Geopolitical musings from a ‘Southerner’

By Catalina Brieba (Staff Writer)

For anyone interested in world development, social sciences, or any global topic for that matter, using the term ‘global South’ to refer to lower-income countries and the ‘global North’ for wealthy nations is becoming more and more normalized in academic and non-academic publications. International NGOs such as Oxfam, for example, use this terminology.

The terms for distinguishing the rich from the poor have evolved over time. ‘Third world’ and ‘first world’, though older, are still in use. And while ‘developing’ nations sounds a lot better than ‘underdeveloped’ nations (as they were once referred to), political correctness may be doing more harm than good. Why? Because instead of describing reality (or bringing us closer to it), it creates false categories that are grossly misleading. Take the ‘first world’ and ‘third world’ terms as examples. These originated during the Cold War, with ‘first world’ referring to the US and its allies, and ‘second world’ referring to the USSR and its allies. Third world just referred to neutral and non-aligned countries. Under these criteria, Finland, Sweden and Ireland are all technically third world nations!

If you Google search for these terms, you’ll find that the ‘global North’ normally refers to North America and Europe, and parts of wealthier Asia (like Japan and Korea). A geographical exception is usually made to include Australia and New Zealand. On the other hand, ‘global South’ normally includes Africa, Latin America and most parts of Asia.

Below are two examples:

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Let’s say the ‘North-South divide’ refers to an economic one. If we look at GDP in 2015[1], we find that China, India, Brazil and Indonesia, nations normally considered to belong to the ‘global South’, are within the top 10. In 11th place is Mexico, and these five countries all rank above the more northerly Italy, Spain, Canada and Australia.

Another piece of information: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), informally dubbed by many economic journalists as the exclusive “rich countries club” includes the Latin American countries Mexico and Chile. In the World Bank indicators [2] (which uses GNI per capita), the list of high-income countries includes more than 15 nations in ‘Southern’ territories like Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and several countries in the Caribbean. These countries are all ahead of Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and Serbia, countries typically classified as the ‘global North’.

Let’s shift the focus a little to a socioeconomic division. For this we might consider looking at the UN’s Human Development Index [3], which considers health and educational indices alongside the purely economic. Again we see some South American and Arabic countries classified at the top category of ‘very high human development’, ahead of several Eastern European countries classified only as ‘high human development’.

Psychologists have described how, in order to make sense of the world around us, we unconsciously fill in the gaps of what we don’t know with whatever cognitive material we have available. Sadly, in most cases this means employing stereotypes. The world isn’t ordered into neat categories, and attempts to simplify it through euphemisms like ‘global North’ and ‘global South’ ultimately reproduce the stereotypes associated with those labels.

There isn’t a ‘global North’ or a ‘global South’, just different countries that have different levels of wealth, power, standard of living, and economic development. Our speech needs to reflect this as precisely as possible. If a certain country is wealthier than another, then say it is wealthier than the other. There is no crime in doing so. By not doing so, we resort to empty, ambiguous, false blanket binary categories of ‘North’ and ‘South’ which, by not having an unequivocal meaning, only serve to create a blank canvass in which to project all the prejudices we have been fed about what the ‘global South’ is or looks like. Because, make no mistake, the terminology of the ‘North-South’ divide was invented in the ‘North’ (or, to be more accurate, in richer, more powerful nations).

The ‘South’, just as the ‘North’, contains widely different countries, cultures and realities. But by branding them all with the same label we are stripping them of their truth, and consequently, depriving ourselves of accessing something closer to reality. It only serves to build a non-existent world, which is then foisted upon everyone else, even if it doesn’t quite fit.

[1] Corrected by purchasing power parity (ppp). From: