Unequal Exchange Theory: Explained


In the 1960s and 1970s, a wave of economists challenged the liberal perspective on underdevelopment, moving away from the idea of a simple lag in development along a linear trajectory, as outlined by W.W. Rostow in “The Stages of Economic Growth” (1960).

Instead, underdevelopment was seen as a result of hindrances preventing the crucial take-off phase.

Deterioration of the Terms of Trade

Economists influenced by Marxist theories, such as Samir Amin (1931-2018) and Arghiri Emmanuel (1911-2001), proposed that underdevelopment is a consequence of exploitation by developed nations at the expense of the Global South—exploitation without direct colonization.

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The concept of “terms of trade” analyzes exchanges in real terms: goods for goods. If prices of Northern products rise while those of Southern products fall, it results in the deterioration of the terms of trade.

Consequently, Southern nations must sell larger quantities of their goods to purchase lesser quantities of industrial products, leading to wealth transfer and exploitation.

This perspective suggests that part of the wealth in developed countries is either created by or diverted from the Global South.

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Such “diversions” have occurred not only between countries but also within different sectors of the economy, such as agriculture being overshadowed by industry and, subsequently, services. This imbalance has implications for sectors like agriculture, where powerful entities in the distribution chain impose low prices on producers.

The Theory of Impoverishing Growth

Jagdish Bhagwati, an Indian economist, extended the concept of unequal exchange with the theory of impoverishing growth. Introduced in 1958, this theory suggests that a country can become poorer despite producing more.

While this idea faced challenges and doesn’t fully align with the growth trajectories of formerly underdeveloped countries like China and India, it contributed to a worldview shaped by the center-periphery paradigm, reflecting Marxist influence.

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Critiques and Challenges

The verification of the unequal exchange theory through statistical analysis faces challenges, especially over the long term. Fluctuations in commodity prices, such as the surge in oil prices, contradicted some aspects of the theory.

Additionally, the complex dynamics of industrial product prices, influenced by factors like chronic inflation (1960s-1970s) followed by disparate trajectories, make it challenging to grasp the theory’s implications accurately.

Contemporary Trade Realities

While the unequal exchange theory provided a lens for understanding global trade disparities, the present situation in world commerce doesn’t necessarily align with its predictions.

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The stability of certain commodity prices over the long term and the evolution of industrial product prices present a nuanced picture. The industrialization of Southern countries has played a role in the ironic collapse of prices for some products.


In conclusion, the theory of unequal exchange, championed by economists critical of traditional perspectives, highlighted the potential exploitation in global trade.

While its core ideas offered insights into historical imbalances, contemporary global trade dynamics challenge some of its assumptions. The evolving landscape requires ongoing scrutiny and adaptation of economic theories to accurately capture the complexities of international relations and trade.

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As the world navigates through changing economic tides, theories like unequal exchange contribute to a broader understanding but should be viewed alongside the realities of the contemporary global economy.

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