I have long been troubled by the widely accepted and increasingly used terms Global South and Global North.[i] Those who wish to use them for political purposes or to highlight the factors that they claim cause inequalities across the world will of course continue doing so, but there are at least six main reasons why I find it a misleading and problematic choice of terminology. I list these below just to help explain why I don’t uses these terms, and I hope my comments may also encourage others to do likewise.
- Above all, the use of such terminology implies some kind of spatial causality, usually around the idea of the North exploiting the South in the present and/or the past. This strikes me as being surprisingly similar to the now widely discredited notion of environmental determinism, advocated by the likes of Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Churchill Semple in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (for a wider discussion, see my The Place of Geography, 1992). There is not something universal about living in the North (whatever that means), or about the North itself that makes it inherently more powerful and dominant than the South.[ii]
- I remain confused about why the word “Global” is at all necessary. What does it add? In 1980, the Brandt Report entitled North-South: a Programme for Survival, managed to convey very similar meaning, but much more succinctly,[iii] and indeed also drew a much more nuanced wavy line between the two regions. To be sure, there are those who want to use the term global to represent some kind of global solidarity, especially in the South, but this is more aspirational than real (see also comments on relative usage of the terms below)
- In an absolute global sense, the geographical north is the northern hemisphere, and the south the southern hemisphere. Yet, there are problems with such usage to refer to per capita economic wealth and human well-being. It is often forgotten that the South Asian countries of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, for example, are all in the northern hemisphere. Likewise, many more African countries are in the northern hemisphere than are in the southern.[iv] The rich countries of Australia and New Zealand are in contrast in the southern hemisphere. There is also much economic poverty in the northern hemisphere and much richness in the southern. If large absolute regions are being considered it is in some ways more accurate to consider the Tropics (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn) as being economically poorer/more exploited than either of the areas to the north and the south. Such suggestions, though are dangerously close once again to falling down the slippery slope of environmental determinism.
- North and South can also, though, be interpreted in a relative sense. Given that only 10-12% of the world’s population actually lives in the Southern Hemisphere, this relative approach is certainly a more realistic one to trying to grapple with the differences between states. It is nevertheless also problematic as a framework for explaining wealth differences (or indeed most other differences). Countries or regions further north are sometimes poorer in per capita wealth then those further south and vice versa. Canada’s per capita income is less than that of the USA; Mozambique and Angola are poorer than South Africa. In the UK, the widely used term North-South divide actually refers to a poorer northern region and a richer southern one.
- I’m afraid that the argument that I sometimes hear that the use of the terms is only an approximation and simplification and it doesn’t really matter if they are inaccurate holds no water with me. Using such terms reinforces inaccurate understandings of cartography and geodesy, and supports looseness of meaning and language. I wonder how many people, for example consider that India is in the Global South, and thus think it is also in the southern hemisphere? Moreover, all too frequently we read or hear comments such as “The Global North generally correlates with the Western world”.[v] If that is the case, surely “Western” would be a better term to use than Northern. But we need to remember then that everywhere Western is west of some East.
- A significant problem is therefore that seeking to carve the world up into binary divisions is overly simplistic and usually harmful, for all but those who persist in using or imposing them. There are enormous differences between the continents and countries within both the so-called Global South and the Global North, and it is this rich diversity that we must cherish in multi-layered ways and understandings. Those who seek to impose an ill-fitting binary distinction generally do so in their own interests. Sometimes this is for the sake of simplicity, but as the above brief comments highlight such simplicity can be very misleading. At other times it has just become a lazy shorthand. As that well known “source of all knowledge” tells us “The Global South is a term generally used to identify countries in the regions of Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania”.[vi] Well, why not instead just use the actual geographical names Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania? This source goes on to comment that “Most of humanity resides in the Global South”.[vii] It is interesting to ponder what this actually means. As noted above this is certainly not true if South here is referring to the Southern Hemisphere.
In brief, this is a call for meaning, clarity and precision. If we mean that techno-capitalism domiciled in the states of the USA, Canada, the countries of Europe, the Gulf and Australia/New Zealand increasingly controls and exploits the rest of the world then let’s say so rather than couching our language in a mealy mouthed meaningless “geographical” distinction between North and South. But even this is an over-simplification of a different kind. What about China and indeed Russia? Those who really believe that there is something about being “Northern” that makes people dominant, aggressive and exploitative, and something about being “Southern” that makes them ripe for exploitation, believe on. But such dreams will not improve the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized wherever they are found. It is indeed a great disservice to the many rich indigenous cultures, traditions, livelihoods, and social formations to be found in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the Pacific. We must always ask ourselves in whose interest words are used. Who benefits most from the use of the terms Global North and Global South?
[i] Apparently first used by Carl Oglesby in 1969 in “Vietnamism has failed … The revolution can only be mauled, not defeated”. Commonweal, 90.
[ii] Despite this notion having been long discredited, I do think it is time that the environmental factors influencing human behaviour are revisited in a more sensitive and sensible way by geographers. The influence of day and night length variations on cultural behaviours in high latitudes is, for example, a fascinating topic of enquiry.
[iii] Two words rather than four; Brandt, W. (1980) North-South: a Programme for Wurvival; Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
[iv] The equator runs through southern Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, the Congos, and Gabon.
[v] From the widely used popular source of knowledge about everything, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_North_and_Global_South, 30 March 2023.
[vi] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_North_and_Global_South, 30 March 2023.
[vii] Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_North_and_Global_South, 30 March 2023.
4 responses to “Attributing geographical causality: why I have problems with using the terms “Global South” and “Global North””
Thank you Tim. I don’t think in their seminal work on Limits To Growth the Club of Rome used such terms. The reality is much more nuanced, as you describe. James, Professor MJC Crabbe.
A very insightful and thought provoking article.Thank you Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android
Interesting and much to ponder here, Tim. Your geographical arguments are all well made. Reminiscent of discussions around the concept of the ‘Third World’! It is certainly the case that Global South Studies is becoming well established as a discipline. I think a lot of this in the academy has to do with the increasing rejection of ‘Area Studies’ and its somewhat tainted origins in the Cold War period (CIA funding etc). The other dimension is geostrategic of course as the post Cold War international norms are increasingly challenged and the associated normative structures of the international system also appear to be breaking down. You need to organise a seminar/workshop in the near future and I’m sure people involved with Third World Quarterly would value participating!
Thanks for the thoughtful words – not sure a terminological workshop would be all that productive, though! There are “interests” behind all uses of terms, and I prefer to focus my limited time on actually getting things done! But I will think on’t.