Global South, a term coined in the 1960s but was confined to diplomatic circles, is now back in vogue.
In the run-up to the G20 summit in Delhi in September 2023, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said India would be the “voice of the Global South”. A month earlier, the BRICS summit held in Johannesburg in August had a specific goal – to advance the agenda of the Global South. But the term really started trending after India’s successful hosting of the G20 summit by India.
What is meant by Global South and how does it fit in in world affairs? It may be easier to explain what it does not mean. Global South doesn’t mean what it sounds: it is not really a geographical term, as many countries that are considered part of the bloc are located in the northern hemisphere of the Earth. The ‘members’ include India, China, and countries in the northern half of Africa. On the other hand, well-off southern hemisphere countries such as Australia and New Zealand are not in the Global South.
So, the term Global South is used to describe countries that are relatively poor, developing or emerging, and that face some common challenges such as poverty, inequality, and political instability. Broadly, these countries have similar economic and political characteristics and feel unfairly treated by the rich Western countries, or the Global North.
The concept of South and North emerged from the notion that rich countries are located in the northern hemisphere of the Earth, with the exception of Australia and New Zealand, whereas poorer nations are mostly in the tropical regions and in the southern hemisphere. This simplistic view was supported by the Brandt line, proposed by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt in 1980, which created a partition by between the ‘developed’ North and ‘developing’ South based on per-capita GDP.
The Brandt line is supposed to be border of North and South. The imaginary line cuts across the globe running from the north of Mexico, across the top of Africa and the West Asia, looping around India and China before dropping down to encompass part of East Asia.
The term Global South was coined by American writer and Leftist political activist Carl Oglesby in an article published in Commonweal, a reputed Catholic journal. The piece was written in the context of the Vietnam war, and Oglesby used Global South to refer to countries usually described as the Third World.
But the term Global South did not really take off and poor nations were continued to be referred to as Third World countries.
During the Cold War era, Third World was a popular term used to refer to countries that were once colonies. And rich Western countries that prospered due to industrialisation were the First World.
However, after the end of the Cold War, the terms First World, Second World and Third World started to fall out of favour, partly because with the fall of the Soviet Union the Second World ceased to exist, and also because the use of Third World came to be seen as derogatory.
Revival of Global South
The term started trending after India’s successful hosting of the G20 Summit, which also saw a rare consensus among participating countries to the joint statement issues after the meet. The African Union comprising 55 countries located on the African continent was absorbed as a member of the G20 and this significantly changed the character of the bloc, which was originally formed as a grouping of the world’s largest economies.
All this happened under India’s presidency of the G20 in 2023. India’s focus on issues such as climate change, financial reform, and debt restructuring has been hailed as a positive step towards addressing the needs of the Global South.
Who is the leader
In a recent interview to a television channel, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said Global South is a “feeling of belonging” and that the era of one or two countries deciding for the rest of the world is over. However, India’s dramatic rise as a leader of the Global South has put it in direct competition with China, which is known for playing for the long term. India’s efforts to champion the cause of developing nations have been seen as a challenge to China’s perceived leadership in the region.
According to political observers, the rivalry between India and China for leadership of the Global South will continue in the coming years, as both countries seek to expand their influence and shape the global agenda.
Why Global North is upset
For the record, almost all global powers praised India for presiding over G20 in an eventful year and pulling off an impressive feat at the summit by thrashing out a compromise between rival members on sensitive topics. However, in private, there were murmurs of discomfort with India’s rise on the global stage. Surprisingly, these were not from China but the Global North.
“To avoid repeating past mistakes, Western policymakers should beware reifying the Global South, as if it were a single entity, and instead tailor strategies of engagement to specific countries, not least when it comes to so-called pivotal (or swing) states such as Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Africa, or Türkiye,” said Stewart Patrick, director of the Global Order and Institutions Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in an opinion piece.
In an unusually sharp piece in the Financial Times, an otherwise reasonable Alan Beattie wrote that the term Global South is a ‘pernicious’ term that needs to be ‘retired’, for it creates polarisation and retards progress!
Critics argue that the term can be misleading, as it implies a homogeneity among countries that does not exist. They also argue that the term can be used to justify policies that are not in the best interests of all countries in the region.
Changing world order
However, despite these criticisms, the Global South is emerging as an important player in the changing world order. The rise of countries such as India, China, Brazil, and South Africa has challenged the dominance of the traditional Western powers, and has led to a more multipolar world. The Global South is also home to a large and growing middle class, which is driving economic growth and creating new opportunities for trade and investment. As the Global South continues to grow in importance, it is likely to play an increasingly influential role in shaping the global agenda.
China’s game plan
China has historically supported the rise of the Global South as a rival to the US hegemony in world affairs. In the UN, Beijing has consistently referred to itself as belonging to the Global South. The import of China’s stand, however, lies in its ability to turn the tide of opinion in its favour. China wants Global South to decide the world affairs, and it wants to be the bloc’s leader.
However, with India pushing for it, having successfully pulled off a historic feat by getting all partners to agree a common statement, the leadership mantle now is on India’s lap.