This year, the term “Global South” saw unprecedented use by leaders, the media, and pundits alike. From last month’s BRICS summit in South Africa to the recently held ASEAN and G-20 meetings, leaders from across the planet adopted the term to accommodate their perceptions.
Last week, President Joe Biden used the term while answering questions following the G-20 summit. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the New Delhi Declaration, at the G20 Summit, is about the awakening of the Global South, which is “no longer willing” to be lectured about Russia complying with the “Zelenskyy formula”.
Last year, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “Many countries of the Global South face huge debts, increasing poverty and hunger, and the growing impacts of the climate crisis.”
It’s a term coined decades ago, to mean many things; it has evolved about geopolitical events and in response to the widening gap between the developed and developing worlds. At one time its use interchanged with that of the “Third World.”
Originally, the term referred to countries classified by the World Bank as low or middle-income that are located in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean according to the World Bank.
Later in the 1980s, the Brandt Line was developed to show how the world was geographically split into relatively richer and poorer nations. According to the model, more affluent countries are almost all located in the Northern Hemisphere, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, while poorer countries are primarily located in tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere.
That turned out to be a flawed model as it later appeared that some countries in the south such as Argentina, Malaysia, and Botswana, all have above global average GDP (PPP) per capita, yet still appear in the Global South.
A multipolar struggle
But today, the term is being politicised in what is emerging as a multipolar struggle. And it is being revived as it has become a catchall term, meaning many things. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hosted last week’s G-20, said he was eager to fulfil his proclaimed desire to make India the “Voice of the Global South.”
The war in Ukraine has polarised the world as Russia while Beijing sees America’s onslaught on its backyard, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea as ushering in a new Cold War. The US views China as the principal challenger to its global status, both economically and militarily.
One can throw in other active geopolitical hotspots: the Japan-China historical enmity, the China-India rivalry, the crisis in the Korean Peninsula, and the latest anti-colonial putsches in West Africa. In a nutshell, the Global South’s mantra has become a clarion call for collective action; but the question remains: Is there a Global South?
While China, India, and Russia claim leadership of the Global South as a response to developing geopolitical challenges, the reality is that other countries in the sphere of that geographical domain are lagging. Most would not measure up to the three contenders economically, militarily, and politically.
The Global South’s mantra has become a clarion call for collective action; but the question remains: Is there a Global South?
An article by UNCTAD, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, claims that most underdeveloped countries are facing the combined effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, a global food and energy crisis, and the climate emergency.
Droughts, fires, floods, weak post-pandemic economic growth, and high inflation are creating even more significant challenges for vulnerable countries of the Global South. No country claiming leadership of the Global South can address all these challenges alone.
Many countries in the Global South continue to grapple with high levels of poverty and inequality. Bridging this gap and ensuring inclusive growth remains a challenge.
Others also struggle with issues of governance, including corruption, weak institutions, and lack of transparency, not to mention infrastructure deficits such as inadequate transportation networks, limited access to electricity, and poor telecommunication systems.
Other challenges include education and skills gap, climate change and environmental sustainability, inadequate health care systems, political instability and conflicts, trade imbalances, reliance on commodity exports, and economic dependency on more developed nations.
The Global South is not a homogeneous entity. Deep contradictions exist. But it is becoming a power to reckon with. Most are rich in natural resources that the developed nations need to keep their economies alive.
For decades, the countries of the Global South, now a metaphor for countries suffering from structural inadequacies, have suffered for numerous reasons. Affluent countries of the group can help provide remedies and shun the legacy of colonialism.
The struggle among the contenders should not be over who can lead but how.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.