GEOGRAPHIES OF UNEVEN DEVELOPMENT
The concept of „development‟ is, like many others that we have discussed in this course, one that
we take for granted. But we shouldn‟t. It has an historic status. It is one that comes into being
over a certain period of time, slowly acquiring the meanings that we associate with it today. The
idea would have been alien to pre-modern peoples. Although it is true that once they acquired the
skills of reading and writing, a record of their history could be compiled so that their
„development‟ could, if necessary, be assessed, there was no compelling desire to read their
histories in that particular way. They lacked the sort of future-orientation characteristic of
modern societies, whose members are always planning something bigger and better, movement
from what is judged to be a less desirable state to a more desirable one.
Even so, under modernity the idea of „development‟ does not spring forward immediately in its
current associations of economic improvement. The earlier idea is „progress‟. This has a number
of manifestations, including the idea of „civilization‟ as progress and therefore as something that
indigenous peoples, subordinated by the European powers, should be grateful for. The
contemporary meaning is actually quite recent. The ideas of „development banks‟, the
distinction between „developed‟ and „developing countries‟, the writing of books on the process
of „development‟, the creation of government Departments and Ministries of Development, are a
post-World War II phenomenon. Quite why this is so is complex. It is associated with
decolonization as the European powers granted independence to many new countries around the
world. Within the „developed‟ world it is registered by a new interest in „economic growth‟. The
latter is almost certainly associated with the emergence of the welfare state and the need to hold
popular aspirations in check by counterposing the need for economic growth if living standards
were to improve. In the case of the „developing‟, newly decolonized countries it is more complex.
In part it is a new language through which the more developed countries sought to maintain their
power in those countries through a rhetoric of helping in their „development‟ and to counter the
view that their objectives were indeed of a self-interested sort. In part, however, it also reflects
events and pressures within the decolonized countries. Given their formally democratic character
there was an attempt to appeal to the improvement of the well-being of the mass of the
population, for instance.
But what exactly is meant by the idea of „development‟? For most people it signifies enhanced real incomes allowing increasing consumption and diversification of what is consumed. This in
turn depends on the development of productivity in an economy and the ability, in virtue of
market conditions, to turn those advantages into increased revenue streams for corporations and,
ultimately, their workers and their governments. In this sense „development‟ has the potential to
be materially emancipating and, in fact, to some degree is. It has lightened the burden of labor in
that it has allowed an increase in leisure time: shorter workday, shorter workweek, and increased
vacations. We should note that labor has not been lightened to the degree that it might have been
since the shopping basket of goods has increased and this means that there has to be labor to
produce the additions.
Geographies of Unevenness
1.A History of Unevenness
Although the indications are that as late as 1700 the wealth of China and India was on a par with
that of Western Europe, during the nineteenth century the latter, joined by North America, drew
rapidly ahead laying the foundations for the sharp inequalities observable today: inequalities
signified by such categories as First and Third Worlds, „developed‟ and „developing countries‟ or
„more developed‟ and „less developed countries‟ – categories which are, of course, the common
argot of the media, not to say more academic discussions.
What made the difference was the industrial revolution, itself a result of an earlier capitalist
revolution in the social relations of production; and also in the power that that industrial
revolution gave respective governments to impose themselves on other peoples around the world,
particularly in the form of military power. It is, moreover, remarkable that most of the countries
that were „more developed‟ in the second half of the nineteenth century and those that were „less
developed‟ remain so one hundred and fifty years later, with the exception of Japan. This suggests that an early start down the path to industrialization was extremely important and that
earliness could provide advantages in preventing later contenders from achieving the same
advantages in terms of productivity and therefore wealth.
This is an extremely important observation. There is a stream of thought in the social sciences
which suggests that all countries go through the same stages of economic development. The most
well-known expression of this was W W Rostow‟s book, The Stages of Economic Growth. But
there is an alternate view that suggests a continuing relationship between developed and less
developed countries that impedes the latter from going down the same developmental path and
which consigns them to inferior positions in the international division of labor. The idea that an
early start matters immensely for preserving relative advantages of wealth – and therefore of
military power – over other countries is consistent with the latter view and not with the former.
