As India assumed the presidency of the G20 group of countries for 2022 to 2023, Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said on December 1 that the country would be the “voice of the Global South, that is otherwise under-represented in such forums”.
The term has since been used multiple times, such as when Jaishankar said of ongoing global conflicts, “polarisation may occur elsewhere, the people who suffer most are the Global South”.
‘Global North’ refers loosely to countries like the US, Canada, Europe, Russia, Australia and New Zealand, while ‘Global South’ includes countries in Asia, Africa and South America. We explain what these terms mean, and the shifts in global politics indicated by their usage.
The need for the ‘Global North’ and the ‘Global South’
For a long time in the study of international political systems, the method of categorising countries into broad categories for easier analysis has existed. The concepts of ‘East’ and ‘West’ is one example of this, with the Western countries generally signifying greater levels of economic development and prosperity among their people, and Eastern countries considered as being in the process of that transition.
Another similar categorisation is of First World, Second World and Third World countries, referring to countries associated with the Cold war-era alliances of the US, the USSR, and non-aligned countries, respectively.
At the centre of these concepts is the World Systems approach introduced by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein in 1974, emphasising an interconnected perspective of looking at world politics.
He said there are three major zones of production: core, peripheral and semi-peripheral. The core zones reap profits, being the owners of cutting-edge technologies – countries like the US or Japan. Peripheral zones, on the other hand, engage in less sophisticated production that is more labour-intensive. In the middle are countries like India and Brazil.
So what was the need for new terms?
In the post-Cold War world, the First World/Third World classification was no longer feasible, because when the Communist USSR disintegrated in 1991, most countries had no choice but to ally at some level with the capitalist US – the only remaining global superpower.
Other classifiers have also seen criticism. The East/West binary was seen as often perpetuating stereotypical thinking about African and Asian countries. Categorising incredibly diverse countries into a monolith was felt to be too simplistic.
Also, the idea that some countries were ‘developed’ while others were not was thought to be too wide a classification, inadequate for accurately discussing concerns.
Writing in 2014 from the perspective of his organisation’s philanthropic activities, Bill Gates said of the ‘developing’ tag, “Any category that lumps China and the Democratic Republic of Congo together confuses more than it clarifies. Some so-called developing countries have come so far that it’s fair to say they have developed. A handful of failed states are hardly developing at all. Most countries are somewhere in the middle.”
Where Global South comes in
What sets the terms Global North and South apart are that first, they are arguably more accurate in grouping like countries together, measuring similarly in terms of wealth, indicators of education and healthcare, etc. Another commonality between the South countries is that most have a history of colonisation, largely at the hands of European powers.
Secondly, this classification trains more focus on the Global South. When leaders such as Jaishankar mention it, they are also pointing to the region’s historical exclusion from prominent international organisations – such as from the permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. As bodies like the UN and the IMF are involved in major decision-making that affect the world in terms of politics, economy and society, the exclusion is seen by these countries as contributing to their slower growth.
As a result, the idea that the South can together advocate for common causes has come up, as underlined by the External Affairs Minister.
Interestingly, when Jaishankar criticised the expectation from India to take a stance on the Ukraine war and rebuke Russia in June this year, China’s state-owned newspaper Global Times praised the comments. This is where the idea of ‘South-South’ cooperation comes in.
Why the concept is being reiterated now is partly because of the economic emergence of some of these South countries, such as India and China, in the last few decades. Many consider the world to now be multipolar rather than one where the US alone dominates international affairs. The progress achieved by many Asian countries is also seen as challenging the idea that the North is the ideal.
As Samuel P Huntington wrote in his 1996 book ‘The Class of Civilizations and the Remaking of Global Order’, “East Asians attribute their dramatic economic development not to their import of Western culture but rather to their adherence to their own culture.”
Criticism of the classification
Some of the earlier terms’ criticisms apply here, too, such as the argument that the term is too broad. In the ongoing debate about North countries paying for funding green energy, having historically contributed to higher carbon emissions, many in the Global North have objected to China and India’s exclusion from this, given their increasing industrialisation.
There is also the question of whether the South simply aims to replace the North and the positions it occupies, again continuing a cycle in which a few countries accumulate crucial resources. As Kevin Gray, a professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex writes, “Much controversy currently surrounds the question of whether elites of the global South and ‘rising powers’ genuinely have the intention to challenge the dominant structures of global capitalist development”.
In the rise of Asia, the continued neglect of Africa has been questioned as well. China is increasingly making inroads here through the Belt and Road Initiative for developing infrastructure. But whether that results in a win-win situation for both parties or focuses on profit for only China remains to be seen.