Voices of the Global South

Focus on the Global South has its offices on the sunny campus of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, Thailand.  Here, academics and activists from around the world strategize on how to level a global playing field that has long tilted in favor of northern countries. In 1995, Philippine intellectual Walden Bello and his co-director from India Kamal Malhotra brought together an unusual collection of progressives who, in the wake of the creation of the World Trade Organization, argued that tackling globalization required organizing on a global level.

“Examining World Bank development models and other patterns of domination had made me increasingly aware that these couldn’t simply be challenged at the national level,” Bello recalls. “Whether it was a question of opposing the US military, or the World Bank or IMF or multinational corporations, it was crucial to begin creating cross-regional links. When the movement in the Philippines succeeded—helped by various contingent factors—in getting the American bases shut down in the early nineties, a number of us warned that, unless we changed the military equation in the region, the victory would not last very long. It didn’t change, and today US troops are back in the Philippines with a vengeance. National movements, important as they are, have to combine with the creation of regional and global movements.”

Today, Focus on the Global South has country programs in India, the Philippines, and Thailand.  It does extensive work on international trade issues.  It has mobilized grassroots response in the South to the war in Iraq and U.S. military actions elsewhere, and has aimed its development critique at the equally powerful target of the World Bank.  It engages in intellectual debate in its program on trends and analysis.  It struggles to be focused and yet address a wide range of issues, to engage in global debates while maintaining regional, national, and local programs as well.  Only ten years old, Focus on the Global South is an exemplar of a new global civil society that more accurately represents the perspectives of the world’s majority.

“Global South” refers to poor and marginalized people wherever they might live, whether in rural Thailand or in urban Washington, D.C. At the same time, wealthy and powerful elites in developing countries often have more in common with U.S. politicians or European bank presidents than people in their own country.  By having this political rather than simply geographic dimension, the phrase bears some resemblance to “Third World,” a phrase that the Bandung Conference of 1955 popularized.  Along with the Non-Aligned Movement that arose at the same time, “Third World” initially represented an alternative to the capitalist and communist spheres of influence.  Only later did it become attached to the “developing world.” This transformation in language reflects a change in power as well.  It connotes a transition from active voice to passive actor, from alternative economic model to supplicant attached to the First or the Second World.

If the governments of the Third World saw their role in global politics diminish, the people of the Global South were even further marginalized.  Too often what passes for “development” has merely been an arrangement between elites in the north and south: to build a dam that displaces thousands of poor people, to implement agricultural reforms that benefit agribusiness not family farmers, to negotiate a free-trade agreement that privileges the largest corporations at the expense of smaller merchants.  The proponents of such projects often speak on behalf of “the people” without consulting them at all.

But the last twenty years have witnessed an upsurge in organizing in the global south on international issues.  Indian communities protesting the Narmada Dam project have made their voices heard, not just locally, but globally.  Workers in export-processing zones have begun to meet and strategize.  Small farmers, indigenous peoples, those protesting U.S. military bases have begun to seek out leverage at the global level to advance their causes.  The poor and marginalized can rely on only the exceptional Third World governments to represent them faithfully.  So they are finding their voices through popular democracy at a global scale.

Is the global south having a measurable impact on institutions of power in the global north, or has Washington and Tokyo and the World Bank, after a few minor concessions, simply gone about business as usual? To what extent has a new elite of global activists from the south emerged that, in its own way, has found greater common interest with other activists from around the world than with the people they represent back home?  Should sympathetic organizations in the global north play an advocacy role alongside organizations in the global south (what the Latin Americans call “accompaniment”) or a more mediating, “peacemaking” role between activists and organizations such as the World Bank?  Are voices from the global south like Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez representing the marginalized or engaging in demagoguery?

On a trip to Provisions, you can read the memoir of Palestinian scholar and activist Edward Said After the Last Sky, catch up on the latest in Pacific writing in the journal Manoa, go online for the latest in African news and politics, see the latest Cuban art in Suceden los Espejos: 43 Pintores Cubanos, listen to the captivating voice of Cape Verdean Cesaria Evora, and watchAparajito, the first movie in the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray.

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