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Updated: November 5, 2013 00:03 IST

A dream for the South

K. Subramanian
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The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of Global South: Vijay Prashad; LeftWord Books, 2254/2A Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, New Delhi-110008. Rs. 600.
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The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of Global South: Vijay Prashad; LeftWord Books, 2254/2A Shadi Khampur, New Ranjit Nagar, New Delhi-110008. Rs. 600.

If the North-South Dialogue has morphed into a weary, wavering story bordering on irrelevance, it is a sign of hope that there are a few historians like Professor Vijay Prashad who try to correct the record. He is a Professor of International Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, U.S. He published in 2007 The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, and the present book is a follow-up to that book. In both, his endeavour is to record history from a Southern perspective, since current literature, mostly by Western authors, “masks the Northern perspective and interests of much of this history-writing.” As Boutros Boutros Gali, former Secretary General of the United Nations, says in his foreword, “This volume is a major contribution to the institutional history of the South, made by someone from the South who has the developing countries’ situation and cause close to his heart.”

Yes, he writes stridently with passion fused with moral anger. He unravels many issues, negotiations, global forums, groups and manoeuvres which were not analysed in earlier tomes on North-South discourse. One critic describes the book as, “the post-modern, digital follow-up to Franz Fanon’s classic, The Wretched of the Earth.” However, an informed reader, after reading it, will keep it aside with some bewilderment.

Indeed the book is scholarly, but it fails to measure up as a contribution which enhances our understanding of the North-South impasse. And this, despite valuable insights and archival material unearthed by the author. In his eagerness to advocate the cause of the South, Prashad transgresses the restraint and balance expected of an academician. He has a way of seeing ghosts falling from Northern cupboards all the time to spoil the party. He is not trapped by “conspiracy” theories but comes dangerously close to them. True, he does not spare governments and leaders from the South for their failures, especially their “accommodative” mindset or lack of common purpose during negotiations. While he is rather mild or muted in criticising Southern leaders, he is unsparing in hurling harsh epithets at the West and leaders from the G-7.

Prashad provides a broad framework of his study in the Introduction and the first chapter. He makes adulatory references to the rising tide of the South in post-War years through movements such as the non-aligned movement (NAM), their demands for a New International Economic Order (NIEO), and other organisations such as OPEC and UNCTAD under the leadership of Raul Prebisch pressing for commodity indexation and so on. These are captured under the panoply of “The Third World Project.” The West had not yet abandoned its social democratic tradition and showed signs of a modus vivendi with the South. The Brandt Commission was the last hurrah of such efforts, and before the Commission could complete its report, the tide had turned.

By 1975, the G-7 consisting of advanced countries had come on the global stage to act together and set the new international order. Atlantic Liberalism gave way to neoliberalism and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the end of the Cold War, there was no countervailing power which could arrest Western dominance. Washington Consensus became the ruling mantra and displaced all notions of other alternatives to development. “Rather than a South-led New International Economic Order, the world had to live with a North-led New International Property Order.” The IMF and the World Bank had assumed primacy and structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) had become the instruments to discipline the developing countries. Many of them got trapped in debt, and debt-rescheduling by the IMF/Bank led to the reinvigoration of SAPs. The Third World Project was “assassinated by the enforced debt crisis.” Alongside, aid strategies such as through the Paris Club were put through in close coordination with the Fund/Bank, and thereby reduced the negotiating capabilities of developing countries. It was also possible to break the ranks of Southern economies through offers of concessional packages and trade concessions. Latin American countries could be pitted against Asian ones, or Asian countries against Middle Eastern ones. Meanwhile, the WTO had been brought onto the stage to bring about a new world trade order with patent protection and so on.

This is a grim story and has been told several times over. Prashad provides an account which is rather lurid and stylized, and creates an impression that the whole process was preset and orchestrated by the G-7. Yes, the G-7 played a domineering role, was better coordinated, and steered the course. But the way Prashad describes the record does violence to facts and interactions over the years. In many ways, the G-7 itself was not united all the time and in all its efforts. Often there were internecine conflicts between Europe and the U.S. and between France and the U.S. and between EU and other countries. This was evident when dollar parity was given up and freedom was given to float rates. In the WTO also there are differences between the EU and the U.S. on trade, patent and tariff issues. There are as many cases filed against the U.S. by the EU as by China against the EU. In the end, the G-7 is able to resolve its differences and meet the South which is not so united.

We may not overlook other developments. The developing countries began to move away from the harsh conditionalities imposed by the Fund and built their own reserves or borrowed from global banks. It led to the marginalisation of the IMF and created budgetary stringency for the IMF. Ultimately it had to sell its stock of gold to meet its administrative expenses. It was the eruption of the economic crisis in 2008 and the blessings of G-20 that gave a new lease of life to the IMF. The demands to democratise Fund management continue and the battle seems long indeed. Even this is an issue where Europe is at loggerheads with the U.S.

Neo-liberalism and Washington Consensus are in retreat, and this is one of the benign consequences of the ongoing economic crisis. The IMF itself had to modify or moderate its ‘austerity’ prescriptions while dealing with the Euro crisis. Unfortunately, an alternative economic model for global development is yet to be evolved


The weakness of the South, apart from others described earlier, was that leaders did not have concrete alternative proposals to counter the G-7. Prashad brings this out commendably in the second chapter (The conundrums of the South). He has unearthed valuable material from the South-South Commission’s archives and provides a revealing account of the differences which tormented its Chairman Julius Nyerere. Many of us tend to think that the South-South Commission recommended radical steps to promote the South. This was not so. As he says, “It may appear odd that the South Commission would end its search for a new path at the door of neo-liberalism or to be precise, of Neo-liberalism with Southern Characteristics.” Dr. Manmohan Singh who was the Secretary General of the Commission is portrayed as a pliable intellectual who was on the side of neoliberalism. No wonder he could return to India and steer the reform agenda in 1991.

There is a chapter on South-South cooperation supplying scenarios on the South becoming locomotives for growth in the North. Manmohan Singh said in a speech in May 1989: “The new locomotive forces have to be found within the South. South-South cooperation is therefore crucial.” He and some other intellectuals were swayed by the rise of the Newly Industrialising countries (NICs) in East Asia.

How will this cooperation come about? It leads Prashad on to narrating new groupings such as IBSA and BRICS and their interactions on the global stage. At the end of a detailed account, he takes a dim view: “None of these states have demonstrated an appetitive to challenge the neoliberal policy agenda of the North.” However, they have been able to resist the attempts of the North to shape the trade environment more fundamentally to the advantage of transnational corporation’s vis-à-vis the farmers and miners of mineral and primary products in the South.

The last chapter differs from the rest of the book and holds out a dream for the South that is regional. Prashad provides a rich and stirring account of risings and revolts in several parts of the world, and captures the revolutionary fervour. He falls back on the theoretical framework of Professor Prabhat Patnaik and feels how these may provide a base for social reformation. As the author himself admits, it is a dream. It is more like a retreat into latter-day spiritualism.

(K. Subramanian is a former civil servant)

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