This post was written by James Busumtwi-Sam, Member of the Project Management Team and Project Advisory Committee as well as Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University.
Faced with complexity, it is often prudent to simplify. To that end, we have invented concepts like “left” and “right” as tools to better understand politics, and use broad categories like “middle class” or “below the poverty line” to build manageable categories out of unwieldy continuums. In some instances, these simplifications help us to make sense of the context in which our busy lives unfold. In other cases, they obscure important dimensions of reality, generate unrealistic perceptions of the world and throw up barriers to achieving a more equitable, just and sustainable global society. The portrayal of the world in terms of a “global north” and a “global south” is a case in point.
According to Jon Tinker, founder of the Panos Network and Executive Director of the Panos Institute of Canada, the concept of a global “north” and “south” is a relic of a bygone era. In the wake of the Second Word War, as communism spread and the powers of Western Europe and North America moved to check its expansion, it became useful to think in terms of a world divided between the First World West, the Second World East and the Third World South. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Warsaw Pact, the Second World was dropped and a simplistic two-part vision of the world remained.
Jon Tinker thinks it’s high time this conceptual hand-me-down is tossed in the dustbin of history. He points out that the “North and South are no longer broadly distinct and homogeneous groups. Today, they are overlapping and heterogeneous categories, with at best only a historical validity” He argues that, while the “North/South lens” was sometimes useful to the social justice and development movements, ultimately “using [it] is not just lazy. It’s dangerous. It hinders us from seeing, let alone addressing, today’s unjust and socially unsustainable imbalances of power and wealth.”