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Jun 29, 2023

The Global South: A Problematic Term

Nobody really likes the term, but everyone uses it. What is it useful for? Attempts at order in a complicated world.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo delivers his speech during a ceremony to mark the 60th Asian-African Conference Commemoration at Gedung Merdeka in Bandung, West Java, April 24, 2015.
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The term Global South is currently on everyone’s lips; there can hardly be any discussion of power shifts and reorganizations of the international system without resorting to it. Commentators on German and European foreign policy, such as Jörg Lau who recently said as much in the German edition of this magazine, attribute this increased attention primarily to the refusal—surprising to many—of the majority of states designated as Global South to unconditionally condemn and sanction Russia over its war of aggression against Ukraine.

However, the idea of the Global South is by no means new; in politics, media, and academia alike, the use of the concept has steadily increased since the 1990s. Regardless of how it is applied, the concept of the Global South has always served as a way of creating order in a complicated world. German politicians use it as a legitimizing collective term for development cooperation; the United Nations structures statistics according to the distinction between North and South; scholars write books about political processes, health, or youth movements in the Global South. All this implies that—however defined—commonalities of this group are significant for understanding global processes.

But to what extent is the concept of the Global South still meaningful and appropriate? Or does it rather, as Jörg Lau writes, “mislead ... (and) suggest common interests and values where it would be better to finally perceive the subtle differences”? After all, there is neither agreement on who this Global South actually is, nor fundamentally on whether the Global South exists at all, given the great heterogeneity and the dynamics of those who are typically classified within it.

In order to come closer to an answer, it’s important to be aware of the different uses of the term. Words and categorizations are powerful; this, in turn, requires reflection on the importance of the categorization of states in politics.

How diversely this term can be understood is already reflected in its history. Some essentially trace it back to the report in the 1980s of the so-called Brandt Commission, led by former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, and its “Brandt Line,” recorded between north and south, roughly at a latitude of 30 degrees north. Other, more theoretically guided observers, locate fundamental ideas of a “world divided in two” in the writings of Antonio Gramsci and later Immanuel Wallerstein, which address the way one part of the world oppresses the other by means of capitalist exploitation (in Gramsci’s case, it is the exploitation of southern Italy by northern Italy). Postcolonial studies take up this understanding and conceive of the idea of the Global South in relation to neoliberalism and the associated new geography of production, in other words, the spatial distribution of production, consumption, and the course of global supply chains.

In its present form, the concept has been used especially since the end of the Cold War and in relation to accelerating globalization. Both processes fundamentally challenged the division into “three worlds” in different ways and they also question the North-South distinction, both in terms of realpolitik and morality. Leaving aside for the moment the justified criticisms of the concept, at least three different views can be found both in academia and in the political and media treatment of the term. The first is dominant in the media, the other two more so in academia, but also among certain social players in the Global South itself.

Three Definitions

The first view defines the term in the literal sense, geographically-technically, acting as a metaphor for underdevelopment and a substitute for the term “Third World.” Most of these uses thereby reflect the common postcolonial heritage and the burden that comes with it, which circumscribes the geographic contradictions (Australia, India, etc.).

Used in this way, the term Global South has increased since the end of the Cold War and especially in the past 10 years; here, together with the counterpart of a Global North, it is increasingly replacing the concept of “developing versus industrialized states.” The term is thus applied descriptively, serving as a catch-all description for low and middle-income states (as classified by the World Bank) in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This is obviously problematic, but represents the most common usage, especially in the media and politics. The boundaries between North and South remain vague. This makes it very difficult to justify the term if we think of India and China alone.

The second view is based on state-positioned common identities that have become entrenched in international institutions, especially the Group of 77 (G77). Here, the focus is on political identity as the Global South. Conceptually, this usage dates back to the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955; it was solidified by the nonaligned states, and today by the G77 plus China. In the meantime, the group has now expanded to 134 states.

Thus, it is primarily a matter of emphasizing the historically conditioned commonalities as a group of states, that is to say: as a political project that “involves overcoming the common experiences of imperialism” (Vijay Prashad), and also emphasizing the development of a vision for an alternative world order. Central to this use of the term are shared values and the formation of institutions to pursue common goals. This usage is often what is meant when states describe themselves as parts of the Global South. This also applies to states such as China and India, which are no longer clearly described by the term when it is used in other ways.

