Unequal exchange theory posits that economic growth in the “advanced economies” of the global North relies on a large net appropriation of resources and labour from the global South, extracted through price differentials in international trade. Past attempts to estimate the scale and value of this drain have faced a number of conceptual and empirical limitations, and have been unable to capture the upstream resources and labour embodied in traded goods. Here we use environmental input-output data and footprint analysis to quantify the physical scale of net appropriation from the South in terms of embodied resources and labour over the period 1990 to 2015. We then represent the value of appropriated resources in terms of prevailing market prices. Our results show that in 2015 the North net appropriated from the South 12 billion tons of embodied raw material equivalents, 822 million hectares of embodied land, 21 exajoules of embodied energy, and 188 million person-years of embodied labour, worth $10.8 trillion in Northern prices – enough to end extreme poverty 70 times over. Over the whole period, drain from the South totalled $242 trillion (constant 2010 USD). This drain represents a significant windfall for the global North, equivalent to a quarter of Northern GDP. For comparison, we also report drain in global average prices. Using this method, we find that the South’s losses due to unequal exchange outstrip their total aid receipts over the period by a factor of 30. Our analysis confirms that unequal exchange is a significant driver of global inequality, uneven development, and ecological breakdown.
Authors and Publishers
Jason Hickel, Christian Dorningerd, Hanspeter Wielandf, Intan Suwandig
Elsevier is a world-leading provider of information solutions that enhance the performance of science, health, and technology professionals.
All knowledge begins as uncommon—unrecognized, undervalued, and sometimes unaccepted. But with the right perspective, the uncommon can become the exceptional.