21st Sep 2023


Who's afraid of the Global South?

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Welcome to an exciting new season of the headline-grabbing TV series: "Who is afraid of the Global South?"

The suspense-filled thriller, bringing together superheroes, nasty villains, and in-between fence-sitters, has been on streaming services for a while.

Read and decide

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  • "The world beyond Europe (and the US) is exciting, vibrant, growing by leaps and bounds"

But only true fans and aficionados of the genre bothered to tune in. The series wasn't slick, the storylines were patchy, and those in the starring roles didn't always align with Hollywood standards.

Times change. As a riveting new season of the series is launched at the United Nations this week, the once little-known saga of geopolitical competition, confrontation and cooperation is now the only geopolitical show in town.

Everyone is watching and everyone has an opinion.

Noblesse oblige, most reviews by Western critics are predictably snarky. No such thing as the "so-called" Global South, they insist. It's just a disparate, squabbling group of states, with nothing to bind them together, no coherent stance, and no long-term future.

But I'd advise a tad more circumspection after years spent reporting for the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review as well as through countless trips, interviews and still almost daily frank and honest interactions with policymakers, reporters, researchers and friends in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

Forget the doomsayers: There is really no need to be grumpy, apprehensive, and fearful of the Global South and, by extension, of life in a multipolar world.

Fear of the unknown, inertia, and a reluctance to get rid of old prejudices and stereotypes are understandable.

One day, you think Asia is too far, too poor, and too big to interest anyone, the next most of the continent is a turbo-charged economic powerhouse, a magnet for investments, and a potential "existential threat".

Africa, once decried as a basket case, prone to famines and coups, is now everyone's favourite, much-coveted and much-courted and still-elusive "equal partner".

But all these grudging acknowledgements of the "so-called" Global South also smack of envy — the West's reluctance to give up the spotlight and a once unchallenged leading role as hero, benefactor, and self-identified goody two shoes.

It is more complicated.

The unipolar world was simple, well-organised, and orderly, led by the US, with the loyal and pliant EU by its side (most of the time) and "third world" states dutifully falling into line with Uncle Sam (most of the time).

But luckily for the EU, there is a small circle of forward-looking people who, despite the cynicism of the majority, have always known that the world beyond Europe (and the US) is exciting, vibrant, growing by leaps and bounds and becoming more self-confident by the day.

Their engagement and connections made with countries "over there" are now paying off. But much more needs to be done.

The critics are right: the Global South, the G20, the BRICS, the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and other organisations are diverse and heterogeneous, their members are often in competition with each other and their goals and aspirations starkly different.

Yet, there is a glue and a commonality that bind. These connections can be subtle, invisible, nebulous, and (largely) imperceptible to the Eurocentric-West-centric gaze. But if you know, you know.

Partly, the driver is lingering post-colonial anger, frustration, and resentment — a deep wound left by years of exploitation, extraction, and endless unkept promises on crucial issues including vaccine equity, debt relief, and climate change.

Partly, it's realpolitik and that old game of "hedging" by countries who have no interest in getting caught up in new Cold Wars or unbridled US-China competition.

Mostly, it is about protecting national (or regional) interests by avoiding any unnecessary entanglements in other peoples' problems.

The Africa Climate Summit in Nairobi which set out an ambitious vision of Africa's clean energy future is proof that the continent is taking charge of its own destiny.

The decision by BRICS members to expand the grouping is driven both by a desire to counter a Western-led multilateral order and an authentic aspiration to intensify south-south economic links including — one day — by challenging the outsize influence of the US dollar in the global economy.

Their decision not to fall in line with the Western view on Russia's war in Ukraine may have put the Global South in the geopolitical spotlight, but their demands for change are not new.

They have made their case at countless meetings of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), at conferences on climate change and just recently at the global finance summit organized by France.

Own house

Also, for all their rising clout and justified criticism of the hypocrisy and double standards of the West, Global South leaders need to put their own houses in order.

Too many of those who rage against global inequalities are guilty of divide-and-rule policies at home through discrimination against minorities, sidelining of women, and clampdowns on democracy activists and human rights defenders.

Their policies run counter to the aspirations of their young, dynamic, vibrant, and impatient citizens who want to live and thrive in a more equal environment both at home and abroad.

As a new season of "Who is Afraid of the Global South?" is launched at the UN with a long-awaited summit to review progress on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, EU leaders can secure more than mere walk-on roles.

That means not just attending meetings and making speeches, but also working to become relevant and credible in a multipolar world.

Author bio

Shada Islam is an independent EU analyst and commentator who runs her own strategy and advisory company New Horizons Project. Shada recently won the Catalonia European Journalist Association's prestigious Career Award 2023 for her work on EU affairs and focus on building an inclusive Union of Equality.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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