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Foreign Policy

Where Did the Term “Global South” Originate?

Sep 21, 2023
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Recently, the term “Global South’’ has gained popularity in international politics and public opinion. Countries of the Global South have also become important players, wooed by various parties on the world stage. An accurate understanding of the origin and rise of this concept will inform a more objective evaluation of its role and potential influence in the evolving international landscape.

The term “Global South” was first used by American left-wing political activist Carl Oglesby. An active scholar in the anti-war movement in the United States in the 1960s, Oglesby authored “Containment and Change” and urged the so-called New Left to form an alliance with the liberal and non-interventionist Old Right in opposition to American imperialist foreign policy. In 1965 and 1966, he was president of the left-wing student group Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. In 1969, in an article for a special issue on the Vietnam War in Commonweal, the oldest Catholic journal in the U.S., Oglesby argued that centuries of northern “dominance over the global south” had converged to produce an “intolerable social order.” He described the Vietnam War as the peak of such dominance.

The origin of the term thus conveys a distinct historical and ideological background. Carl Oglesby’s leftist propositions, the various competing social currents sweeping across the U.S. (including the anti-Vietnam War movement), the concept of the “third world” (which emerged during the Cold War and bore similarities with the Global South) and the trend of third world countries seeking unity were all part of the ideological wellspring of this new concept, which was, strictly speaking, not the geographical south. The Global South has an apparent political color of being non-Western.

Since the term was coined, the uses and popularity of “Global South” in international politics were significantly lower than the uses of “third world” and “developing countries.” It was not until the end of the Cold War that the use of Global South became more extensive, especially in American and European academic circles. As some so-called second-world countries became members of the first world and others joined the third world, a need has arisen again to distinguish between the concepts of “North” and “South.”At the same time, the concepts of “developed”, “developing” and “underdeveloped” countries were also criticized in academia for depicting Western countries as the ideal and non-Western ones as backward.

Against this backdrop, American and European academic institutions began to increasingly use Global South as a relatively neutral alternative. In 2003, the United Nations Development Programme launched the Forging a Global South initiative, which was instrumental in drawing international attention to the concept. In 2010, an institution in Finland founded the online Global South Development Magazine (GSDM) to report on issues in developing countries. The London School of Economics and Political Science set up a Global South unit in its Department of International Relations, which is aimed at “investigating the changing role of the South in shaping the global order.” In 2013, the term Global South appeared in hundreds of publications.

With the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis and increased gaming by major countries, the use of Global South has obviously and rapidly expanded from academic circles to real-world international politics. In this year alone, India held an online summit called Voice of the Global South;  the Global South was mentioned dozens of times in the Munich Security Report; Japan invited some “southern countries” to the G7 summit in Hiroshima and put an item on the agenda related to strengthening relations with Global South countries; and the BRICS summit hosted by South Africa has further boosted the popularity of the phrase.

The scope of a Global South as an international political concept is not universally defined. The Finance Center for South-South Cooperation, a not-for-profit organization established in 2014 and a special advisory body to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, produced a list of 78 Global South countries, including the Group of 77 plus China. This is by far the most authoritative definition by an international multilateral organization. Founded in 1964, the Group of 77 aims to strengthen unity and cooperation among developing countries in the international economic field, push for a new international economic order and promote economic and social development in developing countries. The organization currently includes 134 member countries and often refers to itself as the Global South.

As the popularity of the term continues to rise, some countries are eager to further politicize it for their own selfish interests as a diplomatic tool to suppress their opponents. The U.S., Japan and some other countries have distorted the concept first by saying that China is not a developing country and then by attempting to exclude China from the Global South. The purpose is to create confrontation and division between China and the vast number of other developing countries and to intensify major-country competition.

The origin of the concept and the existing academic literature in the U.S. and Europe are sufficient to prove that China is a natural member of the Global South. President Xi Jinping made many references to the Global South in his closing address at the BRICS Business Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, and in his meeting with the press along with South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. He stressed that “as a developing country and a member of the Global South, China breathes the same breath as other developing countries and pursues a shared future with them.”

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