How the Global South seized the spotlight at G20 summit in New Delhi

The summit scored its greatest win by placing concerns of developing and poor countries front and centre, challenging the dominance of Western powers.

Published : Sep 19, 2023 17:02 IST

Prime Minister Narendra Modi greets Azali Assoumani , President of the Union of the Comoros and Chairperson of the African Union, after the A U became a permanent member of the G20 during the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 9.  | Photo Credit: PTI

After decades of being consigned to the margins of international politics, the Global South has bounced back to occupy centre stage. The Global South is where the bulk of the world’s population resides, in developing and poor countries. Until recently, they have been followers of rules made by the United States-led Western nations, which have favoured the rich world. That trend could now alter permanently.

In a break with tradition, the Group of Twenty (G20) summit held in New Delhi on September 9 and 10 came out with “a new language and paradigm” that successfully put the concerns of the Global South front and centre. Past summits did mention the concerns of the underprivileged and developing countries in their outcome documents but highlighted for urgent remedial action mostly issues that the developed economies identified as major challenges to their future growth.

“The countries of the Global South contain the vast majority of humanity, but their desires and goals have long been relegated to the footnotes of geopolitics,” said Sarang Shidore, director of the Global South Program at the Quincy Institute, a Washington-based think tank. Shidore argues that today’s geopolitical landscape is defined not just by the tensions between the US and its great-power rivals China and Russia, but also by the manoeuvring of the middle and even smaller powers. This was evident in Delhi, where India’s proposal to bring in the African Union as the 21st member of the G20, which comprises 19 leading economies and the European Union, was adopted with the backing of all members.

New priorities

It is significant that the troika of the G20 presidency (previous, current, and future)— Indonesia, India, and Brazil—is from the developing world. Soon after getting the presidency of the G20 in December 2022, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said: “Our priorities will be shaped in consultation with not just our G20 partners but also our fellow travellers in the Global South whose voice often goes unheard.”

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Early in its presidency, India organised a virtual summit where Modi once again stressed: “We the Global South have the largest stakes in our future. Three-fourths of humanity live in our countries. We should also have an equivalent voice.” He pointed out that “as the eight-decade-old model of global governance slowly changes, we should try to shape the emerging order”.

V.S. Seshadri, former Indian Ambassador to Myanmar, observed that at the summit India went about gathering the views of over 100 developing countries on a range of issues with thematic sessions in areas such as finance, foreign affairs, energy, environment and climate, trade, education, and health. Besides, a number of think tank events and business conclaves were also held, and the ideas that emerged from all these interactions were taken up in the relevant G20 ministerial meetings and eventual consensus generated.

“The Delhi Declaration [adopted at the end of the summit] is therefore a result of all these efforts,” said Seshadri. The outcomes that were reflected in the document relating to multilateral development banks, climate finance, financial inclusion, digital payments infrastructure, and the burden of debt of developing countries were therefore possible. The most significant achievement perhaps was to have an agreement on nearly 100 issues without allowing the Ukraine war to dominate the summit or act as a spoiler.

The Ukraine war has been the most divisive issue in recent international meetings. The US and European countries have used all available platforms for Russia-bashing, holding it solely responsible for starting the biggest war in the European continent since the Second World War. These influential groups of countries also managed to convince the host countries to invite Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and ask him to address the gathering even when his country was not a member of the group. India refused to provide Zelenskyy such a platform despite intense lobbying on his behalf by many Western countries.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a press conference on the second day of the G20 summit, in New Delhi on September 10. | Photo Credit: FRANCIS MASCARENHAS/REUTERS

While India managed to get G20 members to talk about the need for peace and for an early end to the war to mitigate the suffering of the developing and poor countries, it also succeeded in convincing Western nations to keep out any critical reference to Russia in the final document. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who represented his country in place of President Vladimir Putin, described it as “the awakening of the Global South members of G20”.

Ukraine war, a turning point

It is ironic that it took the Ukraine war for the West to realise how alienated the rest of the world had become from it. “Across much of the world, there is growing resentment about the amount of attention and money the West is funnelling toward Ukraine,” acknowledged Suzanne F. Nossel, a human rights advocate and former US government official. She added, “Countries outside Europe are plagued by war and hardship, yet their suffering commands only a fraction of the attention paid to Kyiv.”

India’s Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar had, on an earlier occasion, remarked that the priority the richest states have given to Ukraine treats Europe’s problems “as the world’s problems” even though “the world’s problems are not considered to be Europe’s problems”.

However, it was at the Munich Security Conference in February that US and European officials realised that there was no support for the Ukraine war in the Global South. “I am struck by how much we are losing the trust of the Global South,” French President Emmanuel Macron remarked at the conference in which over 40 heads of state, 150 senior officials, and representatives of international organisations participated.

The main focus at Munich was the Ukraine war, the need to confront China and Russia, and the importance of the Global South in the struggle between the great powers. The chairman of the conference, Christoph Heusgen, in an interaction with US Vice President Kamala Harris said: “We have invited a record number of representatives from the so-called Global South, because while we have this unity between us, when you talk to representatives of the Global South—and we had them on the podium this morning—you see that many countries sit on the fence.” He made it clear that the discussion would “put a spotlight on the Global South” and “listen to their concerns”.

Macron spoke about making the global order more inclusive. The Cradle, an online news magazine on geopolitics, quoted him as saying: “The West has been losing the Global South and hasn’t done enough to respond to the charge of double standards, including by not helping poor countries fast enough with COVID vaccines.” The French President suggested that one way to address the concerns of the Global South was to bring about reforms in the UN.

