The world economy is characterized by a large net flow of goods and resources from the global South to the global North through a process known as “unequal exchange”. This dynamic is a major driver of impoverishment and inequality.
This drain deprives the South of resources necessary for development, perpetuating impoverishment. These productive capacities could be used to meet human needs in the South, but instead they are appropriated to service capital accumulation in the North. For instance, the 21 Exajoules of appropriated energy would be enough to build infrastructure sufficient to ensure decent living standards for 6.5 billion people, but instead it is used to produce fast fashion and tech gadgets for corporate supply chains, supporting growth and consumption in the North.
If measured in terms of Northern prices for traded goods, the appropriated resources would be worth roughly $10.8 trillion per year. That would be enough to end extreme poverty seventy times over.
This graph shows Northern gains as a share of the North's total consumption. On average, about 28% of total consumption the global North is net-appropriated from the global South through unequal exchange.
The global South suffers a drain through unequal exchange that is equivalent to 18% of its total consumption, on average. In other words, in the absence of drain, consumption in the South would be 18% higher.
An earlier study on unequal exchange assessed the scale of drain between core and periphery by country.4 The methodology used in this study does not capture the full scale of physical flows and the resources embodied in production, but the results nonetheless give a reasonable picture of the share of drain by country.
These dynamics help explain the persistence of inequality in the world economy (see our entry on global inequality). Economists often assume that the global South is "behind", and will be able to follow the same development trajectory as rich countries, eventually catching up to them. But catch-up development cannot occur within a system that is predicted on imperialist appropriation. It physically cannot occur in the context of net South-North flows. This is why the income gap between the global South and global North has continued to increase since the end of colonialism. There is no catch-up development happening. This is not because poor countries are “behind”. It is because they are exploited.
Notes and references
1. Hickel, J., Dorninger, C., Wieland, H., & Suwandi, I. (2022). Imperialist appropriation in the world economy: drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1990–2015. Global Environmental Change, 73, 102467.
2. Wallerstein (2004). World-systems analysis: An introduction. Duke University Press. Chomsky, N. (1992). Year 501: The conquest continues. South End Press. Smith, J. (2016). Imperialism in the 21st Century. Monthly Review Press. Suwandi, I. (2019). Value chains: The new economic imperialism. Monthly Review Press. Clelland, D.A. (2014). 'The core of the Apple: Degrees of monopoly and dark value in global commodity chains.' Journal of World-Systems Research 20(1), pp. 82-111.
3. Emmanuel, A. (1972). Unequal exchange: A study of the imperialism of trade. Monthly Review Press. Amin, S. (1976). Unequal development: An essay on the social formations of peripheral capitalism. Monthly Review Press. Ricci, A. (2021). Value and unequal exchange in international trade: The geography of global capitalist exploitation. Routledge. Bunker, S. (1985). Underdeveloping the Amazon: Extraction, unequal exchange, and the failure of the modern state. University of Chicago Press.
4. Hickel, J., Sullivan, D., & Zoomkawala, H. (2021). Plunder in the post-colonial era: quantifying drain from the global south through unequal exchange, 1960–2018. New Political Economy, 26(6), 1030-1047.