Measuring the power of the Global South

Many countries are shaking off old allegiances to the West and enjoying new wealth, influence and optimism, writes Kishore Mahbubani.

The World Today
Published 2 February 2024 Updated 21 March 2024 3 minute READ

Kishore Mahbubani

Distinguished Fellow, Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, author of ‘The Asian 21st Century'

The world is approaching what some believe to be the end of the western domination. At his Voice of Global South summit in January 2023, Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, said: ‘We, the Global South, have the largest stakes in the future … As the eight decade-old model of global governance slowly changes, we should try to shape the emerging order.’

It is certainly true that 88 per cent of the world population lives outside the West in what is now called the Global South. Arguably, many Global South countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia are no longer passive participants on the world stage, instead acting independently of the West in many ways.

Signs of this emerged more than a decade ago when America, as the world’s most powerful country, led a global campaign to persuade countries not to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Yet more than 140 countries did just that.

Similarly, it is unsurprising that the United States has not been able to persuade Brazil, Argentina, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo to try to isolate China, as those countries had once agreed to isolate the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

A growing agency

This growing sense of Global South agency is most apparent in the fact that states representing 85 per cent of the world’s population have not imposed sanctions on Russia even though the majority of countries in the Global South condemned the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Critics of the term also assert, correctly, that the Global South – once called the ‘underdeveloped world’, and then the Third World – is remarkably diverse: how can Latin Americans, Africans, Arabs and Asians think alike?

The diversity is real. Yet, having attended many meetings of both the Non-Aligned Movement and the G77 group in my 33 years as a Singapore diplomat, I could also sense a certain degree of political solidarity, especially vis-à-vis the dominant western countries.

In its dealings with Russia and Quad membership, India shows a leading Global South nation can take a nuanced position.

Western self-interest was recently evident during the pandemic. Despite there being surplus vaccine stocks in the West, few Covid-19 vaccines trickled from there to the Global South. During one wave of infections, the European Union even took millions of vaccines out of Africa – where they had been manufactured – and shipped them to Europe.

Yet India shows that a leading Global South nation can take a nuanced position. India’s membership of the Quad – with America, Australia and Japan – has certainly moved it closer to the West in the geopolitical realm. It has nevertheless chosen not to isolate Russia, and has vastly increased the share of its oil imports from Russia, from 0.2 per cent to 40 per cent.

Striking moments

Since then, there have been several striking moments on the world stage by Global South voices.

At COP27 in 2022, Mia Mottley, the Barbados prime minister, advanced the debate on climate finance with her Bridgetown Initiative. Its aim is nothing less than transforming the global financial system to radically improve provision of financial assistance and loans available to poorer nations vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

In September 2023, at the G20 Summit, the African Union won a permanent seat in the G20, significantly enhancing the voice of a great swath of the Global South.

Most recently, South Africa brought a case of genocide against Israel to the International Court of Justice for its treatment of the Palestinian people in Gaza. South Africa’s stance, despite severe pressure from America and the West to desist, illustrates the new, stronger moral voice of the Global South.

It is equally notable that other forums and institutions of the Global South are gaining weight. The BRICS forum – comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – was set up in 2009 as a counterpoint to the G7 club of nations, to criticism from some quarters that it was little more than ‘marketing’.

Yet, it is now clear that the BRICS is growing in clout. In 1980, the G7 accounted for about 50 per cent of the world’s GDP in purchasing power parity terms, while the BRICS countries – excluding Russia, then part of the Soviet Union – accounted for about 11 per cent.

Today, the G7 accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s GDP, while the BRICS countries account match it at around 30 per cent. Equally importantly, the membership of BRICS is growing dramatically, while the G7’s is stagnant.

This may also explain why, even though significant countries in the Global South are struggling – Argentina and Egypt, to name just two – there are signs that many living in Global South countries, especially in Asia, are remarkably optimistic about the future.

A 2021 Unicef report found that 59 per cent of young people in high-income countries thought that today’s children would be economically worse off than their parents, and only 31 per cent thought they would be better off.  By contrast, 69 per cent of young people in low- and lower-middle- income countries thought that today’s children would be better off. Only 24 per cent thought they would be worse off.

Why is the Global South optimistic? Take the 3.5 billion population of China, India, and the Asean countries, for example. In 2000, only 150 million of these people enjoyed middle-class living standards. Today, the number has exploded to around 1.5 billion, double the total population of western countries. And it is predicted to grow to 3 billion by 2030.

At this rate, the coming decades may belong to the Global South.