This is because the idea that countries go through the same stages of development assumes,
implicitly at least, that countries don‟t interact with one another, that their respective
corporations don‟t compete with one another and attempt to impose competitive disadvantages on each other: a fond thought indeed!
This does not mean to say that the less developed countries have not had their development
programs. Typically these have focused on industrial development. Given the association
between industry and higher incomes – something we will comment on later – this does not seem
to be an unreasonable approach. A common approach in the immediate post-WWII years was
programs of import substitution. The aim was to produce domestically products that were
imported in exchange for exports of raw-materials (i.e., the Old International Division of Labor
to which reference was made in an earlier Module). The device for doing this was the imposition
of trade restrictions on imports so as to protect domestic producers. Continuing exports of raw-
materials would then be used to fund not imports of consumer goods, but imports of the machinery, perhaps some of the raw-materials, needed to manufacture those goods domestically.
These programs achieved some degree of success, particularly in the production of consumer
goods which did not require highly skilled workers or industrial experience: things like soap,
razor blades, some cosmetics, packaged foodstuffs. But more recently there has been a shift
away from import substitution programs to what can best be called export substitution programs:
development policies, that is, designed to shift the composition of exports away from minerals,
lumber, foodstuffs and other primary products, to exports of manufactures. To the extent that
they are successful in these policies, then these countries assume new positions in the
international division of labor. Not only that, the international division of labor itself changes in that instead of concentrating on exports of primary products we find a number of less developed
countries, including Mexico, Thailand, South Africa, India and certainly China, of course,
exporting manufactured goods or services.
Emphatically, however, this success in developing some industry does not signify convergence
on the more developed countries and on the levels of wealth with which they are associated.
Some have argued that this means increasing competition for the products of the more developed
world, for example. As a result, in order to compete with low wage costs for industry in the
developing countries, wages in Western Europe, North America, the antipodes, must decline
resulting in a so-called „race to the bottom‟. It is at this point, however, that several cautionary
remarks must be entered.
The idea of convergence, the „race to the bottom‟, is based on several assumptions about our
(recent) globalizing world. The first are transportation improvements so that products,
components can be moved around increasingly cheaply and in some instances speedily: one
thinks here of such innovations as the container and the increasing cheapness of air cargo. The
second is the de-skilling of labor processes. To the extent that manufacturing processes are de-
skilled, to the extent, that is, that the labor process is redesigned so as to require minimum skills and on the job training, then those processes can be relocated to developing countries which have
the cheap labor but not the skills that would have otherwise been required.
These assumptions about the changing conditions of industrial location, however, are highly
oversimplified and this at least must cast considerable doubt on the future of the developing
countries. Note, in particular, the following:
i. The de-skilling of labor processes is highly uneven. Some have indeed been simplified so
that they can be engaged in by the relatively unskilled labor of developing societies: the
manufacture of iron and steel, shipbuilding, some assembly work. But there remain many,
many labor processes which continue to be highly skill- and knowledge-intensive; the
manufacture of airplanes, computers, computer software, electric turbines, medical
equipment, machine tools, to mention just a very few.
ii. Similarly uneven is access to cheap, timely transportation. This has always been the case.
The less developed parts of the globe have never enjoyed the same sorts of advantages in
this regard as the more developed. They have always had lower railroad densities
meaning that their access to cheap, speedy bulk transportation has been very limited. Not
surprisingly the big success stories in the developing world are coastal areas like those of
China which enjoy easy access to ocean transportation, or major cities like Bangkok,
Jakarta, Hong Kong, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur with their enhanced airline
connections as well as superior internal transport systems.
iii. The markets for many industrial products remain in the developed countries and the
closeness of their producers, despite the increasing cheapness and speediness of long
distance transportation, remains an issue. Plants in developed countries take deliveries
from ones elsewhere, for example, but lengthy delivery lines can add to the expense of
defective parts. The longer the delivery line the less frequent, the larger, deliveries are
likely to be. That means that when defects are discovered by the firm using the parts,
there will be large numbers still in transit, even though the problem at the producing end
1 can be quickly solved. This is one reason firms prefer local rather than more distant
iv. Even if there was a relatively uniform access to the means of transportation and suppliers, at least with products where defects are likely to be a problem.
