The global south could’ve had its own economic club

If the South had forged the economic solidarity and bargaining power, it should not have needed these new clubs.
If the South had forged the economic solidarity and bargaining power, it should not have needed these new clubs.


It would be useful to remind ourselves of our earlier effort to bring together economies of the southern hemisphere into an economic club.

It is important that at this particular time when there is so much discussion and hope surrounding the fact that India has stepped into presidency of the G20—comprising a mix of ‘rich’ Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Korea, China and not-so-rich Mexico, India, Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia—that we recall an earlier attempt that was made in 1987 to bring together some of the economies of the South into a ‘club’.

This was the South Commission that was set up in 1987 and worked from 1987 to 1990, and published a report with ideas, prescriptions for uniting and strengthening the countries now called the Global South. The commission was chaired by former president of Tanzania Julius Nyerere, and its member secretary, and also lead writer, was India’s former prime minister Manmohan Singh. I was one among its 26 members. The others were mostly former finance ministers or bankers from their countries . Some six of us could be called economists: Gamini Correa from Sri Lanka, Solita Collas-Monsod from the Phillipines, Celso Furtado from Brazil , Michael Manley from Jamaica and Eduardo Navaratte from Mexico.

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We visited countries of the south and met their leaders and people to get a pulse of how to escape the mesh of colonization, learn from local experiences, gain strength from our ideas and offer a united front. At the end of three years, the commission presented its report with recommendations on how we could slough off colonization and create our own economic philosophy and strategies to overcome poverty and other disabilities.

The idea of a dedicated commission that would bring together economies of the south to form a ‘club’ or ‘union’ to negotiate collectively with the rest of the world was inspired by an initiative taken by Willy Brandt, former chancellor of Germany. The work of the Brandt Commission had led to the publication of a report that led to the development of the European Union. This ‘club’ was helped along by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), whose research wing was like a lighthouse that guided the EU on policy and developed responses to external economic impulses that would protect its interests .

In many ways, the South Commission hoped to create a similar framework, with an institutional set-up for former colonies to strengthen south-south trade and take a collective bargaining approach in world affairs.

We had diverse experiences in the countries we visited. In Mozambique, we were horrified to hear what Portuguese colonizers had done. For example, when they liberated it after decades of what they called “ownership", there was only one educated person in the whole country, a station master in Maputo. They also cut pipelines under buildings, leaving infrastructure unusable. Another example of such devastation was the condition of Benin, once a French colony. I was taken aback to see citizens living in thatched rooms held up by stilts in dirty waterways, and naked children with flies all over them. We also spent a week in Cuba as personal guests of Fidel Castro, whose government had set up impressive health services for people. Cuba also made medical equipment for export to the USSR and other ideologically-close countries.

Thus, there was much learning on how to build solidarity among former colonies. The report was published as a book, Challenge to the South, by Oxford University Press in 1990. On mutual trade, an illustration that Nyerere would use was related to trucks. He would argue that even if a truck from Germany was cheaper than one from Mahindra in India, African countries should buy Mahindra vehicles, as former colonies had to encourage each other’s efforts.

Alas, although brilliant ideas for self-strengthening and mutual help were designed, this effort led by some of the most dedicated and politically alert individuals of the south, heads of state as well as economists and bankers, couldn’t deliver what it was supposed to. If we in the South had, in fact, forged the kind of economic solidarity and bargaining power that the report spelt out a formula for, drawing from our own strengths, we should not have needed these new clubs—with a mix of rich and poor countries—that are now being launched.

While the view of the world today and the pulse of economies within it have little time for the spirit of the anti-colonial premises of the South Commission, recalling the political perspective and passion of earlier ‘clubs’ might offer us a word of caution as we glamourize the forthcoming gathering of the G20. In any case, the political-economy philosophy of this new club of 20 would be very different. It is a mix of advanced economies and others, and it seems to me, without the strum of liberation as a holding theme, it would have no ideological direction.

For all the effort that India will put in to make this club’s agenda a success, it would be useful to remind ourselves of our earlier effort to bring together economies of the southern hemisphere (excluding those of rich Australia and New Zealand) into an economic club. Mutual hand-holding , even if it does not go by the rules of a free market, could begin our emancipation.

Devaki Jain was a member of the South Commission (1987-90).

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