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By Marlea Clarke                                        

This Blog is called ‘Global South Political Commentaries’, leading, perhaps, to the questions: where and what is the global South, when did this term emerge, who uses the term and why? The answers are not quite as straightforward as some scholars might wish. According to Mahler (2017), the global South as a critical concept has at least three main definitions, and debate regarding its meaning, use, applicability, and analytical value continues in many academic circles. For some scholars and many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the term global South generally refers to countries classified by the World Bank as low or middle income that are located in Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean. This definition uses the term in a descriptive manner and is simply the most recent in a long list of catch-all concepts used to identify, define, and cluster the ‘poorer parts of the world’. Therefore, like its predecessors (periphery; less-developed, developing, underdeveloped; third world) it lumps together very diverse economic, social and political experiences and positions into one overarching category.

While some scholars and activists hold onto this nation-state focused definition, others have critiqued it and embrace what Mahler and others refer to as a deterritorialised political economy conceptualisation of the term (2018). Drawing on the work of Antonio Gramsci, whose essay “The Southern Question” drew attention to uneven national processes of economic development and the role of capitalists in processes of ‘internal colonisation’, these scholars use the term global South “to address spaces and peoples negatively impacted by globalisation”, including subjugated peoples and poorer regions within wealthier countries (Mahler, 2018: 32). Increasingly, many scholars note that while geography and geopolitical relations remain important, growing gaps in wealth and power within countries must be acknowledged. As Mahler succinctly puts it, “there are Souths in the geographic North and Norths in the geographic South” (2018: 32). Linked to this second definition, other scholars and activists use the term to refer to a transnational political subjectivity and subaltern resistance under contemporary capitalist globalisation (Mahler, 2017 & 2018). Thus, this third definition of the global South looks beyond specificities of geographic location to identify the social agency of dominated groups.

So, the answer to the question ‘what is the global South’ is not straightforward. No quick easy definition can be provided, and no list of countries that are part of the global South can be discerned. The world is far more dynamic and complex, and scholars’ use of the term differs. Therefore, instead of providing a list of countries (or communities of groups) that are part of the global South, I will instead provide a brief overview of the emergence of the term, and contemporary debates surrounding its use. All three of the above usages have merit. While I embrace a more analytical definition, I contend that even the first, more descriptive, use of the term provides a much needed lens for analysis that infuses political economy with history, as well as global position and relations. As will be noted below, this more ‘traditional’ use of the term stems from attempts by scholars and activists within the global South to have their struggles, knowledge and experiences recognised, and to challenge the structures and processes that generate poverty and global inequalities. The latter two uses are more analytical and provide more political ‘punch’ to debates on global politics. These ‘postnational’ conceptualisations of the term are frequently linked to research focused on power, uneven economic development, and “racialization within global capitalism in ways that transcend the nation-state as the unit of comparative analysis” and are important for “tracing contemporary South-South relations – or relations among subaltern groups across national, linguistic, racial, and ethnic lines” (Mahler 2017, paragraph one). In doing so, a range of struggles, contentious politics, and subaltern groups – from peasants, landless and homeless groups, to indigenous peoples, marginalised youth, and informal workers – can be explored under a single analytical umbrella.

History and debates on terminology

The use of concepts to describe global differences and unequal economic development is not new. As Dados and Connell (2012) remind us, 19th century philosophers and sociologists, such as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim, “discussed social progress by drawing broad distinctions between ‘advanced’ and ‘primitive’ institutions and societies” (12). Such a tendency continued and gained popularity in the post-WWII period when many countries achieved independence from colonial rule and became the focus of international ‘development’ assistance. Frequently traced back to US President Harry Truman’s 1949 Inaugural Address, in which he spoke about ‘underdeveloped areas’, the terms ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’ (or ‘developing’) became a common way to divide the world. As many have noted, this terminology was problematic for a number of reasons, including: the narrow focus it entailed on economic growth and levels of industrialisation; the assumption that ‘development’ would help so-called ‘traditional societies’ catch-up with ‘modern ones’ (modernisation theory); the implication that there was a universal measurement of ‘development’ and that national development could be assessed against this (western) standard; and, the assumption of linear progress. In addition to other problems, this division of the world projected a similar future for all nations.