communication across the face of the earth that would not imply convergence in degrees
of industrialization across different places. One of the effects of increasing convergence
in degrees of accessibility to other places is to heighten the importance of other
differences between places as locations for economic activity. So along with time-space
convergence, the cheapening of transportation there are also tendencies to increasing
differentiation between places. The differentiation between the more developed countries
as sites for more skill- and knowledge-intensive activities and the developing countries as
sites for the less skill- and knowledge intensive is indicative of this. So too is the
increasing variety of places as tourist destinations, as discussed by Allen and Hamnett:
1 This would not be an issue, in other words, with bulk products like metals or foodstuffs.
places of mass tourism, places that are more up-market, eco-tourist destinations, safari
holidays, archaeological holidays and so on – without improved transportation that sort of
differentiation would simply be impossible.
We should not be surprised, therefore, that the industrialization of developing countries quickly
meets its limits. Much of the investment that results in industrial employment is on behalf of
foreign companies but most of this is within the more developed world. Large areas of the world
are ignored. As Allen and Hamnett state: “… the vast majority of the world is off the map of multinational investment in so far as technology and jobs are concerned.”
Not only that, most of the investment in industry in the developing world is in lower skill labor
processes or parts of the labor process, as one might expect given the importance of de-skilling
to such investment. In many cases industrial plants in developing countries are part of the spatial
divisions of labor of firms which have their headquarters, their more skill- and knowledge-
intensive production in more developed parts of the world. Their plants in developing countries,
or the firms to whom they subcontract, then provide those components which can be fabricated
using workers will little or no skill or industrial experience: but cheaper workers. This is not to
say that the multinational corporation has been the only means for industrialization in developing
countries. In some cases domestically owned industry has proven effective in carving out niches
in wider, international markets. South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil are excellent cases in point. In
those particular instances, moreover, there has been some tendency to graduate to industries
requiring more skill and knowledge and this has sometimes been a matter of national policy, as
in South Korea.
2. Geographically Uneven Development and the Geographic Division of Labor
Geographically uneven development is closely associated with the geographic division of labor.
The wealthier, more „developed‟ countries tend to be those which produce those products and
services requiring higher levels of skill, sophistication and experience. The very poor countries
are still consigned largely to producing raw-materials: minerals and foodstuffs, perhaps, as in the
case of Zambia (copper), Bolivia (tin), Ecuador (bananas and some oil) and Ghana (cocoa).
Nevertheless, there is an important qualification to this picture. While less developed countries do indeed concentrate on primary products for export and more developed countries are the source of manufactured goods, especially those requiring higher levels of skill in their production, the more developed countries have always had exports of primary products. Recall that in the
nineteenth century Britain was a major exporter of coal. Today the US exports coal along with wheat, corn and cotton. Canada, in addition to its exports of manufactured goods, exports grain, timber and non-ferrous metals. Norway is a manufacturer of high precision machinery but also exports timber, fish and oil. And so it goes. This means that the Old International Division of Labor between manufacturing countries and those producing minerals, timber and foodstuffs was always a gross oversimplification. It wasn‟t that there was no such specialization. It was just that the more developed countries also contributed to exports of primary products and still do.
So more developed and less developed countries share some sectors. The US produces copper as do Chile and Zambia. Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom produce oil but so do far less wealthy countries, including Iran, Iraq, Malaysia and Venezuela. Similarly while less developed countries are now engaging in the production of manufactures for exports, their manufactures still overlap to some degree with those of more developed countries: China and Brazil are major producers of shoes, but so is Italy. China has also become important in garment manufacture but the France, Germany, Italy and the US have not totally retreated from the market.
To some degree this overlap in manufacturing can be explained by the fact that the markets they are oriented to are different. Brazil and China produce shoes more for the low end of the market and Italy for the higher end, for example. But this apart, when the overlaps are examined, whether they be in primary products or in manufacturing, typically the more developed countries produce at higher levels of productivity. The US coal miner produces more coal than his South African counterpart. The productivity of those in the cotton textiles industry of South Carolina exceeds that of their Chinese counterparts. Productivity in the Western European iron and steel industry still exceeds that achieved in South Korea.
