Analysis & Opinions - Project Syndicate

What Is the Global South?

| Nov. 01, 2023

In the absence of an alternative shorthand, politicians and journalists most likely will continue to use "Global South" for the foreseeable future. Yet anyone interested in a more accurate description of the world should be wary of such a misleading and increasingly loaded term.

The term "Global South" is in constant use nowadays. For example, some commentators warn that Israel's incursion into Gaza is "alienating the Global South," and we often hear that the "Global South" wants a ceasefire in Ukraine. But what do people mean when they use it?

Geographically, the term refers to the 32 countries below the equator (in the southern hemisphere), in contrast to the 54 countries that lie entirely north of it. Yet it is often misleadingly used as shorthand for a global majority, even though most of the global population is above the equator (as is most of the world's landmass). For example, we often hear that India, the world's most populous country, and China, the second most populous, are vying for leadership of the Global South, with both having recently held diplomatic conferences for that purpose. Yet both are in the northern hemisphere.

The term, then, is more of a political slogan than an accurate description of the world. In this sense, it seems to have gained traction as a euphemism to replace less acceptable terms. During the Cold War, countries that were not aligned with either the United States or the Soviet Union blocs were said to belong to the "Third World." Non-aligned countries held their own conference in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, and there are still 120 countries constituting a weak non-aligned movement today.

Nonetheless, with the Soviet Union's demise in 1991, the idea of a non-aligned Third World no longer made much sense. For a time, it became common to refer to "less-developed countries." But that term had a pejorative ring to it, so people soon began to refer to "developing countries."

Although that term has its own problems — not all low-income countries are developing, after all — it proved useful in the context of United Nations diplomacy. The Group of 77 (G77) now comprises 135 countries, and exists to promote their collective economic interests. Outside the UN context, however, there are too many differences between members for the organization to serve a meaningful role....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation:

Nye, Joseph S. Jr. "What Is the Global South?" Project Syndicate, November 1, 2023.