Could you direct me to the Global South?


Andrew Milner


A few weeks ago, someone asked me what I meant by the Global South. I didn’t have a good answer then and I still don’t. It led me to reflect, though, that the term has become simply a lazy shorthand. But a shorthand for what? All labels tend to outlive their usefulness, but this one seems to have a greater built-in obsolescence than most. In fact, it looks useless to begin with.

On its face, the term is an absurdity. It’s not descriptive of what it wants to denominate – not only that, it’s apparently descriptive of something else. Everyone knows that Global South doesn’t necessarily mean the southern hemisphere and that Global North doesn’t mean the northern hemisphere.

What looks even more absurd is that the ‘global’ qualifier – a geographic term (though it has been pressed into service by other fields of endeavour) – is used to denote the fact that the terms don’t represent geographic entities! Well, if it’s so obviously off-beam, how did it get started and where did it come from?

Norwegian anthropologist Thomas Hylland Eriksen offers us a clue: the scholars who use it, he says, ‘associate it largely with some of the ills of globalization. While the countries of the Global North not only have stable states but also a strong public sector, the Global South is, to a far greater extent, subject to the forces of global neoliberalism.’ From this point of view, he argues, the ‘global’ prefix makes sense. The world is now mainly divided by degrees of benefit in a globalized neo-liberal capitalist economy.

What he doesn’t say, however, is how to tell which is which. In fact, most commentators have been irritatingly vague about where the line should fall. ‘Generally,’ says Wikipedia, ‘definitions of the Global North include the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and developed parts of Asia, as well as Australia and New Zealand, which are not actually located in the geographical North but share similar economic and cultural characteristics as other northern countries.’ The Global South, meanwhile, says the same source, is ‘made up of Africa, Latin America, and developing Asia including the Middle East.’

What is clear, though, is that there is a fundamental distinction since the terms involved are opposites. Not only are they geographically opposed, there are any number of examples of antipathy between north and south – the two Koreas, the two Vietnams.

Italy until well into the previous century was almost two countries, with the citizens of each viewing the attitudes and behaviour of the other with contempt. In extreme cases, as the American Civil War shows, this contempt has resulted in open conflict.

At first sight, the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ world seem to do a better job than global north and global south. At least they suggest a possibility of change and that we’re all going in the same direction. But, wait a minute! Maybe that’s exactly what the problem is. ‘Developing’ and ‘developed’ imply that we all want to get to one place.

The developed world has arrived and is waiting for the developing world to catch up. But that makes us uncomfortable. It suggests a patron-client relationship, a hierarchy, even if it’s only a hierarchy of two. The term ‘third world’ seems even more hierarchical on the face of it (though the term, coined by Frenchman Alfred Sauvy in 1952, was originally used to denote countries that weren’t aligned with either of the two superpowers during the Cold War).

I suspect that there is an element of euphemism at work, and that the global north/south terminology is designed to be carefully neutral. But it also allows us to imagine that the Global North is not simply a club that those in the Global South want to join, but that the Global South might fulfil a separate destiny, the distinctiveness of its culture and institutions maintained and the well-being of its citizens ensured…and, on this last phrase, I stub my toe again.

For it’s hard to resist the feeling that, misleading as it is, vague as we insist on keeping it, at bottom there is an assumption that the Global South refers to a set of countries that have somehow got the short end. Our refusal to be drawn on the precise terms means that there are many doubtful cases.

The most we seem to be able to say is that the Global South is made up of countries which are probably in the southern hemisphere (but need not be) and have been short-changed (somehow) by the prevailing global economic arrangements.

Where should China go, which since the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, has been providing overseas aid despite being a so-called developing country? What about India with its formidable progress and equally formidable development challenges? Where would they put themselves? Is Greece still in the Global North, despite the implosion of its economy following the recession?

The UK is generally acknowledged to be so, but according to a recent study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has record numbers of working poor, at 3.8 million people.

But, I hear you object, we were scratching our heads over these questions before the adoption of the Global South-Global North terminology. Right you are, but the terminology doesn’t just perpetuate ambiguity, it actually makes it worse.

The most we seem to be able to say is that the Global South is made up of countries which are probably in the southern hemisphere (but need not be) and have been short-changed (somehow) by the prevailing global economic arrangements.

Any judgement of which country belongs where is likely to involve a complex set of assumptions and judgements which won’t always be rational.

Now, here’s a thought – this ambiguity is really the strength of the north-south thing and the reason for its currency. The terms sort of mean something and we sort of know what that something is, but we don’t want to be pinned down on it.

Its slipperiness always offers us a line of retreat. Instead of nailing our colours to the mast, we’ve come up with a set that slide up and down easily when the wind changes.

So, hurray for the ‘Global North’! Three cheers for the ‘Global South’! Two terms empty of both offence and meaning – but the trick is, we can sketch in a meaning to suit ourselves at a moment’s notice. I see a whole new language emerging where all the words are interchangeable and one thing can mean another on demand.

The terms sort of mean something and we sort of know what that something is, but we don’t want to be pinned down on it.

But facetiousness aside, maybe the real problem with the ‘global north/south’ is that it is far too blunt an instrument to give any real account of how the world is divided (and maybe this is also why we’ve failed to come up with a set of satisfactory criteria to use in applying the label).

If you step into a taxi at the University of Cape Town, says Eriksen, and get out in Cape Flats, you move from one ‘world’ to another within minutes. A comparison between South Mumbai, ‘SoBo’, and a village in Bihar would be equally stark.

An area in Alabama’s Black Belt might have human development indicators comparable to those of a country in Sub-Saharan Africa. You could easily multiply these contrasts and comparisons.

The ‘north-south’ divide is no longer between countries, if it ever was. In a world where inequality is increasingly pronounced and is replacing poverty as the great bogey of development rhetoric, the division is really on a much smaller and more finely-calibrated scale – it’s between communities.

Andrew Milner is associate editor of Alliance.

For responses to Andrew’s piece, see Maria Chertok‘s response ‘Global South/Global North – the necessity of invention?‘, and Marcos Kisil‘s response ‘Global South/Global North – the necessity of invention?‘.


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