These productivity advantages exist for a number of reasons. One is simply the improved training of the workers: higher levels of literacy, ability to read instructions, operate
computerized equipment, do calculations. This greater education allows the use of machinery
that allows workers to be more productive, of course. It is also in part a matter of superior
habituation to the norms of industrialism: a greater adherence to time discipline for example –
something that comes with length of exposure to factory work.
Yet despite these productivity advantages, nevertheless some manufacturing and primary
production has been siphoned off to less developed countries. This has been especially the case
in deskilled labor processes where the weak industrial skills of workers in developing countries
are not an obstacle to production. What is attractive to producers is the level of wages. In the 2 In some cases it is possible to produce at a lower wage cost per unit in less
more developed countries there is strong upward pressure on wages as new industries emerge as developed countries and that is the condition for so-called export substitution there: the growth
potential employers.of manufactured exports to displace some of the emphasis hitherto on exports of primary
Wages in less developed countries will be lower for a variety of reasons. Not the least of these is
their existing specialization in primary products. These are activities which it is relatively easy
for other less developed countries to do as well, so markets are intensely competitive and
improvements in productivity tend, in consequence, to be passed on to consumers, including
industrial firms located in the more developed world and final consumers too. Overproduction of
primary commodities, be they coffee, coal or copper – or even oil, as Agnew and Knox point out
– is more the general rule than the exception with resultant depression of prices.
3. The Politics of Geographically Uneven Development
No wonder that developing countries want to be developed! But this is something they find hard
to do. Part of the reason is what was pointed out earlier: the advantages of an early start, which,
of course, they don‟t have and, such is the nature of the case, never will. No matter what industry
we are talking about – cotton textiles, iron and steel, coal mining, the automobile industry, the
2 The more developed countries are those where new products – the automobile, the TV,
synthetic fabrics, the computer – tend to emerge for the first time and be commercialized. This has in part to do with superior educational systems.
machine tool industry, consumer electronics – they were first established in the more developed
countries of Western Europe and North America. Firms producing these things grew in size,
managed to achieve economies of scale, acquired the financial resources for investing in new
technologies that would allow their workers to become more productive and so on. As a result
when firms in less developed countries turned to their production they were at a severe
disadvantage. The only way they could produce and remain in business was behind the
protection of tariff barriers. For without them their products would be uncompetitive with those
produced in more developed countries with more productive labor.
As we have seen, there has been some change. Some industries have been decanted to a degree to
the developing world: the cheaper varieties of shoes and garments along with some iron and steel
production, for example. But this has depended in the first place on the deskilling of labor
processes. In the second place it has depended on the willingness of the more developed
countries to admit those products to their markets. This has happened slowly, though where it is
multinationals based in those countries that have been the medium for this relocation, it has been
easier since they have had some lobbying power with their governments. But for many
developing countries it has not happened fast enough, which helps explain the program of „Third
Worldism‟ described in Reading #11. Moreover, as we have seen in our discussions of the
interventions of the IMF, industrial interests and their government backers in the developed
countries are more than ready to seize on any opportunity through which they can destroy the
nascent industries of developing countries which are becoming their competitors, or buy them up
and then close them down or restructure their operations to their specifications rather than those
of the national business class whose government has had to go cap in hand to the IMF.
All this would suggest that integration into a global economy is a major obstacle to
industrialization in the developing world. It is in this context that we can make sense of the
communist experiment (discussed in Reading # 11). The soviet idea was to plan the economy,
allocating production quotas to different industries so that they produced (e.g.) exactly what was
needed by other sectors or by final consumers, and no less and no more. Planning of this nature
precluded all but miniscule amounts of foreign trade since it depended on tight control of
producers. At earlier stages of industrialization it clearly proved an effective strategy, though
when the demand for a more diverse and difficult to project shopping basket of goods became a
consideration, a good deal of that effectiveness was lost: which helps to explain the collapse of
the Soviet Union as a politico-economic project.