Don’t let the term ‘Global South’ deceive you

AKASAKA Kiyotaka

Lately, everyone is using the term ‘Global South’. Although the definition of the term is still unclear, it appears to be more or less the same as the previous terms ‘developing countries’ or ‘the third world’. Why, then, has the term come into use?

The term ‘Global South’ appears to mean developing and emerging countries in the regions of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. The term is apparently used in contrast to the Global North, which means developed countries. Countries sandwiched between the Western developed countries and the authoritarian states of China and Russia are considered to belong to the Global South because their economic and social development lags behind that of the developed countries of the northern hemisphere and the majority of them are located to the south from the perspective of developed countries.

In January 2023, India hosted an online summit called ‘Voice of the Global South,’ which was attended by about 125 countries. China did not participate in this summit. Prime Minister Kishida stated in a parliamentary response that China was not included when referring to this group. Should we consider the rapidly emerging India as a leader of this Global South?

Until recently, the term ‘developing countries’ has been used to refer to underdeveloped countries, but a strict international definition of the term has not been in place. The term has only been used to refer to countries that are not developed. Then, is there a definition of ‘developed countries’? Actually, there isn’t either. The yardstick commonly used for the term ‘developed countries’ is the membership of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development), which is reputed to be a club of rich countries. There are currently 38 members, primarily European countries, but also including Japan and the United States. However, several countries are economically richer than some OECD members. The countries with a higher gross domestic product (GDP) per capita than Japan but not members of the OECD are Singapore, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Should we then call them developed countries?

From the perspective of viewing aid-receiving countries as developing countries, the OECD’s list of Official Development Assistance (ODA) recipients is often used as a benchmark. The latest list (2022-23) includes a total of 141 countries with a gross national income (GNI) per capita of US$ 12,695 or less in 2020. In addition to the 46 countries classified by the UN as Least Developed Countries (LDCs), there are two ‘low-income’ countries (North Korea and Syria), 36 ‘lower-middle-income countries (e.g. India and Indonesia), and 57 ‘upper middle-income countries (e.g. Mexico and China), according to the World Bank’s classification. Of these upper-middle-income countries, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Turkey are currently members of the OECD.

According to this criterion, China, the world’s second-largest economy, still belongs to the group of developing countries. Singapore, on the other hand, does not. The UN has a negotiating group of developing and emerging countries, called ‘the G77 plus China’, which was established in 1964. The group represents developing countries in various negotiations, including climate change, and currently has 134 members, including China and India. Amazingly, the group also includes Singapore, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, which are all richer than Japan in terms of income per capita.

Negotiations at the UN, especially on the environment, are guided by the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’, which was decided upon at the Rio Summit in 1992. According to this principle, all countries share responsibility for the degradation of the global environment, but developed countries bear a differentiated and heavier responsibility than developing countries, as they are primarily responsible for the degradation of the global environment. Thus, belonging to the developing country group has a significant advantage of reducing their responsibility.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) also has a system for the preferential treatment of developing countries. Since it is left to self-assessment at the time of accession as to whether a country is a developing country or not, about two-thirds of the 164 WTO members currently claim to be developing countries. Countries such as China, India, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates all parade themselves as ‘developing countries’ accordingly.

The US, frustrated with this situation, proposed a graduation criterion in 2019. According to the proposal, countries should graduate from the developing country status if they meet any of the four criteria: OECD members, G20 members, World Bank’s high-income countries, and countries with a global trade share of more than 0.5%. However, no agreement has yet been reached, and only four countries – Taiwan, Brazil, Singapore, and South Korea – have declared their willingness to graduate.

One of the reasons why the term ‘Global South’ has become a popular buzzword is that developing countries are no longer monolithic, and the gap between economic giants and very rich countries on the one hand, and poor countries on the other is widening, making it difficult to lump them all together. To wrap up this reality, the term ‘Global South’ must have come to be seen as a novel, easy-to-use word, and conveniently ambiguous.

For this reason, there is a somewhat suspicious smell about the term ‘Global South’. It would be easier to distinguish among countries if there were clear criteria, such as the aforementioned US proposal, but this would require international agreement. An agreement has been difficult because some developing countries want to join the developed group as early as possible, while others, on the other hand, want to remain in the developing group and enjoy preferential treatment for as long as possible. So, there is a lack of consensus on this key issue.

Should some rich countries currently in the group of developing countries be considered to be in the grey zone between developed and developing countries in terms of classification? And should such countries be considered part of the Global South, if a precise categorization is required? The ambiguity of the term makes it convenient to be used with as much flexibility as one would like, but depending on how it is used, caution may be necessary to avoid pitfalls.

AKASAKA Kiyotaka is President of the Nippon Communications Foundation and former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Note: This essay originally appeared on the website of the English Speaking Union of Japan.