The Rise of The Global South

The Global South, which comprises most of the world’s population and economic output, is challenging the power and influence of the developed countries, as the world undergoes a historic transformation in the global order
By Pranay Sharma
  • India’s proposal to bring in the African Union got support from all the members. It was an indication that the rich world was willing to do a course correction
  • Issues identified as major challenges in developed economies were highlighted earlier, seen as crucial by developing and poor countries have been overlooked
  • the African Union is now the 21st member of the G-20, which so far consists of 19 leading economies and the EU, Africa is now going to have a more powerful voice
  • The success of the G-20 Summit under India’s presidency came largely due to its ability to first build a consensus in the Global South, say experts

A discerning change has come in world politics in recent months. Major issues like the Ukraine war or the ongoing Sino-American tussle for supremacy or Climate Change that are afflicting the world, can no longer be resolved by the Big Powers alone.

Increasingly, the developed world is becoming aware that unless support comes from the middle powers none of the challenges they face can be meaningfully addressed or resolved.

The middle powers who are part of the Global South where the bulk of the world’s population live in the developing and poor countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Oceania and the small islands. It is these countries who have begun to occupy the centre space of international politics. Until recently, they were followers of rules made by the United States-led western nations that mostly favoured the rich world.

That trend could now change permanently

The recently concluded Group of Twenty (G-20) summit in New Delhi can be seen as a manifestation of this change. For the first time the summit brought the concerns of the Global South to the front and centre.

Earlier, issues the developed economies identified as major challenges, were highlighted for urgent remedial action. Those, the developing and poor countries saw as important, were placed on the back burner.

As Sarang Shidore, director of the Global South program at the Quincy Institute, a Washington based think-tank, says that though countries of the Global South contain the vast majority of humanity, their desires and goals have long been relegated to the footnotes of geopolitics.

He points out that today’s geopolitical landscape is not just defined by the tensions between the United States and its great-power rivals China and Russia but also by manoeuvring of middle powers and even lesser powers.

India as the Voice of the Global South

The New Delhi G-20 summit may justifiably be called the summit of the Global South.
Africa, where a large number of the poor people live, will now have a strong voice as the African Union has now the 21st member of G-20 which so far comprises 19 leading economies of the world and the European Union.

India’s proposal to bring in the African Union got support from all the members. It was an indication that the rich world was willing to do a course correction to deal with the emerging world scenario. India had made it clear from the time it got the presidency of the G-20 in December 2022, that it will be the “Voice of the Global South.”

The middle powers who are part of the Global South where the bulk of the world’s population live in the developing and poor countries of Asia, Africa, Latin America or the Oceania and the small islands. It is these countries who have begun to occupy the centre space of international politics

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the priorities of this summit will be shaped in consultation with not only the G-20 partners but also “our fellow travellers in the Global South whose voice often goes unheard.”

Early in its presidency India organised a virtual summit where Modi had stressed, “We the Global South have the largest stakes in our future. Three fourths of humanity live in our countries. We should also have an equivalent voice.” He added that “as the eight-decade old model of global governance slowly changes we should try to shape the emerging order.”

Asian People are across the crosswalk

The success of the G-20 Summit under India’s presidency came largely due to its ability to first build a consensus in the Global South, say experts.

By gathering the views of 100 developing countries on a range of issues like finance, foreign affairs, energy, environment, climate change, trade, education and issues related to health, it managed to create the necessary base.

Several think tank events, business conclaves were held in the run-up to the summit and the ideas thrown up there were taken up in relevant G-20 ministerial meetings to finally get the consensus at the summit and come out with the Delhi Declaration.

V S Seshadri, former Indian diplomat says concerns of developing countries that were not represented in G-20 were not getting sufficiently voiced in such summits. Several such concerns also affect India.
“Articulating such concerns as affecting the entire South helps make a wider and more forceful impact,” he adds.

The issues that most affected the developing world and the poor countries of the world like those related to multilateral development banks or climate finance or financial inclusion or digital payments infrastructure or the burden of debt facing several developing countries were reflected as priority issues in the final document.

India and the other middle powers in the group successfully ensured the support of those from the developed nations to ensure the New Delhi summit ended in a success and came out with a clear message that the G-20 countries shared the suffering of the larger world and wanted urgent steps to mitigate them.

A major achievement of the summit was to get a consensus on the Ukraine issue.
The western countries had used earlier meetings to criticise Russia and isolate it internationally for starting the biggest war in the European continent since World War II. The Delhi Declaration spoke about the need to end the conflict to mitigate the sufferings of the developing and poor countries.
But India and the others from the developing world managed to prevail over the others and the final document could be released without any critical reference to Russia or naming the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described it as “the awakening of the Global South members of the G-20.”

How Ukraine Changed the West’s Attitude

Paradoxically, it was the Ukraine war that finally forced the West to do some serious introspection to understand the Global South. The Munich Security conference in February was organised to build up international consensus on Ukraine and against Russia.

