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What is Dependency Theory?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 16, 2024
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Dependency theory is a theory of how developing and developed nations interact. It can be seen as an opposition theory to the popular free market theory of interaction. Dependency theory was first formulated in the 1950s, drawing on a Marxian analysis of the global economy, and as a direct challenge to the free market economic policies of the post-War era.

The free market ideology holds, at its most basic, that open markets and free trade benefit developing nations, helping them eventually to join the global economy as equal players. The belief is that although some of the methods of market liberalization and opening may be painful for a time, in the long run they help to firmly establish the economy and make the nation competitive at the global level.

Dependency theory, in contrast, holds that there are a small number of established nations that are continually fed by developing nations, at the expense of the developing nations’ own health. These developing nations are essentially acting as colonial dependencies, sending their wealth to the developed nations with minimal compensation. In dependency theory, the developed nations actively keep developing nations in a subservient position, often through economic force by instituting sanctions, or by proscribing free trade policies attached to loans granted by the World Bank or International Monetary Fund.

Dependency theory was incredibly popular during the 1960s and 1970s, when the free market policies of development theory seemed to have led much of the developing world to the brink of economic collapse. In the 1990s, with the rising success of countries such as India and Thailand, dependency theory lost some support, as it appeared development theory may indeed have been working. These days, although not as popular as in its heyday, dependency theory is nonetheless widespread in progressive circles, particular among groups working on alternative modes of capitalism in the developing world.

The critiques of dependency theory can be leveled within a nation as well as internationally. In fact, dependency theory tends to trace its roots to back before the emergence of modern post-colonialism. On an internal level, dependency theory can be seen applying to regions within a country. In the United States, for example, historically the industrial Northeast can be seen drawing wealth from the agricultural south in a pattern reflected in the modern world by the industrial northern hemisphere and the productive southern hemisphere.

Dependency theory also posits that the degree of dependency increases as time goes on. Wealthy countries are able to use their wealth to further influence developing nations into adopting policies that increase the wealth of the wealthy nations, even at their own expense. At the same time, they are able to protect themselves from being turned on by the developing nations, making their system more and more secure as time passes. Capital continues to migrate from the developing nations to the developed nations, causing the developing nations to experience a lack of wealth, which forces them to take out larger loans from the developed nations, further indebting them.

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Discussion Comments
By anon345646 — On Aug 21, 2013

Africa should have asked Mugabe how he is doing in order to empower his people, especially the indeginisation of industries. This is an excellent policy that will eventually see Zimbambwe being economically independent in the next 10 or so years. Open your eyes Africa, and see.

By anon340827 — On Jul 06, 2013

I am of the considered view that the people of any nation must first define what they want. This comes when a majority of them are educated. With education, a lot of things happen.

Next is determining an economic future for themselves and carefully noting all possible obstacles to their dream. Then leadership must emerge that is both intelligent and politically savvy enough to try to whether the storms on their way to the already determined economic haven.

The greatest problem in Africa is ignorance. The ones who should know daily interact with thousands who know next to nothing, thereby dulling their minds. Getting out of dependency doldrums requires that African governments, first and foremost, take education seriously. Second, the intelligentsia must agree on an economic path and be prepared to defend the leadership when things get rough.

By anon323215 — On Mar 04, 2013

This thing of modernisation and dependency is useless because they take our resources and modify them. After that, they demand more, where we, the owners of resources, can afford to buy them.

South Africa, where are we in industrial engineering? Let's change our country without foreigners' input.

By anon308102 — On Dec 09, 2012

I beg you to send me a book explaining much of Dependency Theory in underdeveloped regions such as Tanzania.

By anon299484 — On Oct 25, 2012

The more the rich develop, the more we in the periphery become poorer.

By anon298615 — On Oct 21, 2012

These so called developed countries are leading to our downfall. The more we depend on them, the more they impose their evil theories that degrade our ability to develop. Africans, let's just hold hands and assist ourselves in developing our nations. Together, we can.

By anon298162 — On Oct 18, 2012

I would like to believe that if African countries take a bold stance together as one "Africa" in controlling our countries' resources, we may see our people starting to benefit and start to develop in our countries.

