Walt Whitman Rostow was a U.S. economist and political theorist who worked under Johnson Presidency. Although he did serve as a U.S. National Security Advisor, he’s much more well known through the development community for his famous, or dare I say infamous, Rostow Stages of Economic Development. While learning about these stages in class this week, I found myself developing a very critical stance to this approach which I later found was shared by a number of different scholars. In fact, according to Criticism of Rostow’s Stage Approach: The Concepts of Stage, System and Type by Yoichi Itagaki, when Rostow’s book The Stages of Economic Growth: A non-communist Manifesto was first published, it was originally met with harsh, scathing criticism from the international community.
Before analyzing these stages, let’s take a look at what they are:
1. Traditional Society – “The economy is dominated by subsistence activity where output is consumed by producers rather than traded (Ford 2004).”
2. Transitional Stage – (Preconditions for takeoff) “Increased specialization…(and) an emergence of a transport infrastructure to support trade…(and) entrepreneurs emerge (Ford 2004)”
3. Take Off “Industrialization increases, with workers switching from the agricultural sector to the manufacturing sector (Ford 2004).”
4. Drive to Maturity “The economy is diversifying into new areas. Technological innovation is providing a diverse range of investment opportunities…producing a wide range of goods and services and there is less reliance on imports. (Ford 2004).”
5. High Mass Consumption “The economy is geared towards mass consumption…consumer durable industries flourish. The service sector becomes increasingly dominant (Ford 2004).”
Itagaki explains that within the Japanese community, criticism was especially nuanced and varied. In one aspect, scholars claim that “Rostow regards the process of growth not as a homogeneous continuum but as a discontinuous course involving qualitative changes. This historical process of ‘continuity of discontinuity’ is then ‘generalized’ in a ‘sequence of stages’ (Itagaki 1963).” As another scholar, Paul Baran states, another flaw is how Rostow merely states the various stages without further explanation of how each stage is reached or what changes must take place before a transition to the next stage can take place.
Next, the model of stages themselves was met with criticism especially since Rostow does a poor job of explaining their function exactly. In fact, some supporters have tried to assuage the criticism by saying that Rostow’s stages were originally developed for the purposes of Western countries specifically. Overall, I do think that Rostow’s stages make economic sense in that this is a pathway towards economic development. However, I most strongly disagree with any suggestion that these stages can be considered universal. The main problems here are that they ignore cultural and social factors that different countries face and assume that all countries share the same values and aspirations of achieving an industrialized state of high mass consumption. Overall, I don’t see these stages serving as a very useful model for a modern grassroots approach to development, which relies much more on tailoring development initiatives to specific community cultural needs. Although they may identify historical stages through which some Western states have developed, this is not applicable or malleable to accommodate for varying conditions.
Yoichi Itagaki: (Itagaki 1963)
Rostow’s Stages of Development: (Ford 2004) http://www.nvcc.edu/home/nvfordc/econdev/introduction/stages.html