The rise of dependency theory and the related work of Latin American economists, such as Raúl Prebisch, in the 1950s and 1960s challenged modernisation theory and conventional development economics. Rather than perceiving the world economy as divided between ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ (and regions as ‘developed’ and ‘developing’), dependency theorists saw it as divided between an industrial ‘core’ and an agricultural ‘periphery’. For them, and related ‘world systems’ theorists, the extractive and exploitative relationship between the core and periphery was established by colonialism, and then reinforced by the post-WWII world trade system. While many Latin America and neo-Marxist scholars continued to use the core / periphery terminology, other activists and scholars preferred the term ‘Third World’.

Originally coined by French demographer Alfred Sauvy in 1952, the term ‘tiers monde’ (‘Third World’) referred to countries outside the two major power blocs of the West (first world) and the Soviet Union (second world). Sauvy was making an analogy with the ‘third estate’, the commoners of pre-revolutionary France. Thus, the term implied that the Third World was exploited, as much as the third estate was exploited, and that, like the third estate, its destiny was a revolutionary one.

Despite some of its problems and inconsistencies, many leftists continued to favour the term, with scholarly work on related topics debated in journals such as the aptly named Third World Quarterly. Activists and scholars, such as Canadian indigenous leader and writer George Manuel, expanded its use and added the designation ‘fourth world’ to refer to pockets of poverty and marginalisation in so-called first world countries, and the internal colonisation of indigenous peoples within (first world) countries where the dominant settler group acted as a coloniser.

While this tripartite global division continued to be embraced by policy-makers, activists, geographers and other social scientists, it was also critiqued for its imprecision following the break-up of the Soviet Union, its hierarchical way of categorising the world (relegating parts of the world to a third, inferior position), and its inability to reflect an increasingly changing world. By about the mid-1990s, the term third world had fallen out of favour, with scholars more skeptical of attempts to combine large and diverse countries and regions into single categories. Further, enormous regional differences in economic growth and levels of poverty in some countries, such as South Africa and Brazil, made it increasingly difficult to categorise many countries as a whole. At the same time, rising levels of prosperity and related socio-economic developments in some countries (e.g. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan), alongside changes in various states’ connections with and participation in the global economy (e.g. oil exporting Middle Eastern countries such as Kuwait) challenged the tripartite formulation (Lewis, 1999).

Emergence of the term the ‘global South’

Despite these challenges to the tripartite categorisation, what was clear, was that geopolitical analysis was needed and was important. Rather than the growing homogenisation of cultures and societies assumed to be underway as a result of globalisation, such processes were reinforcing and reproducing inequalities (a point often neglected by western-based scholars). Such inequalities were largely based on similar divides as those that characterised the globe several decades earlier: western countries continued to contain a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth, trade, investment and access to modern technologies (including health) (see, for example, Dicken, 2011 and Randall 2004). Indeed, as Dicken’s outlines clearly, “the contours of the well-being map reveal a landscape of staggeringly high clusters of affluence and deep troughs of poverty and deprivation interspersed with plains of greater or lesser degrees of prosperity” (2011, 476). For example, by the mid-1990s approximately 20% of the world’s population living in the highest-income countries had well over 80% of world income, trade, and investment. At the same time, new challenges brought by climate change and the spread of new diseases met existing struggles in areas such as health, food security and deforestation, and together these issues threaten to claw back gains made in many countries in earlier decades. And, as the last few years have proved – Ebola, Zika virus, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, drought, internally displaced persons, irregular migration – global South countries frequently bear the brunt of global challenges, even if global North countries and their citizens are key producers or facilitators of such problems.

Perhaps not surprising then, scholars and activists reinvigorated their calls for non-western analysis of global issues, poverty and inequality, and for a better understanding of the regional, national or locally based experiences and struggles associated with these challenges. Linked to this, the term ‘South’ began to be used by scholars who were interested in understanding and mapping geopolitical processes and relationships, and those interested in drawing attention to political struggles underway outside the western world and led by non-western people, communities or organisations.

The impetus for a term came, in large part, from the ‘South’ and was meant to centre the ‘South’ as opposed to previous terms which othered the ‘poorer parts of the world’. Influenced by the proliferation of “globalisation” discourse in the 1990s, the word global became attached to “South” to form the contemporary compound term.

