Having discussed ‘development’, it makes it easier to comprehend the concept of underdevelopment. Obviously, underdevelopment is not absence of development, because every people have developed in one way or another and to a greater or lesser extent. Underdevelopment makes sense only as a means of comparing levels of development. It is very much tied to the fact that human social development has been uneven and from a strictly economic view-point some human groups have advanced further by producing more and becoming more wealthy.
The moment that one group appears to be wealthier than others, some enquiry is bound to take place as to the reason for the difference. After Britain had begun to move ahead of the rest of Europe in the 18th century, the famous British economist Adam Smith felt it necessary to look into the causes behind the ‘Wealth of Nations’. At the same time, many Russians were very concerned about the fact that their country was ‘backward’ in comparison with England, France and Germany in the 18th century and subsequently in the 19th century. Today, our main pre-occupation is with the differences in wealth between on the one hand Europe and North America and on the other hand Africa, Asia and Latin America. In comparison with the first, the second group can be said to be backward or underdeveloped. At all times, therefore, one of the ideas behind underdevelopment is a comparative one. It is possible to compare the economic conditions at two different periods for the same country and determine whether or not it had developed; and (more importantly) it is possible to compare the economies of any two countries or sets of countries at any given period in time.
A second and even more indispensable component of modern underdevelopment is that it expresses a particular relationship of exploitation: namely, the exploitation of one country by another. All of the countries named as ‘underdeveloped’ in the world are exploited by others; and the underdevelopment with which the world is now pre-occupied is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation. African and Asian societies were developing independently until they were taken over directly or indirectly by the capitalist powers. When that happened, exploitation increased and the export of surplus ensued, depriving the societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labour. That is an integral part of underdevelopment in the contemporary sense.
In some quarters, it has often been thought wise to substitute the term ‘developing’ for ‘underdeveloped’. One of the reasons for so doing is to avoid any unpleasantness which may be attached to the second term, which might be interpreted as meaning underdeveloped mentally, physically, morally or in any other respect. Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. However, on the economic level, it is best to remain with the word ‘underdeveloped’ rather than ‘developing’, because the latter creates the impression that all the countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America are escaping from a state of economic backwardness relative to the industrial nations of the world, and that they are emancipating themselves from the relationship of exploitation. That is certainly not true, and many underdeveloped countries in Africa and elsewhere are becoming more underdeveloped in comparison with the world’s great powers, because their exploitation by the metropoles is being intensified in new ways.
Economic comparisons can be made by looking at statistical tables or indices of what goods and services are produced and used in the societies under discussion. Professional economists speak of the National Income of countries and the National Income per capita. These phrases have already become part of the layman’s language, by way of the newspapers and no detailed explanation will be offered here. It is enough to note that the National Income is a measurement of the total wealth of the country, while the per capita income is a figure obtained by dividing the National Income by the number of inhabitants in order to get an idea of the ‘average’ wealth of each inhabitant. This ‘average’ can be misleading where there are great extremes of wealth. A young Ugandan put it in a very personal form when he said that the per capita income of his country camouflaged the fantastic difference between what was earned by his poor peasant father and what was earned by the biggest local capitalist, Madhvani. In considering the question of development away from the state of underdevelopment, it is of supreme importance to realise that such a process demands the removal of the gross inequalities of land distribution, property holding and income, which are camouflaged behind national income figures. At one stage in history, advance was made at the cost of entrenching privileged groups, In our times, development has to mean advance which liquidates present privileged groups with their corresponding unprivileged groups. Nevertheless, the per capita income is a useful statistic for comparing one country with another; and the developed countries all have per capita incomes several times higher than any one of the recently independent African nations.
The following table gives a clear picture of the gap between Africa and certain nations measured in per capita incomes. It is the gap that allows one group to be called ‘developed’ and another ‘underdeveloped’. (The information is obtained from United Nations statistical publications, and applies to the year 1968 unless otherwise stated.)