As India assumed the G20 presidency in December last year, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s articulate foreign minister, had stated that the country would be the “voice of the Global South, that is otherwise under-represented in such forums.” The Global South has indeed been at the centre of India’s G20 presidency. India’s term, in the middle of three succeeding G20 presidencies from the Global South, with Indonesia as predecessor and Brazil as successor, has coincided with a time of such extreme churn in global politics and economics, that it has been described as an era of ‘global polycrisis’ — triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ukraine-Russia conflict and the interlinked food, cost-of-living, energy and climate crisis.
The Global South, it is estimated, represents a group of 136 countries spanning Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Oceania, 85 per cent of the world’s population, and nearly 39 per cent of global GDP. Though the term was coined way back in 1969, by the American political activist Carl Ogelsby, it did not take off until the breakup of the Soviet Union. Once the Second World (the Soviet Union and satellite states) had perished, the term ‘Third World’, until then widely used commonly for developing countries, became unfashionable.
As terms go, Global South seems to capture the spirit of the times. It has become a call to resistance, for countries to express their dissatisfaction with the current world order where the North has a monopoly on global decision-making and which has left most countries from the South vulnerable to multiple crises. A recent report by the Stimson Center underlined how at least 107 developing countries, comprising 1.7 billion people, are threatened by the crises of food, energy and finance.
While the development agenda has always been an integral part of G20, the current troika of developing countries which will be followed by South Africa, has lent an impetus to prioritising the concerns of developing countries in the forum. The main themes in India’s G20 agenda address these issues, like progress on Sustainable Development Goals, green development and climate finance, digital transformation and reform of multilateral institutions.
India invited six guest countries from the Global South to the G20, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Egypt, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Mauritius. The goal was to consult these nations which have growing international clout and are not represented in the G20. India also advocated for the inclusion of the African Union as a full member of the G20, to create a more diverse and inclusive platform.
To make good on its pledge to amplify the Global South agenda in G20, India hosted Voices of the Global South Summit in January this year, to ensure that the challenges and priorities of the Global South could be incorporated into G20’s agenda for this year. The Summit, which had participation from 125 countries, tackled topics like climate change, energy security, rising debt, inflation and global health systems. Its very theme, “unity of voice, unity of purpose” is a rallying call for developing countries to band together and shape the emerging order of the world.
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To walk the talk, India announced several new initiatives, including a Global South Centre of Excellence to research development best practices, a Global South Science and Technology initiative, and a collaborative project to provide medical and humanitarian aid in developing countries affected by disasters.
India’s championing of the Global South is commonly interpreted as a consequence of its rivalry with China, as both countries seek to grow their sphere of influence in emerging and developing nations. For India, leadership of the Global South represents a form of continuity in its foreign policy, an extension of its role in the Non-Aligned Movement, the largest grouping of the time to represent the aspirations of developing countries.
Unlike that time, however, countries of the Global South are not seeking neutrality or to distance themselves from the West. Many of these countries, including the United Arab Emirates, are rising powers in the new international order. They are increasingly confident in voicing their aspirations, demanding parity in global decision-making, and a multilateral system that benefits all member states and not just the rich ones.
Sunaina Kumar is Executive Director at Think20 India Secretariat under India’s G20 presidency and Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation