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It’s quite an achievement for an expression to be patronising, factually inaccurate, a contradiction in terms and a catalyst for political polarisation all within two words, but the deeply unhelpful term “Global South” manages it with aplomb.
The expression apparently has its modern roots in postcolonial discourse, particularly writings by the US activist Carl Oglesby about the Vietnam war. But in recent years it’s been elevated into a descriptor for all lower-income nations, from the poorest “least developed countries” to the middle-income giants such as the Brics — some of which, specifically China and Russia, have extensive historical and indeed present-day imperialist traditions of their own.
It extends even to Chile (as it happens the world’s geographically southernmost nation), which is a member of the rich country OECD club and has a per capita gross domestic product as high as Bulgaria, an EU member state.
On a benign view, the Global South is simply a convenient shorthand for low and middle-income countries. As such it can complement or supersede “developing countries”, an expression traditionally used by development economists, or “emerging markets”, originally a marketing term for financial assets invented at the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank’s private-sector arm.
Even then, the category has some obvious and rather comic contradictions. It’s global while by definition ignoring an entire hemisphere: it’s about the south while including Russia, whose territory makes up half the Arctic coastline, but not Australia in the southern hemisphere. (According to some accounts, Australia, whose capital is 10 hours east of the meridian, is in the “western world”, another highly problematic concept.)
And in reality the term is anything but neutral. It assumes a collective identity, which in truth elides a vast range of conditions and interests. India, for example, this year convened a virtual summit of developing countries presumptuously called the Voice of Global South, which ambitiously claimed “unity of thought, unity of purpose”.
But India’s outlook on certain issues is not identical to other developing nations. Unequal access to Covid vaccines during the pandemic, for example, with the rich-country producers keeping the jabs for themselves, rightly caused outrage in poor countries and encouraged the Global South identity to take hold. Yet India was one of the producers that slammed on a de facto export ban when domestic supply of the vaccines it manufactured threatened to run short.
Climate change is another telling example. As significant industrial powers, big middle-income countries such as the Brics have a particular interest in avoiding high prices for carbon emissions. India and China notoriously sabotaged a commitment at the 2021 COP climate change summit in Glasgow to phase out the use of coal, ignoring the interests of poor, small island nations threatened by rising sea levels.
The Brics are now using the narrative of a conflict between rich countries and the Global South to take aim at another policy, the EU’s carbon border adjustment mechanism, which will tax imports to equalise the cost of emissions with its trading partners. Now, it’s certainly true that the CBAM, which is due to start collecting revenue in 2026, is likely to place particularly heavy administrative and cost burdens on exports from some low and middle-income countries. It’s also very probable that the EU hasn’t thought this through properly, resorting to vague hand-waving about aid to offset the cost of adjustment.
But some other rich countries are hardly big fans of the CBAM either. The US, which has no national carbon pricing regime, is using the threat of renewed tariffs on steel and aluminium to coax (or bully) a highly reluctant Brussels into exempting it from the CBAM by creating a new transatlantic agreement.
It’s more accurate to see the CBAM as the EU trying to export its regulations — as it has on cars, chemicals, data privacy and more for decades — to the rest of the world than a plot by rich nations against poor. And meanwhile the climate continues to change in alarming ways, to the detriment of small low-income countries with few emissions issues themselves.
In this polarised atmosphere, countries such as the Brics, which themselves do not have a coherent common position on emissions reduction, tend to retreat to unrealistic and defensive stances — broadly, that rich countries should accept carbon leakage while coughing up hundreds of billions of dollars in concessional finance to ease the global green adjustment. That might have a ring of global justice, and advanced countries could certainly do far more to address climate change, but it’s a politically improbable demand that will not command international consensus.
In reality, countries are on a continuous spectrum of income, which incidentally does not line up neatly with other categories including equality, health, education, geopolitical allegiance, geography, religion or ethnicity. Arbitrarily pressing a subset of nations into a collective identity inaccurately named after a point of the compass obscures more than it illuminates. The label Global South is prejudicial and inaccurate, and public debate would be better off without it.