The final report of the conference warned: “The wake-up call provided by Russia’s war and the diffidence of many countries in the Global South has roused liberal democracies from their complacency, reminding them that the international order, just like democracy itself, is in constant need of renewal.” Acknowledging the value of the Global South, the final report notes that these countries can become crucial “swing states” as they can tip the balance between systemic competitors and determine the fate of the international rules-based order.

World Leaders and officials during the G20 Summit session on ‘One Earth’, at Bharat Mandapam in New Delhi on September 9. | Photo Credit: Mohamed bin Zayed twitter/ANI

It suggested that countries like India, Türkiye, or Saudi Arabia were quite actively hedging their bets in the current geopolitical stand-off, not only on Ukraine but also on many other policy issues. It said that rather than being guided by deep feelings about the international order, their response to the war and in the broader international contest over the international order seemed to be guided much more by “pragmatic reasoning”.

The Munich conference report also said that many countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America had steadily lost faith in the legitimacy and fairness of an international system that has neither granted them an appropriate voice in global affairs nor sufficiently addressed their core concerns. It added that for many states these failures were deeply tied to the West.

The report concluded: “They find that the Western-led order has been characterised by post-colonial domination, double standards, and neglect for developing countries’ concerns.”

  • In a break with past traditions, the G-20 summit in New Delhi on September 9 and 10 came out with “a new language and paradigm” that successfully put the concerns of the Global South in the front.
  • The Ukraine war has been the most divisive issue in recent international meetings, used by the US and European countries for Russia-bashing. But that was not allowe dto happen in the G-20 summit.
  • Instead, issues relating to multilateral development banks, climate finance, financial inclusion, digital payments infrastructure, and the burden of debt of developing countries took centre stage.

Resentment began during the pandemic

Many experts feel the root of the Global South’s discontent towards the West began during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the Summit for a New Global Financing Pact in Paris in June, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa raised the issue of COVID-19 vaccines before global leaders. He said that in 2021, when the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, South Africans “felt like we were beggars when it came to vaccine availability”. He pointed out: “The Northern Hemisphere countries… were hogging them, and they didn’t want to release them at the time when we needed them most.” This, he said, “generated and deepened disappointment and resentment on our part because we felt like life in the Northern Hemisphere is much more important than life in the Global South”.

Other Africans also shared his sentiments.

Strive Masiyiwa, a Zimbabwean businessman and philanthropist, said the rich countries’ behaviour during the pandemic perpetuated “a deliberate global architecture of unfairness”.

Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, observed that this deep sense of betrayal had corroded trust among countries and the geopolitical implications would be significant.

According to him, the COVID-19 era encompassed only a few of the litany of broken promises between the Global North and the Global South. He argued that as the richer countries struggled to understand the Global South—and especially African nations’ ambivalent reaction to Russia’s war on Ukraine—the lingering effect of abandonment during the pandemic was underappreciated.

Suzman said two kinds of failings defined the COVID-19 era for low-income countries: the Global North’s hesitation to share resources equitably and its unwillingness to treat Global South countries as equal partners in addressing a shared crisis. He warned: “Until wealthy countries take concrete steps toward repair, the rift will only grow deeper.”

When the rich countries of the West led by the US, therefore, came for the New Delhi G20 summit, they were well aware of the prevailing mood about the Ukraine war and their policies in the larger world. The collective decision of the Group of Seven countries not to play the role of dissenter in the deliberations and to highlight the concerns of the Global South and express their commitment to end the sufferings of the poor and developing world may have stemmed from that knowledge.

What is the Global South?

However, the debate remains on who or what is the Global South. The term was first used by Carl Ogelsby, an activist of the New Left, in 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War. During the Cold War, the term “Third World” came in to describe non-aligned and developing nations, many of whom had only recently gained independence from their colonial masters. It rose into prominence in 1980 after West German Chancellor Willy Brandt wrote his landmark document, “New International Economic Order”, to describe the rich countries in the Northern Hemisphere and the poor and developing countries in the Southern Hemisphere.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the World Trade Organization, meets with Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva on the sidelines of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10. | Photo Credit: ANI

After the Cold War, these countries became the Group of 77 and now the term Global South is making a linguistic comeback. Academic use of the term has exploded, and leaders of international organisations and major democracies are deploying the phrase with notable frequency, argue Stewart Patrick, director of the Global Order and Institutions Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Alexandra Huggins, a research assistant of the institute, in a recent paper.

They point out that the phrase has yet again become a convenient shorthand for a broad swathe of nations seeking to overhaul the unjust structures of the global economy, hedge their strategic bets, and promote the emergence of a more multipolar system.

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But critics wonder if it makes sense for such a heterogenous group spread across vast expanses of Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin America, and the Caribbean to be brought under the label Global South. Shidore at the Quincy Institute argues that it exists not as a coherent, organised grouping so much as a geopolitical fact. The action of individual countries, driven by national interests rather than the idealism of southern solidarity, adds up to more than the sum of their parts, he adds.

Seshadri points out that for their voice to make an impact, India and other developing countries will need to be part of a larger coalition with similar interests. As of now the Global South may have met that requirement, particularly on the whole range of issues dealt by the G20. “But on narrower issues (like the reform of international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the UN) coalitions may have to vary,” he said.

What happens in the coming days will certainly be watched with interest and eagerness both in the West and in the developing world. But for now the Global South has become the central focus in world politics.

Pranay Sharma is a commentator on political and foreign affairs-related developments. He has worked in senior editorial positions in leading media organisations.

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