Sunday, March 09, 2008

Development and Dependence

One of the recommended books to consult in our Development Studies course is a text of sorts called The Companion to Development Studies, edited by Vandan Desai and Robert Potter,

Heading straight for the bits on Latin America, I found confirmation that Eduardo Galeano's poetically fist-shaking The Open Veins of Latin America had its intellectual foundations in a body of work called dependency theory

As described in my review of Open Veins, Galeano describes an exploiting 'core', which dominates industrial production (and makes the decisions), and an exploited 'periphery', which provides raw materials and cheap labour. Core-periphery relations can exist between continents (eg, Europe--Latin America), between countries (eg, Brazil--Paraguay) and within countries (eg, Lima--Andean Peru)

Dependency theory originated with a group of Latin American economists who worked with the United Nations in the aftermath of World War 2 and came to present a peculiarly Latin American perspective on development. Dependency theory was notable in being the first body of thought on these issues that actually originated in the 'developing' world. It's easy to spot its origins in Marxism -- for many dependency theorists, the 'underdevelopment' of the third world periphery is a necessary correlation of the development of the rich countries. Exploitation is seen as inherent in the very nature of capitalism.

A brief glance through the short articles in Desai and Potter told me that dependency theory has been critiqued from several quarters. There have been technical criticisms from within Marxism, which made me glaze over a little even in the one-paragraph versions. There have also been arguments that dependency theory requires excessive ad hoc adjustment to fit the very diverse kinds of economic relations that exist at different places and times.

With a bit more reading, I'm likely to agree with the latter views. However, as I noted in the review, it doesn't need to be a grand theory, and you don't need to be a Marxist, to find Open Veins a compelling historical account of Latin America's economic and political history that strikes to the root of the continent's problems.

As also noted, the book ends in the mid-70s, amidst a dark wave of miltary dictatorships but before the numerous economic crises of the 80s and 90s. The controversies resulting from these events suggest that the debate about dependency theory is far from dead. As I read further, I expect to hear more about how, as colonialism has ended and local democracy has strengthened, the power relations of core and perpiphery have been perpetuated through mechanisms such as debt and trade rules. I might even try to contribute some such thoughts myself.

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