Instead, it ended with the US and European nations finally realising that most of the world did not share their view that the war was the biggest global challenge of our time.
Western experts realised that across much of the world there was a growing resentment about the amount of attention and money that rich countries were funnelling towards Ukraine.
They reminded the leadership in the US and EU that most countries in Europe were plagued by war and hardship, but their suffering rarely got the attention of the rich countries, who were obsessed with Ukraine.

Indian Foreign Minister S Jaishankar noted that the priority the richest states have given to Ukraine treats Europe’s problem as the world’s problem but they never consider the world’s problem as that of Europe’s problem.

At the security conference in Munich, the organisers and the western leadership realised that there was no support for the Ukraine war in the Global South.

French President Emmanuel Macron admitted that “the West has been losing the Global South and hasn’t done enough to respond to the charge of double standards.”

Paradoxically, it was the Ukraine war that finally forced the West to do some serious introspection to understand the Global South. The Munich Security conference in February was organised to build up international consensus on Ukraine and against Russia

The final report of the conference warned, “The wake-up call provided by Russia’s war and the diffidence of many countries in the Global South has roused liberal democracies from their complacency, reminding them that the international order just like democracy itself, is in constant need of renewal.”
It said that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of an international system which has neither granted them an appropriate voice in global affairs nor sufficiently addressed their core concerns.

It added that to many states these failures are deeply tied to the west and they find the western-led order has been characterised by post-colonial domination, double standards, and neglect for developing countries’ concerns.

But many experts feel that the Global South’s resentment towards the West had begun during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The northern hemisphere countries were hogging the vaccines and did not want to release them when the poor and developing countries needed them the most, complained leaders in Africa.
Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation points out that this deep sense of betrayal has corroded trust among countries, and the geopolitical implications are significant.
He says the African nations’ ambivalent reaction to Russia’s war on Ukraine—the lingering effect of abandonment during the pandemic is underappreciated.
This background may have played an important role in shaping the attitude of the United States and the other members of G-7 rich countries when they came for the New Delhi G-20 summit.

What is the future of the Global South

Though the term Global South has made a linguistic comeback and is frequently used by leaders across the world, unlike a group like BRICS, a bloc of the fastest growing economies of the world, the countries who belong in this space cannot be easily identified as a group.

Some experts say it is a convenient shorthand for a broad swath of nations seeking to overhaul the unjust structures of the global economy, hedge their strategic bets and promote the emergence of a more multipolar system.

The term was first used by activists of the New Left in 1969. During the Cold War the term ‘Third World’ was in vogue to describe non-aligned and developing nations. Many of these countries had only recently gained independence from their colonial masters.

But it rose into prominence in 1980 when West German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote his landmark document, a “New International Economic Order,” to describe the rich countries in the Northern Hemisphere and the poor and developing countries that were mostly in the Southern Hemisphere.
Though both India and China were in the northern hemisphere and Australia and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere.

After the Cold War the term third world fell in disuse and became known as the Group of 77 that is now a coalition of 135 developing countries.

Now the popular way to describe most of these countries is by the term, Global South. But critics wonder if such a heterogenous group makes any sense to be brought under the label Global South. However, experts like Shidore argue the Global South exists not as a coherent, organised grouping so much as a geopolitical fact.

It said that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of an international system which has neither granted them an appropriate voice in global affairs nor sufficiently addressed their core concerns

He points out that the actions of individual countries, driven by national interests rather than the idealism of southern solidarity, add up to more than the sum of their parts.
Retired Indian diplomat Seshadri says that for its voice to make an impact India and other developing countries will need to be part of a larger coalition with similar interests.
But though the Global South may have met that requirement particularly on the whole range of issues dealt by G-20, it is not clear how it will function in other areas.
On narrower issues like the reform of the international institutions, World Bank, IMF and the UN Security Council, coalitions may vary, adds Seshadri.
To fulfil their individual dream and to realise their national goal, many of them may also take the help of the United States and other rich countries of the West.
As India has done by strengthening relations with the US on one hand, while maintaining its strong links with Russia on the other to further its national interests.
Similarly, Turkey has used its proximity with Russia to drive a hard bargain with the US for sophisticated weapons and financial aid to tide over its economic crisis.
Even countries like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Vietnam and Brazil, have all been using their bargaining powers with the US and its rivals China and Russia to push their country’s interest.
But these countries are unlikely to be part of any particular camp. These middle powers will continue to maintain strategic sovereignty as they expand options by developing cooperative relations with more countries to help in their development and growth.
Ultimately, they are aiming for a multipolar world where the middle powers hold the key for the future.

Pranay Sharma

Pranay Sharma is a commentator on Political and Foreign Affairs. He has been a journalist for 40 years and has worked for leading Indian publications like the Telegraph and Outlook in senior positions of Foreign and Strategic Affairs Editor and Chief of Bureau. He has written regularly for international publications like the South China Morning Post and others

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