Dependency syndrome is killing our countries, guys. We have gone to the extend of allowing taboo cultures in our society because of dependency syndrome. However, it's not going to be easy as you are all aware. Zimbabwe is going through this process. We have to sacrifice so that we have a better Africa.

By anon291383 — On Sep 14, 2012

The states in the African continent should unite as one. This is the only way we can totally de-link ourselves from the developed countries.

By anon286059 — On Aug 19, 2012

People must be careful when they consider the idea that Zimbabwe is a failure. Out of all the countries that believe they are the muscle in Africa, Zimbabwe is the first truly Pan African country on the continent. While other countries are abused by instruments of big money and powerful countries, they kept their dignity through thick and thin.

Read this article again and you will see that the west controls the media, and it's a shame that Africans believe what comes out from the BBC front desk in the west and ignore the real story told on the ground. Zimbabwe is a true African country, the true Pan African dream. We own our land. Who owns yours?

By anon279231 — On Jul 11, 2012

I believe the less developed countries have the capacity to de-link from the west and foster their own development, at their pace and standards.

The situation that we have found ourselves in is that development is compared to the that of the DCs as a yard stick, and as long as this is so, the LDCs might never develop! Beatrice, Maseno University, Kenya

By anon275159 — On Jun 16, 2012

Dependency is not as bad as most of us are trying to say. Instead of demonizing and pointing all problems to dependency, we should discuss how to come out of dependency when the country fully matures. In fact, at some point, developing nations must just depend on developed nations for capital, technology, markets etc. Jerry O., Nairobi University-Kenya

By lilg — On May 13, 2011

we have to consider issues like the debts owed by the third world countries to the developed countries before we talk of delinking. we also have to consider what zimbabwe went through in trying that approach.

By anon173213 — On May 06, 2011

the only antidote to the perpetual syndrome of african dependency on the western world is to totally have reorientation of leadership, leaders with well articulated, nationally oriented, developmentally driven ideas.

By anon172770 — On May 04, 2011

Being kept in subservient position undermines the desire of African economies to raise against sanctions and proscribed free trade policies attached to loans from the World Bank and I.M.F.

By anon172400 — On May 03, 2011

we have developed an over dependency syndrome to an extent of failing to stand with our own feet, so it's difficult for us as developing countries to do away with western countries.

By anon169379 — On Apr 21, 2011

in no way uganda plus other african countries can transformatively develop when we still rely on handouts from the so called developed western institutions. These have continued to plant the seeds of imperialism and capitalistic ideas that impoverish the African poor. Kato, Makerere university

By anon157439 — On Mar 02, 2011

We, especially Africans, are so used to grants that we budget for what we don't have, hoping to get funds to further our development projects. As they say, cut your coat... tollie. k.u

By Ramazan Qadir — On Dec 06, 2010

third world nations cannot progress until they trust themselves and are free from the influence of the west.

By anon117617 — On Oct 11, 2010

Delinking from the outside made policies by IMF and WB will provide a sound solution to many problems been faced by African states. The developing countries must budget and allocate resources from its own basket as opposed to that of the donor's. Dependence is more deadly than AIDS.

By anon113344 — On Sep 24, 2010

no matter what approaches can be devised, what the third world needs is hard work and to plan centrally for the resources they do have. adopt the approaches Chile, china, Taiwan used. are they now not developed? Africa please wake up. corruption is seated on you. Kelly, gulu university

By anon113342 — On Sep 24, 2010

dependency theory only possesses little and it believes radical views such as isolation of the developed nations' influence, ideas, over the periphery. what we need is an integral approach that would bring change to the third world, but is less beneficial to rich nations. Kelly, Gulu university (Uganda)

By anon113142 — On Sep 23, 2010

strong institutions and independent anti-corruption agencies coupled with developing traditional industries is what will save developing countries. Kwame Nkrumah's way of leadership could serve as a guide. --Raymond

By anon70731 — On Mar 16, 2010

You can not count yourself part of the global village when you are still on the receiving end. Therefore dependency has worsened the situation of the Third World.

By anon65290 — On Feb 12, 2010

I guess to get dependency, nations especially developing/under developing nations are required to focus their all or most attention to set up a domestic production system to get the import bill closer to zero.

this can be achieved through well standard higher technical and subject specified education. --UMAR

By anon51913 — On Nov 10, 2009

delinking from the west is the only solution to dependency.

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