The Neoliberal Theory of Economic Development

According to neoliberalism big government and too much official development aid prevent economic and social development, while deregulation, privatisation and lowering taxation are required to achieve economic growth. This post outlines the neoliberal approach development and then briefly assesses the effectiveness of neoliberal policies.

What is Neoliberalsm?

Neoliberalism - The Dominant Ideology since Reagan and Thatcher
Neoliberalism – The Dominant Ideology since Reagan and Thatcher

While the usage of the term neoliberalism varies considerably, for the purpose of this post i use the term to refer to that set of economic policies which have become popular in economic development over the last 30 years (since the late 1980s) – namely increased privatisation, economic deregulation and lowering taxation.

Neoliberalism replaced modernisation theory as the official approach to development in the 1980s. It focuses on economic policies and institutions which are seen as holding back development because they limit the free market. The agreement by the World Bank and IMF that neoliberal policies were the best path to development is referred to as the Washington Consensus following a meeting in Washington by world leaders in 1989.

What prevents development?

Neoliberals argue that governments prevent development – When governments get too large they restrict the freedom of dynamic individuals who drive development forwards. Neoliberals argue that there is some pretty powerful evidence for this – Think of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, although these governments forced through industrialisation, they would not allow people enough freedom to bring about the kind of consumer culture (based on individual freedom of choice and expression) that emerged in Western Europe in the 1960s, so development stagnated in those countries because of governments having too much power. Similarly neoliberals argue that even in Capitalist countries where there is too much ‘red tape’ – or too many rules, regulations, taxes and so on, it’s harder to do business and so harder for economies to develop.

Neoliberals are also critical of the role of Western aid money – They point to the many corrupt African dictatorships which emerged in Africa in the 1960s -1980s – These were often propped up by aid money from Western governments and during this period billions of dollars were siphoned off into the pockets of government officials in those countries and not used for development at all.

How can countries develop?

Chile - The First Neoliberal Experiment
Chile – The First Neoliberal Experiment

Neoliberalism insists that developing countries remove obstacles to free market capitalism and allow capitalism to generate development. The argument is that, if allowed to work freely, capitalism will generate wealth which will trickle down to everyone. 

Another way of putting this is that neoliberals believe that private enterprise, or companies should take the lead in development. They believe that if governments promote a business friendly environment that encourages companies to invest and produce, then this will lead to exports which will encourage free trade. So encouraging ‘free’ trade is a central neoliberal strategy for development

The policies proposed are those that were first tried in Chile in the 1970s, then in Britain in the 1980s under Thatcher. They include:

  1. Deregulation – Removing restrictions on businesses and employers involved in world trade – In practice this means reducing tax on Corporate Profits, or reducing the amount of ‘red tape’ or formal rules by which companies have to abide – for example reducing health and safety regulations.

  1. Fewer protections for workers and the environment – For the former this means doing things like scrapping minimum wages, permanent contracts. This also means allowing companies the freedom to increasingly hire ‘flexible workers’ on short-term contracts.

  1. Privatisation – selling to private companies industries that had been owned and run by the state

  1. Cutting taxes – so the state plays less of a role in the economy

Neoliberalism and Structural Adjustment Programmes

Some countries willingly adopted these policies, believing they would work; others had them imposed on them as part of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs). SAPs basically involves the World Bank or IMF agreeing a loan for a developing country (this might be to build roads/ hospitals/ industrialise/ mechanise agriculture/ build sewage systems/ schools etc.) as long as the country fulfills certain conditions. Since the 1980s these conditions have meant such things as deregulation and privatisation. 

Overall Criticisms of Neoliberalism12

  1. A report from the CEPR compared the period from 1960 to 1980, when most countries had more restrictive, inward looking economies to the period 1980 to 200 the period of neo liberalism and found that progress was greater before the 1980s on both economic and social grounds.

