‘Development’ is only one lens through which to consider the geographies of the Global South?

This short paper attempts to explain why the Global South should not be examined only through the development theory alone. Development as a discipline and practice is based on two commitments: the principle of difference that the ‘Third World’ (in other words, the Global South) is different, therefore the Global South needs for a separate field of studies, and a principal of similarity which can be understood as a job of development policy to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’ (Corbridge.2007:179). I would argue that these two controversial principals not only have challenged theoretical and practical standing of development, but also have a real impact on how the Global South is represented by the Global North.

This paper relies on the assumption that Northern images of the Global South are based on Eurocentric beliefs. The Global North represents the Global South as a special and marginalized region with a big list of development problems. Such Northern representations of the South eliminates its cultural richness and diversity, excludes the study of the South from other social sciences disciplines and reinforces idea of Northern authority and Southern passivity (Williams et al. 2009: 2, 3, 10).

This work begins by reviewing development origins which pronounce a strong interconnectedness between development and geopolitics. It then provides a short analysis of the Northern images of the Global South and their (negative) impact on both the planning of development policy towards the South and the South agency itself. Likewise, it gives a critical approach to ‘modernity’ and ‘poverty’ concepts in the development theory and practice. Lastly, this paper comes to the conclusion, that the Global South should not be considered only through the lens of development theory alone and gives possible suggestions in response to this issue.


Development as a (geo)politic weapon

It is right that ‘development’ is not a single entity, but constantly contested set of aspirations (Williams et al. 2009:363). In fact, the concept(s) and practice(s) of development has been controversial and unstable since its beginning. The origins of Development studies are normally linked to the beginning of the Cold War era, and the broaden development doctrine is often interconnected with geopolitics (Corbridge.2007: 180). Gillian Hart refers to a meaning of so-called ‘big D’ Development as the Eurocentric ‘post-war international project’ of intentional intervention in the ‘Third World’ to promote and achieve ‘progress’, ‘modernity’ and ‘peace’ (Hart.2009:119,120). However, within the Cold War context, behind these pacifistic and morally praiseworthy goals international actors from the North, development and humanitarian interventions were often seen as a way to gain strategic power (Williams et al. 2009: 52, 53).

Conventionally, US President Truman’s inaugural speech on 20 January 1949 marks the beginning of this approach. Actually, Truman’s doctrine called for ‘the economic development of underdeveloped countries’ (Escobar.2012:4, 5). This new ‘developed/underdeveloped’ dichotomy conceived paternalistic relations between the Global North and the Global South (Rist. 2008: p71-75). Although the Cold War era reached the end, and the form of post-war development has changed at the great extent, the idea of this dichotomous terminology still plays tremendous role today not only in forming development policy, but also in creating negative Eurocentric images of the Global South.


Northern images of the Global South: Why representations matter?

To begin with, it is worth to note that Northern representations of the Global South are based on Eurocentric beliefs. As James Morris Blaut argues, Eurocentrism is a term used to show false claims made by Europeans, that their society is superior to all other societies and cultures. Europeans are seen as a ‘makers of history’, therefore European experience is a norm, while non-European experience is neglected or devaluated (Blaut. 1993:1, 10). In other words, Eurocentrism reinforces the idea of Northern authority and Southern passivity. Moreover, Northern international community believes in its moral duty to ‘save’ this region. (Williams et al. 2009: 3-5, 10).


For instance, Africa is often represented by the North as the ‘weak’, ‘misery’, ‘chaotic’, ‘deviant’, ‘failing’, ’with no real sovereignty’ continent (Power.2010: 433). In fact, such a demonized image by the North is used to represent the whole Global South (Williams et al. 2009: 3-5). As a result, these negative representations makes us believe that the Global South is unable to cope with its own problems, thus development interventions are seen as the best solution (Mercer et all.2003: 419, 421.).

However, it does not necessarily mean that a decision made by the North will be necessarily efficient and morally appropriate for the Global South. A good illustration of this is population control policies in the 1970s and 1980s posed by the international development organizations, including the World Bank. In order to extend and intensify women’s labour in the South, fertility control was seen as a main tool to reduce growing population rate. As a result, forcible sterilization and abortion of women started on a massive scale. Moreover, sterilizations have remained central to population policy in India, where sterilization makes up 75 per cent of India’s total contraceptive use (Wilson.2015: 813-816).


Concepts of Modernity and Poverty

Another problematic issue in terms of development theory and practice is the Eurocentric concept of modernity. The term ‘modernity’ can be defined within historical perspective as an ideology of successful Westernism. This implies that ‘progress’ and positive change can only be achieved in other societies by adoption values and experiences from the West. Thus, all other cultural values and orientations are simply neglected (Portes, 1973: 252). As Lwazi Siyabonga Lushaba argues, the idea of development as modernity is not only misleading, but in contrast, it is an obstacle towards the sufficient development improvements in Africa. The author emphasizes that Africa needs to construct its own modernity which is different from the West because a ‘carbon copy’ of the modern West, simple does not work (Lushaba. 2009: 3-5).


Development policy is mainly focused on poverty reduction, yet there is a conceptual debate how to measure poverty and improvements of ‘development’ itself. ‘Development’ is normally identified with the use of various indicates and statistics such Gross National Product (GNP), Gross National Income (GNI), Human Development Index (HDI), Human Poverty Index (HPI), Gender Development index (GDI) and etc (Maxwell, 1999: 1-4). However, as Amartya Sen argues, all these indicators and statistics are important but are means and not ends. In other words, they do not to properly reflect poverty, inequality and human development in the Global South (Sen.1999:35-38, 87-88).

Development Geography as a peripheral discipline

According to Rob Potter, development geography is namely defined as a ‘periphery’, while the part of the Geography which examines North American topics and areas, is identified as the ‘core’. As a result of this view, academic themes and topics which are directly concerned with the countries of the Global North are seen as theoretically more demanding and of greater social value, whereas very little concern is expressed to deal with the emerging issues from the South (Potter. 2001: 422-25). Consequently, the Global South remains under-represented in research, as marginalized and specified research category, which is often introduced via set of development problems (Williams et al. 2009: 2-3).

Read More The Causes of Underdevelopment in the Third world And Possibility for Human Development

Conclusions and Suggestions

The Global South should not be considered only through the development theory alone. First and foremost, it reinforces the idea of Northern authority and Southern passivity. Consequently, it denies the agency of the Global South and neglects the fact, that the South also can offer its own development alternatives. For instance, several recent development perspectives such as dependency theory, alternative development and human development have originated to a significant extent in the South (Pieterse. 2010: 178). As it was discussed previously, development models from the North does not necessarily are efficient or morally appropriate for the Global South, therefore it is important to consider emerging development models from the South.


Secondly, considering the Global South only through development theory alone, eliminates cultural richness and diversity of the Global South, and also excludes the study of the South from other social sciences disciplines. Thus, it is necessary to admit the importance of engaging with the histories and geographies of the South. Besides, I would argue that the geographies of the Global South should be studied through interdisciplinary approach. It might help us to break a stereotype that the whole Global South has one universal ‘identity’.

Lastly, I agree with Stuart Hall’s view that representations are important part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture. Moreover, such ‘system of representation’ maintains unequal relations of power and social inequalities. (Hall 1997: 15, 16). Hence, it is necessary to change negative imaginary of the Global South with a positive one. Even though it is a difficult and long lasting process, yet efforts to alter negative meanings to positive ones must go further (Baaz, 2005: 17-18).



Elvita Mertins
Doctoral Candidate, 
University of Bern


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