximum Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product denotes maximum development (dependency theory’s gauge). Instead of being obsessed by quantifying economic growth, he places emphasis on the quality of life experienced by people seeking it. Primarily, he asserts that increased growth in the material sense is not sustainable. The environment cannot support the rate at which the United States (and other developed nations) consume resources for the rest of the world. He claims that increasing the rate of automobile ownership to US norms for China alone would equal the demand of what the entire oil industry is currently able to produce, plus more than a billion additional barrels annually. In addition, with population increases and reduction in arable land due to abuse, the western concept of sprawling suburbia is not feasible to spread to the developing world. McKibben also asserts that the issue of the constant pursuit of wealth does not necessarily make people happier. He cites that the marginal utility of per capita income plateaus after approximately $10,000. This means that the unchecked growth that destroys the environment and viability of future generations does not and cannot continue to satisfy the current generation. McKibben provides an alternative to the rapid expansion of markets by promoting small-scale projects that encourage ownership and accountability within communities. He applauds the efforts of societies seeking to find more effective uses of available local resources, even if doing so prevents the purchase of raw materials and thus either does not add to or can even subtract from GDP. By incorporating non-western ideas of growth, Bill McKibben’s critique can provide a more sustainable perspective for planning development goals of the future.
Development is not a simple idea to be understood, nor is it an easy goal to achieve. In order to make sense of this concept, it is important to remember that each theory is a modest interpretation or model of what has happened or what may happen in the future. If applied as a blanket statement to every case study of development, each one would fail. Therefore, it is helpful to attempt to understand development through the lenses of the strengths of each model. Modernization theory points out that there must be some sort of logical progression to development, though some stages may take longer than others, it is necessary to increase technological understanding in order to increase productivity and further communication among societies. In addition, modernization theory points out that as a nation develops, that development is made up of a series of cultural, economic, and political changes that culminate in the society looking very different than the original. Dependency theory warns of the real danger that growth can easily occur through exploitation of others and that western-centric thought excludes other types of growth from being accounted. McKibben provides a reminder that GDP is not everything: material growth must be weighed against the marginal utility that wealth provides and against the environmental effects that occur presently and for future generations. By synthesizing these ideas, a much better understanding can be reached: if a nation can find its own path to sustainable development, then its people will have the opportunity to be more fulfilled and are able to become more productive members of society within their own right.
By taking into consideration the strengths of each theory, those planning the next developmental objectives can learn from the mistakes of the past in order to create a better future for subsequent generations. The study of development focuses on how a nation or the international community can use its resources more effectively in order to create maximum utility; however, there is no point in maximizing this happiness if the effects of current growth cannot be enjoyed beyond the present day.
Rostow, W. W. 1971. Stages of Economic Growth. Cambridge University Press.
Life and Debt. 2001. Documentary. Stephanie Black.
McKibben, Bill. 2007. Deep Economy. Times Books.
Mains, Daniel. 09/10/2015. Lecture.