The other day I was having lunch with an old friend who teaches the sociology of the family. She has noticed that lately her students have been using the term “global south” a lot, and she asked me what I thought of it. This gives me the chance to expound on one of my pet peeves. My students use the term “global South” to contrast the world’s rich with the world’s poor and to show their sympathies with the South. But when I ask them where the global south is, they are stymied.
It’s not a geographical term. Some countries south of the equator are rich, such as Australia and New Zealand. Others are or are becoming middle-income countries, such as Chile. And in the North, there are many poor countries; one of the poorest, Haiti, is in both the North and the West. Another area that is very poor is the Arab Middle East, in the northern half of the world.
Nor is global south an economic term, meant to embrace all “underdeveloped” countries as “southern” regardless of their actual geographical location. Some formerly underdeveloped countries, both in the north and the south, are becoming much wealthier than they used to be when academic concern with underdevelopment first became widespread in the 1970s. About three billion people live in a group of six growing economies, Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa and Mexico, some in the north and some in the south. China has been growing in leaps and bounds since it embraced authoritarian capitalism in 1979. India has been growing since 1991, when it relinquished economic protectionism. China is now an exploiter of Africa, where it grabs up oil and minerals without a concern for internal development or democracy and human rights; it certainly doesn’t belong in the same “south” as the Africa it cheerfully pillages for resources.
Finally, the global south is not a good political term. China is now a major player on the world scene and in the United Nations Security Council, and many commentators think that this century will be the “Asian century” with China in the lead. The emerging economies also have more political clout, especially through the formation of regional political and economic blocs, such as the Organization of American States and the African Union.
When students use the term global south, they often mean to imply that the south is poor because the north is rich; that is, the north has been exploiting the south. Yet we know that many causes of poverty are internal to the countries that experience it, not external. A few years ago the Arab Development Report, written by Arab scholars, mentioned the lack of democracy as one of the chief causes of underdevelopment in the Arab Middle East. In China there are still gross inequalities between rural and urban areas, and migrants to the cities are treated particularly badly: this is a result of domestic policy, not “northern” exploitation, past or present. In India, much poverty is a result not of relations with the north but of the caste system and severe gender discrimination. In Africa, a chief cause of underdevelopment is government corruption: witness Nigeria, whose hundreds of billions in oil revenues are ripped off by the governing elites and their cronies.
So what it comes down to, as far as I can see, is that the global south is Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that is in the geographical south, is very poor, and still has very little global political influence. It’s not a good idea, then, to use the term global south. The so-called south is divided by geography, economic prosperity, and political influence. The world is too complex to be divided into two categories, especially when such categories conflate the present with the past.