  1. Those countries that have adopted free market polices have developed more slowly on those countries that protected their economies

  1. Dependency theorists argue that neo-liberalism is merely a way to open up countries so they are more easily exploitable by Transnational Corporations. We will see this in the next handout!

  1. Transnational Corporations do not tend to invest in the poorest countries, only in LDCs and NICs

Global Development Revision Notes

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Global Development Revision Notes

 Global Development Notes Cover53 Pages of revision notes covering the following topics within global development:

  1. Globalisation
  2. Defining and measuring development
  3. Theories of development (Modernisation Theory etc)
  4. Aid, trade and development
  5. The role of organisations in development (TNCs etc)
  6. Industrialisation, urbanisation and development
  7. Employment, education and health as aspects of development
  8. Gender and development
  9. War, conflict and development
  10. Population growth and consumption
  11. The environment and sustainable development

1 http://www.stwr.org/globalization/the-failure-of-neo-liberalism.html – article on the failure of neo-liberalism

2 http://www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente/spring_05/Postero.pdf – review of a book on the problems neo-liberal policies caused in Bolivia in the late 1990s.

Related Posts

World Systems Theory

Further Reading

The Guardian -Neoliberalism’s Trade not Aid approach to development ignored past lessons

The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics – Guardian commentary (August 2016)

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World Systems Theory

Immanuel Wallerstein
Immanuel Wallerstein

A summary of Wallerstein’s World Systems Theory including the key ideas of Core, Semi-Periphery and Periphery countries, relevant to A Level Sociology Global Development Module. NB This is very much a summary designed to get an 18 year old through an exam, so may not suit higher level students.  

World systems theory is a response to the criticisms of Dependency Theory (and for the purposes of the exam can still be treated as part of Dependency Theory). World Systems Theory was developed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1979).

Wallerstein accepts the fact ex-colonies are not doomed to be forever trapped in a state of dependency; it is possible for them to climb the economic ladder of development, as many of them have done. However, he also believes that the global capitalism system still requires some countries, or at least regions within countries to be poor so they can be exploited by the wealthy at the top. Wallerstein’s theory has four underlying principles:

  1. One must look at the world system as a whole, rather than just at individual countries. Dependency Theory tended to argue that countries are poor because they used to be exploited by other countries. However focusing on countries (or governments/ nation states) is the wrong level of analysis – government today have declined in power, whereas Corporations are more powerful than ever. Global Corporations, and global capital, transcend national boundaries, and nation states (even wealthy ones) are relatively powerless to control them, thus in order to understand why countries are rich or poor, we should be looking at global economic institutions and corporations rather than countries. Global Economic Institutions form what Wallerstein calls a Modern World System, and all countries, rich and poor alike are caught up in it.

  1. Wallerstein believes that the MWS is characterised by an international division of labour consisting of a structured set of relations between three types of capitalist zone:

Core-Periphery and Semi Periphery Countries
Core-Periphery and Semi Periphery Countries
  • The core, or developed countries control world wages and monopolise the production of manufactured goods.

  • The semi-peripheral zone includes countries like South Africa or Brazil which resemble the core in terms of their urban centres but also have areas of rural poverty which resemble the peripheral countries. The core contracts work out to these countries.

  • Finally, there are the peripheral countries at the bottom, mainly in Africa, which provide the raw materials such as cash crops to the core and semi periphery. These are also the emerging markets in which the core attempts to market their manufactured goods.

NB ‘countries’ are used to illustrate the three different zones above, but technically you could have all three zones within one country – China and India contain regions which fit the descriptors for each of the three zones.

  1. Countries can be upwardly or downwardly mobile in the world system. This is one of the key differences between World System’s Theory and Frank’s Dependency Theory. Many countries, such as the BRIC nations have moved up from being peripheral countries to semi-peripheral countries. However, most countries do not move up and stay peripheral, and the ex-colonial powers (the wealthy European countries) are very unlikely to slip down the global order.

