Don’t Romanticize the Global South

Yes, I had seen The Buddha of Suburbia, in which white English couples fall under the spell of the false mysticism of a bluffing “guru” in Bromley. I had read Paul Théroux on the power of the African continent to “bewitch the credulous”. It was only later, however, as a working and outgoing adult, that I saw up close (and profited from) the Western romanticization of – now, what shall we call it?

The “third world” is rude. “Developing world” implies that all countries have the same teleological destiny. The “Global South”, though it will have to, is geographical nonsense, encompassing as it does India and the Northern Hemisphere Middle East. In the end, the name of the place is less at issue here than the goodwill, the moral benefit of the doubt, that it tends to get from rich-world liberals.

Or, at least, used to get. No event in this century has done as much as the war in Ukraine to expose the difference in outlook between the West and—another inappropriate phrase—the “rest”. Anglosphere, European and Japanese sanctions should not be confused with a real global front against Vladimir Putin. In the latest Democracy Perceptions Index, an international survey, Russia maintains a distinctly positive reputation in Egypt, Vietnam, India and other countries that elicit fuzzy feelings in a certain type of Western bosom. As for Morocco, another staple of the gap year track, Ukraine recalled its ambassador in March after failing to garner enough support from him. Pro-Russian protests have erupted in West and Central Africa.

All of this is well within the prerogative of what are, after all, sovereign countries. It’s also not that hard to explain. Some of it stems from their resentment of the West’s own record of conquest, from Robert Clive to young George Bush. The rest reflects a cold national interest, and there is no shame in that. Russia is a valuable patron.

But if these nations are free to make their own judgments, so is the West. He could respond to the current crisis by getting rid of his sentimental illusions about (another fifth term for him) the “majority world”.

I know this sentimentality as alone could be a frequent beneficiary. The innocuous side is a kind of cultural dabbling: half-understood oriental fads, “challenging” holidays instead of Antibes again. But it can very quickly go from there to the soft racism of keeping non-white nations at a lower moral level.

I can’t be the only one who knows someone who boycotted the United States during the Trump years while visiting semi-democracies and gay kingdoms with a clear conscience. In the aftermath of the empire, it made sense to attribute a special virtue to recently subjugated peoples, even if VS Naipaul saw this through. Maintaining it forever starts to feel like its own kind of paternalism.

With luck, the war will be a time of clarification. Decolonization, apartheid, Live Aid, Drop the Debt: Western liberals have been able to live a human life without going against the Global South on a big moral issue. (AIDS denial in Africa at the turn of the millennium is the closest thing to an exception.)

The last few months have put an end to this convenient run. To defend Ukraine now, you have to be ready to bring down the halo of many countries. It means wading through half a century of postcolonial theory about the place of moral authority in the world. It is easy, and fair, to implore countries like France and Germany to do more for Ukraine. It is more transgressive to suggest that poorer nations are cavalier in their attitude toward the world order or selective in their opposition to imperialism.

But we must transgress. It is the truest of egalitarianisms. The ongoing project to find a collective name for the poorest countries shows how sensibilities have opposed truth and outspokenness. That this is a nuisance to the West hardly needs to be said. The most important point is that the Global South is also losing due to infantilization. Nothing is as primary as being treated like an adult.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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