A common agenda for the Global South
India’s recent embrace of the Global South represents a strategic opening to advance its objectives and push institutional reform
There is a great deal of curiosity and some scepticism in international capitals about India’s newfound embrace of the Global South. The term, initially a more palatable way of describing the so-called Third World during the Cold War, is used regularly by historians and development professionals, but did not take hold in the world of international relations, until recently. It encompasses regions and countries boasting considerable diversity in terms of language, religion, culture, political systems, and even levels of economic development. But they share experiences as post-colonial States that developed belatedly, resulting in their political marginalisation on the international stage.
In January, India convened a Voice of the Global South virtual conference, where leaders and ministers from 120 countries discussed a variety of issues, from health and agriculture to trade and energy. Issues of relevance to the Global South were also given prominence in the G20 agenda.
Four recent trends have reinforced the need for a common agenda for the Global South. The first is a combination of insufficient representation at international institutions coupled with questions about the availability and sustainability of international lending and debt financing. The Global South’s limited representation in international institutions meant that many developing economies have long felt vulnerable to established lenders from the developed world. Yet, in seeking an alternative in China, they often found hidden strings, longer-term burdens, and refinancing terms that were far from accommodating. With a global pandemic, geopolitical shocks, and rising interest rates, the issue of sustainable debt has become even more pronounced. The distress experienced recently by Sri Lanka is indicative of a more widespread problem.
Second, there is the issue of climate justice. The climate crisis is an existential problem for some small island States, such as in the South Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Caribbean. Many other countries in the Global South are particularly susceptible to droughts, floods, heat waves, and tropical storms. While the developed world has been liberal in making vague commitments to emissions targets and passing judgments on others, it has often been miserly about sharing technology and ensuring adequate financing that could assist the developing world in making difficult energy transitions. The lack of action after every Conference of the Parties (COP) of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) is telling.
Third, the Covid-19 pandemic widened the sense of global inequality. A few countries monopolised critical medical and pharmaceutical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE), medical devices, oxygen concentrators, and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). When vaccines were developed, richer developed countries received priority. The multilateral Covax facility was, given the scale of the challenge, relatively meagre, certainly at the outset.
The fourth and final inflection point was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A major consequence was the impediment to grain and fertiliser exports from both Ukraine and Russia, and sharp increases in global energy prices as Russian oil and gas was spurned by Europe. The countries of the Global South felt the sharpest pinch, given their vulnerability to fluctuating prices and low fiscal and consumer spending margins. But there was a pervasive sense that the strategic priorities of Russia, Europe, and the United States (US) overrode global concerns over food and energy security.
In each case, there is widespread frustration in the Global South with the developed West: The US, Canada, Europe, and in some cases, Japan. But equally, there are frustrations that Russia (on Ukraine and the climate crisis) and China (on debt sustainability and coronavirus) have exacerbated these problems, driven often by narrow self-interest. In fact, as both Russia and China are already embedded in international institutions, such as the UN Security Council, they are often just as intransigent about reforming those institutions. The Global South finds itself with few champions or platforms to air these collective frustrations.
It is against this backdrop that India has embraced the terminology and some of the common objectives of the Global South. Strategic decisions often involve difficult trade-offs between short-term interests and longer-term values. In the case of the Global South, India’s interests and values align rather seamlessly. India taking a role in amplifying the voices of the Global South is not just about lofty rhetoric, but because those same objectives – food and energy sustainability, sustainable debt, multilateral representation, equitable public health, and just climate transitions – are goals that serve Indian interests.
The Global South thus represents a strategic opening for India, both to advance its own development objectives and the cause of multilateral institutional reform. But it should not be conflated with a new non-aligned movement. As some Indian commentators have noted, while the Global South is an explicitly non-western construct, it is not an anti-western construct. The purpose is to work with, and be a bridge to, the developed world. It also does not mean that the Global South will operate unanimously, as recent voting at the United Nations indicates. While some shared concerns need to be voiced, the Global South is too diverse to be driven by singular political, economic, and security imperatives.
Dhruva Jaishankar is executive director, ORF America. The views expressed are personal.