The third usage, which has a transnational, i.e. social dimension, is not entirely distinct from this meaning. Here, too, the subordinate geopolitical identity is placed in the foreground. Global South is used as a term of empowerment, in the sense of a mutual recognition between the subordinates of the world and their shared positioning on the “margins of the neoliberal world of globalization” (Alfred López). The South is not limited to the southern hemisphere, but includes the “South in the North.” This refers to places and parts of societies marginalized by exploitation, oppression, and poverty. It is thus about a transnational countermovement in resistance to a capitalist globalization. The concept is understood here as a process and practice through which new forms of knowledge production are created, and existing forms of the reproduction of inequalities and epistemic racism are broken up.

South Doesn’t Mean “Less”

It doesn’t matter which of the different understandings of the Global South is given preference: The inherent dichotomy of the world always results in a kind of hierarchy that often seems to underlie political action as well. The Global North is associated with modernity, development, capacity, and prosperity; the South, in turn, is inevitably understood as “other,” as “less,” and as subordinate.

In particular, the assumed lack of competence and capacity is problematic for many areas and leads to misguided results. An example of this can be found in the underestimated expertise of many African institutions and political players in regard to pandemic response, as the respective states often found better ways of dealing with COVID-19 than states with a “northern” health system.

The significance of the Global South is also being challenged by the rise of China and India, and to some extent Brazil and South Africa. This is not a new phenomenon—the diversity of states designated as Global South seems too great for any possible affiliation to be understood as a blueprint for particular approaches or policies. This diversity has demonstrably increased over the past two decades; India in particular, and China even more so, are difficult to understand as subordinate players in global politics.

Why do politicians, media professionals, and people in academia alike nevertheless find it so difficult to dispense with the term?

First of all, there are structural reasons. Although the economic situation in parts of the Global South has improved in absolute terms, the income hierarchies (i.e., the ranking between states) are very stable, with the exception of India and China.

Political self-attribution to the Global South, along with, for example, voting behavior in the United Nations, follow patterns of the classic division between North and South along the “Brandt Line.” Thus, there are important, historically continuous commonalities on both the structural-economic and political levels that could sustain the meaningfulness of the Global South category. Despite the relative success of some states, a common identity remains: It is built on shared historical experiences of exclusion and oppression, which are still expressed in political decisions, and especially in political rhetoric.

When global inequalities among states and members of civil society affect relations with each other, as the reactions to the war in Ukraine show, crude categorizations remain explanatory despite generalizations. For example, “North” and “South” still play important political roles in international politics, such as in United Nations development policy forums, where the G77 plus China and the OECD continue to confront each other.

But normatively, too, something can be gained from the broader, contextualized use of the term if we understand the designation Global South as a “category that sensitizes us to the historically evolved marginalization within international hierarchies” (Tobias Berger). In this context, a politically-guided self-categorization and behavior as a “member of the Global South” must not be lost sight of—especially by the BRICS states. Dichotomies and their instrumentalization can fundamentally stand in the way of political progress; this is often impressively demonstrated in global climate negotiations, where historically evolved dichotomies are often cited as one of the central hurdles to further progress. Consequently, the political effectiveness of such concepts must never be disregarded.

Finally, the lack of alternatives is also a possible good reason for the continued use of the term. Simply no longer using the term Global South is not a solution, because other concepts pose similar, if not greater, difficulties.

Comparisons such as “developing versus industrialized states” or “periphery versus center” do not yield any benefits; they, too, harbor dichotomies and inadmissible generalizations. Even the only seemingly value-free designation as “low or middle-income states” (according to the World Bank's classification) does not really help.

The 30 or 50 poorest states in the world could also be listed individually when describing inequalities in different policy areas; however, this hardly seems sustainable. Categories and concepts are needed to research, to know, to make policy, and to communicate. Therefore, more precise geographical descriptions, for example by region or continent, offer little alternative.

Inequality, not Weakness

Perhaps guidelines like these will help: First, when using the concept, one should take a moment to be clear about why and how one is using the term Global South. Does the category help with communication, or is it used to convey certain messages? If it is the latter, these should be clearly reflected and spelled out. If the category leads nowhere, one should resort to more precise descriptions as needed, such as “the 25 poorest states,” “the 30 least industrialized states,” or “the states affected by certain crises.” Nevertheless, there will continue to be situations in which the use of Global South is appropriate, especially when we are dealing with self-descriptions or the effectiveness of structurally determined inequalities, regardless of geographic location.

However, these inequalities should not be seen as the weakness of one side and the strength of the other. Thus, the concept of the Global South is still useful: It continues to describe social realities, although its use always generalizes other aspects of the world at the same time. 

Miriam Prys-Hansen heads the research area Global Orders and Foreign Policies at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) in Hamburg.