After decades of being ignored, it would seem that the Global South has come into vogue. At the G-20 summit in Delhi this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said it was the Global South’s priorities that drove India’s Presidency, and with developing countries Indonesia, India, Brazil and South Africa as consecutive hosts of the grouping, the direction seems set. Earlier this year, PM Modi hosted a virtual summit for the “Voice of the Global South”, with about 125 countries included to seek their opinions on how to set those priorities.
“We, the Global South, have the largest stakes in the future. Three fourths of humanity lives in our countries. We should also have equivalent voice. Hence, as the eight-decade old model of global governance slowly changes, we should try to shape the emerging order,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, at the opening of the virtual meeting for the Voice of the Global South Summit in January. At the G-20 summit itself, the induction of the 55-nation African Union was seen as one of the substantial outcomes of the conference.
At last year’s Climate change conference, CoP 27 in Egypt, the proclamation of the ‘Loss and Damage fund’ was seen as a victory for the Global South, and in the upcoming CoP 28 in the UAE, the Global South will also drive conversations on mitigating climate change while keeping the development priorities of what was once called ‘The Third World’.
Outreach of the rich
Even at the G7 — the grouping of the world’s richest countries — Japan, as host this year, invited developing countries, including India, Brazil, Vietnam, Indonesia, Comoros and the Cook Islands, in what was seen as an outreach to the Global South. The BRICS summit in South Africa last month credited its expansion from five to 11 members to a pitch for the Global South. And this weekend, the G-77, the grouping of developing nations at the UN, held its high-level Summit in Havana, Cuba, putting the region centre-stage.
“After all this time that the North has organised the world according to its interests, it is now up to the South to change the rules of the game,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said on Saturday, calling developing countries the biggest victims of the “multidimensional crisis” in the world, that stems everything from “abusive unequal trade” to global warming and climate change, according to international news agencies.
Speaking at the summit in Havana, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said the “voice of the G-77 plus China will always be essential at the UN”, adding that it is necessary for the Global South to “champion a system rooted in equality... ready to reverse the injustice and neglect of centuries... and champion a system that delivers for all humanity and not only for the privileged.”
So what is the Global South, and how organised are countries in this ‘informal grouping’, that has for decades loosely referred to the developing, often deprived, former colonised nations around the world? By 1964, the developing world was already beginning to organise. In 1964, the Group of 77 (G-77) countries became signatories to a ‘Joint Declaration’ at the first session of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva, becoming the largest intergovernmental organisation of developing countries.
Its mandate was to “articulate and promote their collective economic interests and enhance their joint negotiating capacity on all major international economic issues within the UN system”. Today, the G-77, which has retained its name, despite multiple expansions across countries in Asia, Africa, South America, Caribbean and Oceania (or Asia-Pacific), includes 134 countries. Since China doesn’t technically belong to the grouping, it is referred to as ‘G-77+China’ in most multilateral fora.
Ironically, the term ‘Global South’ is believed to have been coined in the U.S. In 1969, at the height of the Cold War, American anti-war activist Carl Oglesby, who campaigned against what he called the oppression by ‘the North’ (the US, Europe, Russia, etc.) of the ‘Global South’. Oglesby, once the president of an organisation seen as subversive and radical, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), was a musician, an author and a professor, who had dropped out of college, protesting America’s wars and discrimination.
In an essay about the Vietnam war, he wrote that “the North’s dominance over the global South” was responsible for inequality in the world, and would cause future wars as well. The term seemed to stick, and in the early 1970s, discussions around organising countries of the Global South also resulted in the setting up of the UN Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) by the UN General Assembly in 1974. Its mandate: to coordinate South-South (between countries of the Global South) and triangular cooperation (with Developed countries or multilateral agencies), working in tandem with the G-77.
The ‘Brandt Line’
The term Global South, however, was an inaccurate representation of the countries it was meant to represent — many like India are more broadly in the Northern Hemisphere, while some like Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, are bracketed with the Global North. In the 1980s, economists developed the ‘Brandt Line’, a curve that more accurately divided the world into the economic North and South.
Despite the organisations and studies, however, interest in the South declined in the first decades of the 21st century, particularly in countries like India and Indonesia that were seen as discarding their Third World origins for a place at the “high table” as they reformed and grew their economies. Many reasons are proffered for the revival of the Global South’s cachet — the COVID pandemic and economic downturn that has affected South countries the most; and the war in Ukraine and western sanctions against Russia, whose combined impact has been felt across the developing world are chief amongst them.
As a result, the sense that the centre of gravity of global governance has now shifted Southwards is growing, as organisations like G7, G-20, BRICS, the EU, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Quad, the Indo-Pacific Economic Forum and global players all make their play for the Global South’s participation in decision making.