Understanding the concept of Global South: an initial framework, por Camila Amorim Jardim

It seems to be acceptable between many International Relations annalists that there has been a deep change in the international world order after the end of the Cold War. The term of Global South seems to currently replace the old “Third World” concept and to be increasingly applied in speeches and academic analysis as a central element to understand the international order. Nevertheless, there is no consensus of what the term Global South means to the International Relations as praxis and as discipline, and through a deep analysis of the specialized literature the lack of conceptualization is clear. In order to contribute to this debate, this analysis tries to point out some common aspects found in the literature to characterize the Global South as a concept, seeking to present a initial framework.

First, the Global South is largely described as a non-geographical concept (Stuenkel, 2014; Ramanzini Júnior; Mariano; Almeida, 2015; Alden; Morphet; Vieira, 2010) that seeks to include the voices at the margins of the mainstream, considering that those are not part of the main International Relations debates as discipline. Including the sociology of thought to this analysis, the Global South may be seen as an extremely diverse group of countries and peoples that, in its essence, assume that the power has different meanings in different contexts. Trying to understand its impact to the International Relations as discipline, the Global South might also seek a different way of knowledge achievement, regarding its ontological and epistemological (or geocultural) singularities if compared to the North, also pursuing a way of becoming a central subject (not peripheral) to the field by opening new academic spaces. (Acharya; Buzan, 2010; Behera, 2010)

The term is related to the recent empowerment of those States as historical subjects and relevant players in the international relations dynamics; as well as the inclusion of reflexivism and sociology of knowledge debates to the International Relations field. Hence, the Global South might actively contribute to a revolution in the IR thinking, such as the Social Sciences went by a deep change while including the cognitive dimension to its field; and, including different geocultural epistemologies, may help the IR to become a real international discipline, not only a North-American or European one.

A second usual perception regarding the concept is that it involves common identities. Alden, Morphet and Vieira (2010) present an approach that considers the Global South not only as a group of developing countries, but a group that has similar challenges and social aspects, suffering the negative impacts of international world order alike, not being able to include its own needs and interests easily at the global agenda. According to this perspective, the material, historical and institutional similar elements allow the constitution a common identity feeling. In this context, identities would be cemented through the seeking of strengthening international norms related to development and to social issues, becoming also enablers of cooperation.

Considering the concept of identity, Wendt (1992, p.397-398) defines that collective identities are inherently relational. Then, actors acquire relatively stable understandings of specific functions about themselves through the participation in collective meanings. In this sense, collective identities are fundamentally relational and each identity is an inherently social definition of an actor, grounded on the theories that actors hold collectively about themselves and about one another. All these perceptions, to Wendt (1992), constitute the structure of social world.

Considering this perspective (through a constructivist analysis of International Relations), identities are the foundation of interests, since actors do not have predetermined preferences. On the contraire, they define their interests through the process of social interaction and through their identities. Thus, a sense of belonging to the Global South may encompass a common colonial past; a common peripheral insertion in the international system (economically and politically); a common will to reform the international institutions and norms; common social problems; common incapability of pushing its own interests to the central agendas; between others.

Thirdly: it is a very heterogeneous group, integrated by many different Souths (Alden; Morphet; Vieira, 2010). A question that emerges from this observation is that countries such as Brazil and India also proclaim and recognize themselves as part of the group, even though they went through expressive growth and acquirement of a bigger political influence in the last decade. Those intermediate states (Lima; Hirst 2009) or middle powers (Alden; Morphet; Vieira, 2010) project a singular insertion in the group, frequently putting themselves as leaders and representatives of the Global South at multilateral negotiations.

Thereby, middle powers need to consider many different variables to its foreign policy formulation, what might lead them to an ambiguous strategy trying to reconcile interests of developing country (with deep social issues) and of emerging power (with systemic influences and interests)  (Hurrell, 2013; Alden; Morphet; Vieira, 2010; Lima; Hirst, 2009; Stuenkel, 2014). Therefore, middle powers might not be largely supported by the “weak coalition” and this situation may create incongruences between the Global South.

A fourth central aspect is that the term represents an empowerment of the South if compared to previous terms such as “Third World”, “developing countries” or “periphery”. For Stuenkel (2014, p.21), the term Global South emerges to replace the “Third World” one, representing a more neutral category of analysis since it is not necessarily related to their previous image as weak countries and in need for help. For the first time, the term considers a positive element of quick growth and rising capacity of influencing the global agenda. Currently, those countries present a stronger position in international negotiations, sustaining demanding positions in favor of institutional reforms in the capitalist order to make it compatible with their new power gains.

From that comes a fifth important aspect: the Global South is not necessarily anti-western. While they are demanders of democratization and reform, the ones proclaimed as their leaders (such as the BRICS) do not offer an alternative to the current institutional order (Xiaoyu, 2012; Niu, 2013; Stuenkel, 2014), not being up to bear the costs of a new order. However, differently from the post Second World War period (in which the multilateral system was built by the United States and its allies), the post Cold War period seems to give more space for developing countries to offer international public goods. That occurs because, as Lima and Hirst (2009) affirm, the developed countries have more gains through bilateral than multilateral negotiation initiatives. In that sense, Global South leaderships differentiate themselves from the Third World movement by presenting a stronger compromise with the established international economic and political world order, and that might not necessarily be the interest of smaller countries in the Global South.

Finally, the sixth aspect appointed by the specialized literature is that the concept of Global South might include the emergence of new relevant actors in the international arena that can, transnationally, be seen as the expression of the Global South itself, noteworthy the organized civil society movements. Then, the dimension of democratization of the International Relations is applied to the internal and external spheres of the State, since there is a growing polyphony of South voices. This conception considers agendas such as climate change, poverty and hunger increasingly transnational, not having only the face of a State, seen as a civil society issue without specific State borders. (Alden; Morphet; Vieira, 2010; Ramanzini Júnior; Mariano; Almeida, 2015)

So, this analysis presented an initial framework to understand the concept of Global South, since it is being increasingly applied to the International Relations as discipline and as praxis. From a specialized literature review, the concept appears to a) not be geographical, b) include an identity dimension, c) have a heterogeneous composition, d) represent an empowerment of the South, e) not be necessarily anti-western and e) include other relevant actors besides the state.

Even though those elements were frequently found at the literature, the concept seems not to be treated deeply in its sociological, theoretical, historical and material aspects regarding a more complex understanding of its emergency and impacts in international politics. Then, more empirical and theoretical analysis are needed to a more sharp understanding and use of the concept of Global South.


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Camila Amorim Jardim  – International Relations Institute, University of Brasilia (camila_ajardim@hotmail.com)

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