Structural Transformation: Then and Now

by C.R.Yadu and Sahil Mehra

A major theme that dominates the literature on development economics is the narrative of ‘Structural Transformation’, which, based on the experience of developed economies, envisages a gradual ‘modernisation’ of the economy. This process is expected to unfold in a similar way across the economies of global South, where the importance of non-agriculture/high-productivity/capitalist sectors in terms of both contribution to national income and labour employment would increase and that of agriculture/low-productivity/pre-capitalist sectors would fall, ultimately leading to dissolution of this dualist structure of the economy (Lewis, 1954; Kaldor, 1967; Kuznets, 1968). This transformation is expected to bring productivity gains across all sectors, reduce poverty, and lead to high levels of economic prosperity. According to Monga and Yifu Lin (2019), structural transformation is “arguably the single most significant concept and social goal in the global quest for prosperity and world peace.”

However, many of the economies of the global South have not been able to undergo this expected path of structural transformation. For example, in 2019, for sub-Saharan Africa, the average contribution of agriculture to GDP has been around 14% while the proportion of population employed in agriculture is 53%. The GDP contribution and employment figures range from 8% and 27% for East Asian and Pacific economies to 17% and 42% for South Asia respectively (World Development Indicators, 2021).

The dominant narrative, largely propagated by international agencies like the World Bank, still advocates the validity of the process of structural transformation, continues to use this framework to understand the labour and employment transition in the global South, and advocates policies to achieve the same. In contrast, within various critical strands of literature, there is an increasing realization that the nature and pattern of structural transformation that unfolded in the global North might not be replicable in the global South (Dorin, 2017; Scherrer, 2018; Breman, 2019). Building on some of these criticisms, we argue that the possibilities of attainment of a North-style structural transformation remains bleak in the contemporary global South. This is majorly because the socio-economic and political context which facilitated the process of structural transformation of the economies in the global North is no longer available to the global South. The process in the North was, to a large extent, fostered by colonialism which allowed these economies to undertake expropriation and extraction of resources, without much concern for ecological limits, as well as to transfer a proportion of their population to the newly found lands in the temperate regions. Given the significant changes in the structure of capitalism now as compared to the earlier phase, it is worthwhile to investigate the possibilities of the global South experiencing the envisaged path of structural transformation.

In the following sections, we elaborate on why the received wisdom in development economics no longer provides an adequate framework to understand capitalist development in the global South.

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