  1. The Modern World System is dynamic – core countries are constantly evolving new ways of extracting profit from poorer countries and regions. Three examples of new ways of extracting profit from poor countries include:

  • Unfair Trade Rules (we come back to this in the next topic) – World trade is not a level playing field – The best example of this is in Agriculture – Agriculture is Africa’s biggest economic sector. It has the capacity to produce a lot more food and export to Europe and America but it can’t because the EU and America spend billions every year subsidising their farmers so imported African products seem more expensive

  • Western Corporations sometimes use their economic power to negotiate favourable tax deals in the developing world. A good case in point here is the mining Company Glencore in Zambia – The company recently arranged a long term contract to mine copper with the Zambian government – it exports $6 billion a year in copper from Zambia, but pays only $50m in tax, while as part of the deal the Zambian government is contractually obliged to pay for all the electricity costs of mining – a total of $150m a year.

  • Land Grabs – These are currently happening all over Africa – Where a western government or company buys up thousands of hectares of land in Africa with the intention of planting it with food or biofule crops for export back to western markets. In such cases the western companies take advantage of the cheap land and gain much more than the African nations selling the land in the long term. In some case studies of land grabs thousands of indigenous peoples are displaced.

Evaluating World Systems Theory


  1. Wallerstein can also be criticised in the same way Dependency Theorists can be criticised – there are more causes of underdevelopment than just Capitalism – Such as cultural factors, corruption and ethnic conflict.Wallerstein puts too much emphasis of economics and the dominance of Capitalism – There are other ways people can be exploited and oppressed – such as tyrannical religious regimes for example. Also, there are some areas are still not included in the World System – some tribal peoples in South America and Bhutan for example remain relatively unaffected by global capitalism.

  1. Finally, Wallerstein’s concepts of Core, Semi-Periphery and Periphery are vague and this means his theory is difficult to test in practise.

Modernisation Theory (Development and Underdevelopment)

Modernisation Theory

Historical Context (1940s and 50s)

By the end of WW2 it had become clear that despite exposure to Capitalism many of the countries of the South had failed to develop. In this context, in the late 1940s, Modernisation Theory was developed. Modernisation theory had two major aims

  • It attempted to explain why poorer countries have failed to develop, focussing on what cultural and economic conditions might act as ‘barriers’ to development

  • It aimed to provide a non-communist solution to poverty in the developing world by suggesting that economic change (in the form of Capitalism) and the introduction of western values and culture could play a key role in bringing about modernisation.

NB – These are ‘bare bones’ revision notes – this updated post provides a much more account of modernization theory.

Why countries are underdeveloped: Cultural and economic barriers to development

Modernisation theorists argue that there are a number of cultural and economic barriers that prevent traditional societies from developing.

Cultural barriers are seen as internal to the country – it is essentially their fault for being backward. Western culture, on the other hand, is seen as having a superior culture that has allowed for it to develop.

Traditional Values –prevent economic growth and change

Modern Values – inspire change and economic growth.

Simple division of labour, less specialised job roles, individuals rely on a few dozen people in their local communities for basic needs to be met.

Complex division of labour, individuals tend to have very specialised jobs and rely on thousands of others for basic needs to be met

Religious beliefs and tradition influence day to to day life (resistance to change)

Rational decision making (cost benefit analysis and efficiency) are more important.

Stronger community and family bonds and collectivism

Weaker community and family bonds means more individual freedom.

Affective relationships

Meritocracy –people are more motivated to innovate and change society for the better.

Patriarchy

Gender equality

Economic barriers to development

These are barriers which may make developing countries unattractive to investors.

  • Lack of infrastructure

  • Lack of technology

  • Lack of skills in the work force

  • Political instability

  • Lack of capital in the country

See the next sheet for details of modernisation theory

Modernisation Theory 2: How countries should develop

Rostow believed that an initial injection of aid from the west in the form of training, education, economic investment etc. would be enough to jolt a society into economic growth overcoming these cultural barriers.