The release of the United Nations Development Program initiative of 2003, “Forging a Global South,” played an important role in drawing attention to the concept. Also significant for the rise in popularity of the term has been the inter-activity among communities, political organisations and other groupings of the “South” to establish their own initiatives and policy responses. In short, the term has gained favour over the last decade in the development and academic community because, as Schafer et al (2017) succinctly put it, the term seems “able to incorporate the centrality of historical and contemporary patterns of wealth and power into a loosely geographically defined concept.” (7)

And, as noted earlier, although the term is perhaps most commonly used in a descriptive manner and often used in contradistinction with the global North, it is not strictly a geographical category but a political economy characterisation. For most scholars, the term global South is not simply a replacement for previous ‘development-oriented’ concepts. As Dados and Connell (2012) contend, the “term Global South functions as more than a metaphor for underdevelopment. It references an entire history of colonialism, neo-imperialism, and differential economic and social change through which large inequalities in living standard, life expectancy, and access to resources are maintained” (13). Thus, the term challenges the insularity of Western political science and draws attention to geopolitical processes and relationships while also providing space for scholars and activists to examine the specificities of issues, processes, and struggles at a national, regional or transnational level. Indeed, as noted in the introduction, and drawing on Mahler’s analysis, a deterritorial use of the term global South draws attention to global struggles and solidarities that result from shared experiences of subjugation under contemporary global capitalism (2017, 2018). Drawing on post-colonial and subaltern studies, specifically the work of Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha, scholars have embraced the term global South to examine subaltern agency and oppression, and to link localised struggles to dynamics of global power structures and dominant social groups across spatial scales.

Just because the term is widely used does not mean that it doesn’t have limitations. Like other concepts and terms, it is not perfect and is open to debate. But, I argue, it is favourable to its predecessors because it is not just a replacement for development-oriented terms such a ‘developing world’ or ‘third world’.

As outlined above, the term has evolved from an interesting process and set of debates, and has been influenced by a range of different clusters of scholarship, from geography, political science and sociology to post-colonial and subaltern studies. The term is not static and does not refer to a specific list of countries, groups or communities: it evokes different meanings and is used both descriptively and analytically. The north-south divide is present and increasing. But this inequality it is not just between countries (if it ever was); inequalities are increasingly marked on a smaller scale, between and within communities. For those interested in understanding and unmasking this inequality, and participating or supporting subaltern groups that are organising around sets of radical claims and practices to challenge dominant groups and uneven development, the term is powerful and useful. In short, the term global South might be ambiguous and vague, but I embrace it.

The author is an Associate Professor, Dept. of Political Science, University of Victoria (Canada). She can be contacted at Thank you to Janice Dowson for terrific editing and helpful comments.



Brandt, Willy. 1980. North-South: A Programme for Survival: Report of the Independent Commission on International Development Issues. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Dados, Nour and Raewyn Connell. 2012. “The Global South.” Context 11(1): 12-13.

Dicken, Peter. 2011. Global shift: mapping the changing contours of the world economy. New York: Guilford Press.

Hollington, Andrea, Tijo Salverda, Tobias Schwarz, and Oliver Tappe. 2015. “Concepts of the Global South.” Global South Studies Center Cologne, Cologne, Germany

Lewis, Martin. 1999. “Is There a Third World?” Current History 98(631): 355-358.

Mitlin, Diana and David Satterthwaite. 2013. Urban Poverty in the Global South: Scale and Nature. Routledge: London.

Mahler, Anne Garland. 2018. From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Mahler, Anne Garland. 2017. “Global South.” Oxford Bibliographies in Literary and Critical Theory, ed. Eugene O’Brien. New York: Oxford University Press.

Prashad, Vijay. 2012. The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. London: Verso.

Randall, Vicky. 2004. “Using and abusing the concept of the Third World: geopolitics and the comparative political study of development and underdevelopment.” Third World Quarterly 25(1): 41-53.

Schafer, Jessica, Paul Haslam, and Pierre Beaudet. 2017. “Meaning, Measurement, and Morality in International Development”. Introduction to International Development, eds. Schafer, Jessica, Paul Haslam, and Pierre Beaudet. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.

Wa Ngugi, Mukoma. 2012. “Rethinking the Global South.” The Journal of Contemporary Thought (summer). Reprinted in Accessed August 2018.