By Going the ‘South’ Way, Can India Help the World Rise Up to Key Challenges?

Be it Economy, Russia-Ukraine, or Climate Change, India's stand stresses need for Global North to address concerns.

6 min read
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It’s to be the online event of the year and very handily placed. The holding of a virtual “Voice of Global South" Summit with some 120 countries invited is meant to feed directly into India’s space for manoeuvring during the G20 summit to be held later this year.

Not that India hasn’t been championing the causes of the South at forums such as the World Trade Organisation— becoming a notable influencer since the rise of its economic status.

But in the present time, this effort could give more ballast to India’s positions on important issues like the economic effect of Ukraine, or climate change which are diametrically opposite to that of the powerful North. Besides, there’s an economic crunch of uncertain proportions already here. It could get a lot worse, unless the North and South cooperate, and not just in flowery statements.


The Ministry’s Strategy Ahead of G20

Prime Minister Modi put the issue into perspective at the very first session of the Summit by saying that ‘Your Voice is Our Voice’. That’s not just foreign policy dialogue but also the truth.

As he said, while most of the problems that the South is struggling with have been created by others, it is these several hundred countries – from tiny Cameroon to Brazil that face the brunt.

This summit is a smart move by the Ministry. After a period of strongly backing a number of ‘North’-heavy institutions like the Quad or the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the heavy costs of the pandemic, as well as the senseless war in Ukraine, has obviously led Delhi to look again more closely at its partners who were once part of the ‘Non Aligned Movement (NAM)’ which has dwindled to nothing.

The NAM, however, was part of a different era, when an economically weak India was able to punch above its weight against not just the North, but also the Soviet Union and its allies. This was the ‘Third World moment’ which has now passed. Now at a time of severe stress, it's time to gather forces around, and face up to the North at a critical time for the Indian economy. This is not showmanship or wrangling for a ‘seat’ at a global table. This is sheer necessity.

Global South And Its Supporting Role in Trade & Economy

Before listing the serious issues ahead, it's important to understand that the health of the Global South is vital to the world as a whole, however much rich capitals may shy away from it.

Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) from the South accounted for about one-third of the global flows; more importantly, it is the South that is the ground for investment, markets, and lucrative contracts in infrastructure projects like ports. India’s trade with the South has grown with shipments to Africa and Latin America up by 41.6% and 38% respectively till mid-year.

This has occurred in the background of a slump in global trade, and reduced demand in key destinations like the US, and a Covid-hit China. There is also the fact that South Asia has not proven to be a key market area for India with China dominating access. In recent days also, South Asia has been in deep crisis, with at least three nations – Pakistan, Sri Lanka and now Bangladesh -- approaching international financial institutions for help. Nepal has restricted imports to only the most vital.

Simply put, India needs the Global South to prosper and grow at a time, as the Prime Minister said, of severe strain. Don’t forget also that of the G20 countries, India has the highest fiscal deficit, even as it is forced to hand out free food grain to some 800 million people, not to mention fuel and food subsidies of some USD 65 billion or 2.1 per cent of the GDP.

Climate Change Woes Continue To Stress Funds

The sheer unfairness of world politics was on show at the COP27 talks where the tussle continued to be that the developing countries should not be punished for the sins of the North.

That’s an argument worth more than USD 100 billion in promised aid, (though even the pittance given earlier was mostly in loans rather than grants) though experts estimate that even this is likely to prove insufficient.

Data shows that the United States has emitted more CO2 than any other country till date, at around 25% of historical emissions.That’s twice more than China, which is, however, now the world’s second-largest national contributor.

The 28 countries of the European Union accounts for 22%; India and Brazil are negligible contributors historically (about 3 percent) while the entire Africa accounts for just 3 percent even now. Yet climate change in the form of droughts and sea level rise among other phenomena is likely to cost the continent USD 50 billion annually by 2050, according to the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO).

India is Africa’s fourth-largest trading partner. It matters to us. Closer home, Bangladesh is likely to lose about 17 percent of coastlines to inundation as sea levels rise. About 30 million people will be forced to move inland – an estimated six million already have. That matters hugely to us too. They will after all, need somewhere to go. Those are just two examples of several hundred such cases.


Debt Pile-Up Rings Alert for South Asian Countries

There is now an acknowledged debt crisis. The Global Sovereign Debt Monitor 2022 estimates that 135 out of 148 countries surveyed in the Global South are critically indebted. 39 countries are described as particularly critically indebted. This is more than three times as many as before the pandemic.

With this made worse by climate change, research shows that the poorest countries spend five times more on debt repayment than on resilience to climate change, resulting in a closed loop of worsening economic situations, climate disasters and further debt. An ideal example lies next door. Pakistan’s severe flooding displaced 33 million people and pushed an already indebted country worse into debt.

An international donors conference pledged USD 10 billion, but Finance Minister Ishaq Dar revealed that 90 percent of this was in project loans, which have to be repaid, apart from which the money will only come in once Pakistan manages to deal with the International Monetary Fund ( IMF).

The IMF in turn is worried that Pakistan simply doesn’t have the revenues to pay its debt. A classic closed loop. Pakistan may be your enemy, but that’s another neighbour apart from Sri Lanka at the risk of collapse. That’s not good for you either. India’s Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman is more than aware of the risks of global debt vulnerabilities, and ensuing global recession which she highlighted during the summit.

India’s Solution to the World

She also linked this rather realistically to “social dimensions of development to tackle pressing challenges like inequality and learning losses”. There’s a little recognised casualty of being a poor country. The South has had to struggle with not just the economic dominance of the North, but also the intellectual and scientific overlordship.

That also meant that the best talent in these countries migrated to the North and the national capacities languished. That in turn meant that the ‘solutions’ offered for many of the South’s problems originated in the North, and were entirely unsuitable. One example is India’s ‘Green revolution’ which while it addressed the immediate problem of hunger in the country, lead to a long-term severe problem in wrong crop selection, heavy use of fertilisers, and degradation of the environment.

Today, changing those practises requires time and immense resources not to mention political capital. India has the institutions to manage this, but others don’t. Which is why the government is offering to share its expertise in digital tools – one of our success areas while other countries are invited to share their experiences.

With more or less the same broad problems, solutions could be more practical than that provided by the North. India is already involved with teaching Zambia for instance, on how to convert cotton byproducts into clean energy in an example of South-South cooperation. There is huge potential here that if implemented enthusiastically, could do much to stave off a looming global recession.

All of these issues are just the tip of the iceberg. What is needed is to convince the North that their wellbeing depends heavily on a degree of economic stability in the South. That requires the North to not just share intellectual resources to deal with the pandemic, but also putting an immediate stop to the war in Ukraine that is not just taking lives but is slowly grinding down global gears into reverse.

This needs a change in mindset in rich countries which see dominance as the ‘be all and end all’ of policy even as their own people suffer from rising costs. In all fairness, it also requires the elite in the South to rise above the narrow profit or political motive, to see clearly a simple fact – either we swim together or drown together. That could be taken quite literally.

The climate crisis in particular, means that there is really nowhere to hide. Those rising waters or howling winds could come from anywhere. There are really no privileged few. The G20 needs to make this their foundation stone to get anywhere.

(Dr Tara Kartha is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS). She tweets @kartha_tara. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Economy   Climate Change   G20 summit 

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