Rostow suggested that development should be seen as an evolutionary process in which countries progress up 5 stages of a development ladder

Rostow’s five stage model of development

Stage 1 – Traditional societies whose economies are dominated by subsistence farming. Such societies have little wealth to invest and have limited access to modern industry and technology. Rostow argued that at this stage there are cultural barriers to development (see sheet 6)

Stage 2 – The preconditions for take off – the stage in which western aid packages brings western values, practises and expertise into the society. This can take the form of:

  • Science and technology – to improve agriculture

  • Infrastructure – improving roads and cities communications

  • Industry – western companies establishing factories

These provide the conditions for investment, attracting more companies into the country.

Stage 3 – Take off stage –The society experiences economic growth as new modern practices become the norm. Profits are reinvested in infrastructure etc. and a new entrepreneurial class emerges and urbanised that is willing to invest further and take risks. The country now moves beyond subsistence economy and starts exporting goods to other countries

This generates more wealth which then trickles down to the population as a whole who are then able to become consumers of new products produced by new industries there and from abroad.

Stage 4- the drive to maturity.

More economic growth and investment in education, media and birth control. The population start to realise new opportunities opening up and strive to make the most of their lives.

Stage 5 The age of high mass consumption. This is where economic growth and production are at Western levels.

Variations on Rostow’s 5 stage model

Different theorists stress the importance of different types of assistance or interventions that could jolt countries out their traditional ways and bring about change.

  • Hoselitz – education is most important as it should speed up the introduction of Western values such as universalism, individualism, competition and achievement measured by examinations. This was seen as a way of breaking the link between family and children.

  • Inkeles – media – Important to diffuse ideas non traditional such as family planning and democracy

  • Hoselitz – urbanisation. The theory here is that if populations are packed more closely together new ideas are more likely to spread than amongst diffuse rural populations

Criticisms of Modernisation Theory

  1. The Asian Tiger economies combined elements of traditional culture with Western Capitalism to experience some of the most rapid economic growth of the past 2 decades.

  1. Ignores the ‘crisis of modernism’ in both the developed and developing worlds. Many developed countries have huge inequalities and the greater the level of inequality the greater the degree of other problems: High crime rates, suicide rates, health problems, drug abuse.

  1. Ethnocentric interpretations tend to exclude contributions from thinkers in the developing world. This is a one size fits all model, and is not culture specific.

  1. The model assumes that countries need the help of outside forces. The central role is on experts and money coming in from the outside, parachuted in, and this downgrades the role of local knowledge and initiatives. This approach can be seen as demeaning and dehumanising for local populations. Galeano (1992) argues that minds become colonised with the idea that they are dependent on outside forces. They train you to be paralysed and then sell you crutches. There are alternative models of development: See sheet no…

  1. Corruption (Kleptocracy) prevents aid of any kind doing good, Much aid is siphoned off by corrupt elites and government officials rather than getting to the projects it was earmarked for. This means that aid creates more inequality and enables elites to maintain power

  1. There are ecological limits to growth. Many modernisation projects such mining and forestry have lead to the destruction of environment.

  1. Social damage – Some development projects such as dams have lead to local populations being removed forcibly from their home lands with little or no compensation being paid.

  2. Some Marxist theorists argue that aid and development is not really about helping the developing world at all. It is really about changing societies just enough so they are easier to exploit, making western companies and countries richer, opening them up to exploit cheap natural resources and cheap labour. Joseph Stiglitz notes that those countries that followed alternative models of development ignoring western advice are now competing with the west, China and India are two examples.

Global Development Revision Notes

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Global Development Revision Notes

 Global Development Notes Cover53 Pages of revision notes covering the following topics within global development:

  1. Globalisation
  2. Defining and measuring development
  3. Theories of development (Modernisation Theory etc)
  4. Aid, trade and development
  5. The role of organisations in development (TNCs etc)
  6. Industrialisation, urbanisation and development
  7. Employment, education and health as aspects of development
  8. Gender and development
  9. War, conflict and development
  10. Population growth and consumption
  11. The environment and sustainable development