The concept of South-South Co-operation (SSC) developed during the period of decolonisation and crystallised with the Bandung Conference and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). This group of newly independent countries (NICs), who had been long suppressed by their colonial rulers, emerged as a third bloc between the two hegemonic American and Russian blocs. The journey of SSC has been long and arduous, changing in its form and concept, invariably affected by the changing world order.
During the late 1980s and early 90s, at a time when the South was struggling with the structural adjustment programmes imposed by Northern Institutions, the NAM1 countries in their 9th Summit in Belgrade established the G-15, composed of countries from Latin America, Africa, and Asia with a common goal of enhanced growth and prosperity. An alternative to the top-down approach followed by the WTO and G-8, it was to provide these dominant regimes with inputs from the perspective of the South.
But much has changed since globalisation heralded a new world order which was much more inter-connected and interdependent than ever before. Some countries of the South raced ahead of others in this new order, resulting in more heterogeneity within the otherwise cogent South, lending a new meaning to SSC.
Changing Nature of ‘South’ and South-South Co-operation
Initially, when SSC was encouraged, it was mostly between countries who were recovering from bad economies right after gaining independence, or it was to oppose the two hegemonic blocs during Cold War. Much has changed since then, both in terms of what is denoted by “South”, and by the term “Co-operation”. Some countries have far surpassed others in the race for economic growth and development. Initially, there was a developed North and a developing South. Now, there are three groups of countries- the developed, the developing and the under-developed or the Least developed (LDCs). The latter two are both a part of the Global South. The countries of the South were linked by the commonalities of political and socio-economic challenges. This does not appear to be relevant any more. For example, income per capita in 2008 was US$140 in Burundi, US$1,420 in Guyana and US$7,240 in Gabon (Atlas method: World Bank, 2009). Eight times more children under the age of five died in Guinea-Bissau in 2007 than in El Salvador. In 1990, China and India accounted for 61 per cent of the people living in extreme poverty in all developing countries. By 2007, this figure had gone down to 42 per cent. In contrast, the share of the global extreme poor who were living in LDCs has increased from 18 per cent in 1990 to 27 per cent in 2000, and 36 percent in 2007 (UNCTAD report 2011).
Whereas the number of LDCs have increased in number from 24 to 49 despite all the grants in aid, China and India have achieved the highest economic growth rates becoming the ‘champions’ of the South in the same decade.
When the concept of SSC emerged, the developing countries were still recovering from their colonial past, especially economically, and thus, did not want to be dominated again by the Cold War Hegemonic Blocs. Hence, they united against the blocs and chose an alternative path. The world order at that time was not quite inter-connected and the state was able to control capital flow. In the contemporary world, extensive interconnectedness impinge on the relationship between state and capital. The global patterns of production and trade and the choices the state can make are being reshaped by liberalisation of financial markets. This globalisation and liberalisation created immense competition amongst the developing countries, as there was a race to “catch-up” with the developed countries. Those countries that could capitalise on building technology and a large industrial base managed to become more successful than others in the South. Having moved up economically, they aspired to become more influential at an international level and appropriated to themselves the authority to represent and speak on behalf of other countries of the South. In a way, they not only assumed the role of what the developed countries of North used to be in the past, but also ascribed to themselves the role of benevolent representatives of the South. In this age, when success is being measured by economic growth and industrialisation, they have no qualms in taking advantage of other weaker nations from the developing South.
Hence, the LDCs are doubly exploited- by the Global North and now by the New North in the South. Most glaring example of this is that of the African continent, which is not only exploited by China. but also by one of its own, South Africa. China needs to keep up its growth rates and for that it requires heavy industrialisation. The raw materials and natural resources needed for this comes from the two continents- Africa and Latin America. In the case of Latin America, the growing Chinese demand for regional commodities is said to have led to serious environmental damage. As elucidated in an article in The Guardian “the world’s most populous nation has joined the ranks of wealthy countries in Europe, North America and East Asia that have long consumed and polluted unsustainably.” This has led to what author Michael T Klare calls ‘a race for what’s left’.
The evolution of SSC has seen a consistent streamlining of the number of countries at the helm, from G-77 to G- 15 to a group of five who constitute the BRICS. In an uncertain economic situation with chronic recession, it is possible that the aspiration to become an economic power may over ride other considerations. The future of SSC thus depends on the changing global order which is currently rather volatile. In this situation what are the lessons for India as it emerges as a leader and voice of the “South”?
Article by Nupur Mishra
1 The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in Belgrade in 1961