Two reasons why trade does not always promote development

Trade may not promote development due to the exportation of low value primary products by poorer nations, exacerbating economic disparity inherited from colonialism. Additionally, the capitalist system’s inherent inequality and the lack of regulation that leaves workers in developing countries unprotected may impede development.

Two reasons trade may not promote development include:

  • Poorer countries tend to export low value primary products.
  • The global capitalist system relies on inequality.
  • There is a lack of regulation in global trade.

This post has been written as a model answer to a possible exam question for A-level sociology. This question may come up on the AQA’s paper two topics in sociology in the global development section.

The form of the question I cover below is a 10 mark ‘outline and explain question’. For more advice on how to answer these questions please see my essays and exam advice page.

I have included a third answer as a bonus!

A-level sociology paper 2 header, AQA.

Outline and explain two reasons why trade does not always promote development (10)

Low value primary product exports

One reason is that poorer countries tend to export low-value primary products such as agricultural goods, while richer countries export higher value goods.

Frank (1971) argues this is a legacy of colonialism during which rich countries made their colonies specialize in exporting one primary product such as sugar or cotton back to the ‘mother land’. After independence, developing societies were over-dependent on exporting these primary commodities, which typically have a very low market-value.

Examples include The Ivory Coast in West Africa which was 33% dependent on cocoa beans. Kenya (in East Africa) was 30% dependent on two primary products – tea and cut flowers.

This type of trade does not necessarily promote development because the declining value of such commodities means developing nations need to export more and more every year just to stay in the same place. This has been described as ‘running up the downward escalator’.


The capitalist system depends on inequality

A second reason why trade doesn’t work for development is that the global capitalist system depends on inequality

Emanuel Wallerstein argued that the world capitalist system is characterised by an international division of labour. This consisted of a structured set of relations between three types of capitalist zones:

  • The core, or developed countries control world trade and exploit the rest of the world.
  • The semi-peripheral zone includes countries like China or Brazil – which manufacture produces.
  • The peripheral countries at the bottom which provide raw materials such as cash crops to the core and semi periphery. These are mainly in Africa.

Companies in the core countries need to keep prices of end-products as low in order keep up demand. They pay as little as possible for the raw materials and manufacturing. The development of the west depends on the poverty of the periphery and relative poverty of semi-periphery.

However, this may not always prevent trade working for development – countries can be upwardly or downwardly mobile in the world system. Many countries, such as the BRIC nations have moved up from being peripheral countries to semi-peripheral countries, and some (e.g. South Korea) can now be regarded as core countries.


A lack of regulation

Thirdly, a lack of regulation at both global and national levels means that workers have few protections in developing countries and thus don’t benefit from trade.

Many workers are exploited with low wages in sweat shops, which means workers don’t earn enough money to pay for social development such as education or health; Bangladesh is a good example of a country in which poor health and safety regulations result in high deaths.

Other Corporations such as Shell extracting oil in Nigeria burn gas flares and have leaky oil pipes which destroys the environment and leads to women miscarrying, which actually pushes the development of some areas backwards.

Dependency Theory argues that Nation States compete in a ‘race to the bottom’ to attract Transnational Corporations (and extract materials/ produce goods to trade) through having the least regulations.


This material is part of the global development module.

For a fuller post covering this material please see: Four Reasons Trade Doesn’t Promote Development.