Amelia Broodryk/ISS

Global south: moving off the menu and to the table?

For Africa, the rise of the global south is necessary to achieve the continent’s development goals.

The global south is a term that elicits much debate and discussion. Is it appropriate? Is it relevant? Is it offensive? These were questions a primarily European audience asked me at a recent closed-panel discussion in Rome.

In the context of the south’s growing global influence and given that the concept is so often misunderstood, three questions require consideration. What does the global south actually mean? Why has the term found new resonance? And what do countries in the global south actually want?

First, the definition. Quite clearly, it’s not geographic but geopolitical. Western analysts and commentators have been at pains to paint the term as too vague and contradictory to have any analytical value. They ask, for example, what Nigeria and Nicaragua, or Malawi and Malaysia, have in common.

Though it’s an imperfect ‘catch-all’ phrase, the term's value is rooted in a few factors. Primarily a discontent with the status quo of Western domination and a push for a fairer global financial and political architecture, reflecting existing global realities. In the current context, it serves as a rallying point for discontent while capturing international economic conditions and historical inequalities.

COVID-19 and Ukraine war highlighted north-south disparities, prompting the global south to assert itself

Tellingly, countries in the global south don’t find it offensive; they identify with it. It is far less problematic than ‘third world’ and less patronising than ‘developing world’. And in the absence of a more compelling alternative, it’s a shorthand phrase that works. As India’s External Affairs Minister EAM Jaishankar says, ‘If you’re from the global south, you know it.’

Second, the question of resonance. The term isn’t new. It stems from 20th-century anti-colonialism and movements like the 1955 Bandung Conference and 1961 Non-Aligned Movement. COVID-19 and the Ukraine war again exposed global governance and finance fissures between the global north and south, galvanising the latter into finding their voice. There were both push and pull reasons for this. Push factors included the global north’s behaviour during what was widely termed ‘vaccine apartheid’.

Overlaid with the binary framing around the Ukraine war, which alienated countries who didn’t want to pick sides, this behaviour has created a significant trust deficit. Many global south countries now feel that Western countries view their own problems as global, but the rest of the world’s problems as regional. This underscores the perceived ‘West versus the rest’ dynamic, revealing hypocrisy in selective morality.

 As one commentator noted, more people died in 2022 in Ethiopia’s conflict than in the Ukraine war, yet the Eiffel Tower didn’t light up in Ethiopian colours. Ditto Gaza. Similarly overlooked is the confidence consequence of the Trump presidency and what it did to erode trust in multilateral systems and undermine Western moral legitimacy.

Then, there were other commonalities pulling southern countries together. From Africa to Asia to the Caribbean to Latin America, countries attempted to solve multiple issues, including rising debt, food and energy insecurity, and COVID-19’s aftermath.

Many post-World War II global governance organisations are no longer fit for purpose

African countries especially were disillusioned with what they felt was a raw deal – they endured COVID-related travel bans not rooted in science, didn’t get vaccines, and were prevented from manufacturing their own. They faced disproportionate food and fuel shocks from a war they had no involvement in and felt the wrath of a strong dollar and high interest rates in the United States and Europe, which spiked their cost of funding and had significant inflationary impacts. Moreover, they are being asked to remedy a problem (the climate crisis) they didn’t create.

All this is even more jarring when considering Africa’s unique dilemma. The continent is being asked to democratise and industrialise simultaneously, in a context of premature deindustrialisation, while also going green – something no other continent has done. This has fuelled anger around the disparate rules Africa must follow compared to industrialised nations.

Amid disillusionment emerges the third question: what do countries in the global south actually want?

Institutionally, many organisations designed to underpin global governance post-World War II are no longer fit for purpose. For example, the United Nations Security Council was established when most African nations were still under colonial rule, and its representation is still embarrassingly reflective of a bygone era. Other key multilateral institutions and fora are similar – the African Union was admitted to the G20 only last year at the behest of another global south country, India.

These institutions will continue to lack legitimacy unless they expand to be more reflective of global rather than Western interests. This is something global south nations are aggressively pushing for. With India, Brazil and South Africa holding the G20 presidency between 2023 and 2025, a considerable opportunity exists to make meaningful changes to the global governance architecture. The momentum shift has also given fresh impetus to other alliances, like the India-Brazil-South Africa IBSA forum, as empowering blocs for the global south.

Financially, there’s a desire to reform the global financial architecture as reflected by endeavours such as the Bridgetown Initiative, a climate and development plan to overhaul the global financial system. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres says, ‘The international financial architecture is short-sighted, crisis-prone, and bears no relation to the economic reality of today.’ At last year’s Paris summit, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa echoed the need for International Monetary Fund (IMF) reform, rejecting the treatment of Africans as beggars.

The rise of the global south signals a crucial recalibration in international power relations

Accordingly, de-dollarisation and reform of Bretton Woods Institutions, such as the World Trade Organization and IMF, are high on the global south’s agenda. There’s also a push for new alternative financial structures such as the New Development Bank to reduce dependency on conditional Western financing.

Politically, the rise of the BRICS+ grouping offers an alternative vision for the future and acts as a counterweight to the global liberal order. In an era when the world is shifting from a unipolar to multipolar geopolitical order, the new grouping comprising nearly 50% of the global population and GDP and the most global oil and gas reserves, is simply too big to ignore. While contradictions remain, collectively it possesses a level of economic and political leverage that can transform the multilateral system to reflect contemporary realities.

From an African perspective, the rise of the global south signals a crucial recalibration in international power relations, which is long overdue and essential to achieving the continent’s development goals.

It re-emphasises African agency and allows African countries to move ‘off the menu and to the table’ by using the collective sway of the global south to advocate for a fairer and more just international system.

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