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How does Dependency Theory intersect with Feminist Economics?

A blog post by Bélén Villegas Plá

Head shot of Belen

Bélén is a researcher and lecturer at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo, Uruguay. Her research focuses on political economy and inequality in peripheral contexts with a focus on Latin America. In a recent paper ‘Dependency theory meets feminist economics: a research agenda’ in Third World Quarterly, Bélén explores the analytical connections and political potential of promoting a Feminist Dependency Agenda to address development and inequalities.

Gender Inequality in Latin America

Latin America continues to be the most unequal region in the world. The richest tenth of the population captures 22 times more of the national income than the bottom tenth (The Inequality Crisis, 2020). These inequalities are further exacerbated if other cleavages (or distinctions) such as gender or ethnic-racial status are considered. According to the Economic Survey of Latin America and the Caribbean (ELAC) 2022 report, 1 in 2 women in Latin America are outside the labour market, and are overrepresented in poverty rates. This is especially the case for Indigenous, Afro-descendant and racialised women. At the same time, women in Latin American countries also do most of the unpaid care work; three times as much time as men, which also affects their lack of access to the paid labour market.

Cover the Inequality Crisis book

Defining dependence and structuralism in Latin America

Challenging the Western views on development, the dependency agenda was widely influential in Latin American academic and political circles during the 1940s-1970s only to be relegated to the background in recent decades. In recent years, a process of revisiting dependency theory has taken place, recognising its continuity with the original roots but at the same time adapting it to the characteristics of the current development process.

The very definition of dependence is subject to debate. According to research by Ingrid Kvangraven in a paper in Development & Change (2021), the dependency view of development implies that capitalism produces a polarising situation between regions known as the centre-periphery type. This means that the mode of development for less developed ‘peripheral countries’ is intrinsically dependent on the centre or core countries. The resulting inequality and lack of development in the peripheral countries is therefore an inherent part of the causes of development in the central countries. The situation of dependence means that these peripheral countries must face specific constraints that similarly limit their growth despite their diversity. Production structures and financial processes also occupy a central place in this theory. This has been shown by other authors, Samir Amin (2007) and Theotonio Dos Santos (1970).

In my recent paper, I claim that although some authors have analysed the links between dependency and gender relations, the connections between feminist economics and dependency theory need to be analysed in greater depth. The dependency agenda can also be enriched from the intersection with feminist debates.

A Feminist Dependency Agenda

Just as feminist economics is not a closed theory, neither is the dependency agenda. However, by exploring the common elements across both research agendas – rather than viewing them as monolithic theories – we make it possible to build a dialogue between dependency and feminist economics as a crucial analytical tool for us to address inequalities in peripheral countries.

My main argument is while the dependency agenda should include the role of gender relations in shaping production structures and their effects on development, feminist economics should also systemically incorporate how unequal development shapes gender relations. In my paper, I propose two lines of research for the dialogue between these two research agendas.


“By exploring the common elements across both research agendas – rather than viewing them as monolithic theories – we make it possible to build a dialogue between dependency and feminist economics as a crucial analytical tool for us to address inequalities in peripheral countries.”

#1: The role of gender inequality as an “adjustment variable” in the “cycle-taking” position of the periphery

A key element of the dependence agenda and Latin American structuralism is the historical structural understanding of the significance of long-term configurations that shape peripheral economies. By analysing the large and frequent fluctuations of Latin American economies, Argentine economist, Raúl Prebisch (1901-1986) first began to develop the idea that, on the one hand, capitalist growth is undulatory and cyclical, and on the other hand, cycles in developing economies were not generated endogenously or internally.

According to Prebisch, there is a close relationship between cycles and external factors and more precisely in the capital transfers that Latin American countries received from stock exchange centres (located in the United Kingdom and later also in the United States). These financial flows were determined, on the demand side, by the financing needs of those in the peripheries, and on the supply side, by the liquidity position of the developed areas (see Prebisch papers from 1921 and 1949). As Prebisch emphasised (and other researchers have subsequently elaborated on), the boom-bust cycles of the Latin American economies depended largely on exogenous/external factors determined by the developed countries, such as: liquidity in international markets, the global trend in commodity prices and the US growth rate and interest rate . This is known as a “cycle taker” position, and this has specific consequences for the political economy.

“The boom-bust cycles of the Latin American economies depended largely on exogenous/external factors determined by the developed countries.”

Hence, during the boom phases of the economic cycle, peripheral governments tend to achieve political stability to some extent, progressive democratisation of the state, and social integration. However, during economic slowdowns, the need for foreign currency generates greater incentives to generate policies to attract foreign capital, which often include ‘labour discipline’ strategies such as labour deregulation, labour precariousness, lower wages and loss of social rights. In other words, the aim is to attract capital by increasing the profitability of capital by lowering labour costs. Of course, this is also true for the core economies, but since cycles in the peripheries are more pronounced and exogenously determined, they are less able to moderate them.

