Against “the global south” and other development euphemisms

As a geographer, I feel obliged to register a complaint about the proliferating and geographically criminal use of “the Global South” to refer to what others call poor countries, the developing world, or the Third World.  To any resident of Australia or New Zealand, the expression jars.  It must do the same to those in Chile, Argentina, or South Africa who look north at relatively poorer places.  And what about where poverty and deprivation are a northern phenomenon (politically-divided Korea, culturally-divided aboriginal Australia and Canada)?

The “Global South” is a geographic euphemism that distracts from the real criteria and processes (economic, political, historical) that merit inclusion in the group of countries (and in-country regions) that are typically poorer or less developed (by economic and social measures like GDP, life expectancy) and typically have some sort of a colonial past.

Instead of implying, as its users must intend, a fuzziness and fudging of strict divisions, the adjective “global” to me has an opposite impact, implying a planetary scale division of hemispheres.  Yet dividing the planet at the Equator excludes from the “global south” a raft of poor places where folks shiver through winter in January, not July.  The French have luckily avoided the “global” adjective; their discussions of le développement in the countries of le sud makes some sense given that Paris lies far north of the former colonies to which this label is usually applied.

What, then, is the solution?  How about another geographic euphemism – “the tropics”.  This is a more representative label than “the south” – the tropics and subtropics capture more of the developing world than “the global south”.  Yet it too is an imperfect euphemism (Mongolia and Tajikistan are not tropical; Singapore is), and it opens a fetid can of worms of geographical determinism.

Perhaps we should stick to less euphemistic descriptions that are relevant to the socio-economic, political, geographical, or historical processes being evoked.  Useful, relevant, descriptive, straightforward terms like “poor” and “rich”, “industrialised”, “ACP” (for the really poor countries of Africa, Caribbean, and Pacific linked by the Cotonou convention) are effective enough and don’t insult one’s geographic conscience…


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