A Southern Renaissance?

The United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2013 bore the enthusiastic title, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. The UN agency felt that the Global South had finally arrived in economic terms, and that in time it would make political inroads against a system that has been suborned to the needs of the Global North. It is certainly the case that China's economy has a high growth rate and that the various international agencies (such as the IMF) predict that within a decade or two it will have the world's largest economy. What is often forgotten in these predictions is that while China might have the largest economy in terms of its GDP, its population size means that it will not have the highest per capital GDP. That honour will continue to belong elsewhere. This is the reason why China continues to insist that it is a developing country, despite having the second largest GDP among the world's states. No question that China and India have emerged as major economic power houses, but their own internal vulnerabilities are considerable, including poverty rates, unemployment rates and most dramatically starvation rates. The South might be rising, but the questions that need to be raised are what kind of rise are we seeing, and what kind of political impact shall this have?

Growth rates are by themselves not sufficient indicators of the health of a country. China has the second highest GDP according to the IMF, but a glance at the 2013 Human Development Indicators (HDI) places China at no. 101. India is no. 10 in terms of GDP, but sits at no. 137 on the HDI list. The HDI is produced out of a consideration of education, life expectancy, literacy, quality of life and standard of living. It is a much more robust indicator of social advancement than the GDP. Growth rates can be high at the same time as inequality widens dramatically, as the neo-liberal path to development shows us, and as The Rise of the South acknowledges ("For many of the rapidly growing countries of the South, the population living in multidimensional poverty exceeds that living in income poverty. And income inequality is on the rise in many countries").1

Alternative pathways are needed that increase growth but also lessen inequalities and improve the well-being of the population. There is little evidence now that the Global South has elected an alternative growth agenda. What it has done is to benefit from high commodity prices and wage arbitrage to grow sections of the economy. One of the most interesting insights of The Rise of the South is the lesson absorbed from Algeria, Brazil and Mexico's ability to grow and to raise human development indicators. The authors show that what paid human development dividends was a strategy that gives "primacy to state investment in people's capabilities—especially their health, education and nutrition—and making their societies more resilient to economic, environmental and other threats and shocks." The link between growth and human development "needs to be forged through pro-poor policies by concurrently investing in health and education, expanding decent jobs, preventing the depletion and overexploitation of natural resources, ensuring gender balance and equitable income distribution and avoiding displacement of  communities." There is much to be learned in this list.2 It forms the core of a progressive agenda for an alternative agenda of the Global South.

What The Rise of the South does not attend to is the development strategy produced by the Bolivarian dynamic, which to my mind includes not only Venezuela and Bolivia, but also Brazil. The methodology of the UNDP report takes states as separate entities whose domestic policy sets the tone for their development. There are hints of the importance of regional policy frameworks (viz. the box on the Latin American Bank) but nothing more than that. The most innovative agendas of the present moment from the Global South emerge out of Latin America as a whole, where their frameworks—Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)—have used the commodity power of the continent and their own ideological resilience to produce domestic and regional policies that are pro-poor and pro-development. BancoSur (the Bank of the South), TeleSur (the television channel of the region), the Sucre (the virtual currency of the region) and other such platforms brought the states closer together economically, politically and socially.

The political space created by the regional ties, allowed the Venezuelans, for instance, to shift their development strategy dramatically. The Bolivarian Government increased social spending by 61 per cent. This money was not turned over as individual transfer payments. It was used carefully to harness the social lives of the population. The Chavez government set up various misiones (missions) along the grain of the rights enshrined in the 1999 constitution. For example, in 2003 the government set up three missions (Robinson, Ribas and Sucre) to send educators into low-income areas to provide free literacy and higher education courses. The Mission Zamora took in hand the process of land reform, and the Mission Vuelta al Campo sought to encourage people to return to the countryside from the slumlands of the cities. Mission Mercal provided low-cost high-quality food to help wean the population off highly processed imported foodstuff, while the Mission Barrio Adentro sought to provide low-cost, high­quality medical care to the working class and poor. It was through the work of these Missions that Venezuela's people saw a decline in poverty rates by 37.6per cent from 1999 to the present (the decline of extreme poverty is stunning: from 16.6per cent in 1999 to 7per cent in 2011, a 57.8per cent decline; if you begin the measurement from 2004, when the Missions had begun to have an impact, the decline is by 70per cent). Venezuela, one of the harshest unequal social orders prior to 1999, is now one of the least unequal societies; the Gini coefficient dropped by 54per cent per cent, indicating the impact that these basic social policies have had on everyday life.3

The UNDP report is correct—the Global South has begun to rise. What is in question, however, is which agenda from the South will be most able shift the suffocation of neo­liberalism for an alternative direction. One of the great tasks of the Global South's emissaries in the UN system is to ensure that the discussion of the rise of the South does not happen in a celebratory or a dismissive fashion but takes place with a seriousness of purpose that attends to the values of social emancipation rather than of conspicuous consumption. This is itself a political choice, and one of the great lessons of the earlier era of the South's rise (as the Third World, 1955-1973), was that the "rise" does not happen absent major political debates over the way the world order must be organized and about how development should be conceived.

Notes

1 United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World, (UNDP, New York) 2013, p.14.

2 Ibid, p. 64.

3 Ozgur Orhangazi, "Contours of Alternative Policy Making in Venezuela," Review of Radical Political Economics, vol. XX, no. X, 2013.