But how does this relate to gender inequalities? Feminists have argued that globalisation has led to the feminisation of labour. Increased international competition causes women, due to their lower wages, to become a “competitive advantage” for increasing capital gains. This has meant that in the peripheral regions, there is a closely connected relationship between women’s precarious employment and their subordinate role in the economy. In other words, women, especially racialised and migrant women, act as ‘variables’ on which markets ‘adjust’ their needs. In this sense, in the downturns of the economic cycle, countries develop strategies to attract investment by making women’s labour precarious as a way to increase capital gains.

Far from being a factor that can just be explained at a local level, the role of women in production is central to these hierarchical processes of capital accumulation. This also has concrete gender and racial-ethnic implications as those who work in the lower-skilled, lower-income, and lower-condition sectors tend to be largely women, especially racialised women (see Sara Stevano’s book, ‘Gender, Work and Organisation’ 2023).

#2: Structural heterogeneity and centre-periphery value transfer shape the Care Economy

The concept of structural heterogeneity points out that in Latin America – and in general in peripheral territories – there is a small high-productivity sector, prone to technological adoption, and this generates higher-skilled employment and higher growth. However, in contrast, where low-productivity sectors (including most of the service-related sectors) are predominant, there is technological backwardness and precarious employment. In peripheral countries, this gap can be sufficiently marked causing labour and remuneration conditions to be strongly/highly unequal (see ECLAC). I argue that structural heterogeneity significantly shapes care work and paid domestic work in peripheral regions.

So, what does this mean in terms if care? In peripheral countries, there are large contingents of the population that enter the labour market with low wages and poor working conditions, compared to a small group of people where a large part of the national income and wealth is concentrated. This structural heterogeneity promotes a “cheap” commodification of care and domestic work. The existence of domestic work is largely based on a very high wage gap between the wage of the domestic worker and the wage generated by the household that employs her, accentuating the interrelationship between gender-class and poverty.

A woman cleaning

In peripheral societies, the middle and upper classes typically hire “cheap” domestic workers to handle care work within their homes, or they commodify care through extremely precarious working conditions in private services that are based on the intersectional inequalities of the peripheries. In contrast to the central countries, where hiring domestic work is a luxury service, in the peripheries domestic work is a ‘cheap’ service, and this cost is assimilated precisely to the precariousness of employment and wages, which is based on structural heterogeneity.

Creating and Intregrating Feminist Dependency Policies

Given the current sustained increase in inequalities between and within countries, and the persistence of gender inequalities, a Feminist Dependency Agenda is now, more than ever, a central analytical and political potential for addressing development. Gender inequalities are an inherent part of peripheral structures that contribute to our understanding of the reproductive structures of the peripheries, and play a fundamental role in global hierarchies.

State intervention and the promotion of public policies that address inequalities in care and paid domestic work are also central to addressing gender and racial-ethnic inequalities. National Systems of Care can constitute a key area for policy intervention. Due to the complex nature of gender inequalities and their interrelationship with other inequalities, it is central to integrate gender policies in national development plans as well as in economic policy in a cross-cutting manner.

In my research work, I propose to continue advancing our understanding of the analytical connections between dependent development and ethnic-racial inequalities in each peripheral context. For example, I am interested in investigating to what extent tax regimes for attracting investment contribute to increasing gender inequalities, or to what extent trade agreements foster the precariousness of employment in the peripheries and their impact in terms of gender and ethno-racial inequalities.

At a political-analytical level, we need to increase the visibility and enhance the work of trade unions, feminist movements and other grassroots movements that contribute through collective organisation to strengthen social rights and shape – at least partially – the effects of global capital on peripheral economies.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the blog post author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Global Souths Hub and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Bélén Villegas Plá‘s Biography

Bélén did her PhD at the University of York (UK) analysing distributive policies in Latin America from a dependent development perspective. She is currently a researcher and lecturer at the Universidad de la República in Montevideo,  Uruguay. In her paper, she argues that because gender inequality is a structural, systemic, and long-term phenomenon, it needs to be addressed in the context of examining unequal growth in peripheral countries. Overall, her research focuses on political economy and inequality in peripheral contexts with a focus on Latin America. Bélén has lectured on care economy at IHEAL-Sorbonne, FLACSO and the United Nations and has developed work on political economy and care for ECLAC, UN Women, the Secretary of Care of Uruguay, among others.

Third World Quarterly Cover

Dependency theory meets feminist economics: a research agenda published online 26 Dec 2023 by Belén Villegas Plá for Third World Quarterly (pp. 1–18). [doi: 10.1080/01436597.2023.2292176]