North-South, A Question Of Imbalance

The international economic system

Throughout history our world has been the subject of multiple divisions. Romans divided the world into the Roman Empire and the Barbarian World; after the voyages of Columbus, people spoke about the New and the Ancient Worlds; an "iron curtain" was built to separate Eastern from Western Europe at the end of the Second World War; and more recently we have begun speaking about the world divided into the North and the South.

What other divisions can you think of?

This differentiation between the North and the South does not refer to the geographical situation of each country in relation to the Equator, (Australia is economically in the North!), but to a much more complex economic and political situation.

Only a small minority of this planet's inhabitants enjoy the benefits of this smaller world we referred to earlier: technological advances and consumption levels which surpass basic needs. The terms "North" and "South" are generalisations, and there are lots of differences among countries from each group. But it is undeniable that the real frontier dividing the North from the South is poverty. Although poverty exists also in the Northern countries, the situation of their poor could sometimes be viewed as a privilege compared to those in poverty in the South. Go to the sections on Globalisation and Poverty in Compass for further discussion of these issues.

What is your idea of poverty? How many people live in poverty near you?

While much of the world experienced sustained economic growth in the 1990s, 54 developing countries suffered average income declines over the course of the decade, reveals the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report 2003. Most of the countries that were poorer in 2000 than in 1990 are in sub-Saharan Africa. When a country is "under developed", this means that it loses the ability to dictate its own development; it has to depend economically and culturally on other countries.

What is "development"? What is "growth"? Who sets the criteria?

This situation of poverty has not occurred naturally: in many cases the countries concerned have more natural resources than those of the developed countries and in the past they had thriving economies. So, what are the reasons for this unequal and unjust situation? At the risk of over simplification, it may be said that these countries' situation stems from the international system that dominates politically and, above all, economically, our world.

An imbalance everyone of us helps to maintain

After the Second World War the present international economic order was created by a small number of "Northern" countries. These countries imposed rules and created structures that reflected their interests (for example, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, trade agreements...) and made use of resources that were not theirs... In a few words: they designed a system by which the development of the few was supported by the poverty of the majority.

Other, subtler forms of dependency became the norm and their main expression can be found in the concept of foreign debt, which burdens most of the developing countries. The countries of the South became trapped into a system of having to exploit and sell their primary resources in order to pay for machinery and technology.

Many countries are in the very difficult position of paying huge proportions of government income to service their foreign debt. Who do you think is responsible for such situations? What do you think of the global campaign to "Drop the Debt" - which would mean cancelling the foreign debt of the world's poorest countries?*

Basic inequality of the economic system, civil wars (Rwanda, El Salvador...), environmental disasters (desertification, earthquakes), famine and a strong increase in the level of population (particularly in Africa) all combine to produce a dramatic situation. Increasing numbers of people have been forced to take a painful if not traumatic decision: to leave their homes, emigrate or seek asylum. They do this to survive, despite being aware of the difficulties involved in living in a foreign country.

What do you think is the difference between "a migrant", "a refugee" and "a displaced person"?

In January 2004, the number of people "of concern" to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees was 20,556,781 (in 1974 the figure was 2.4 million) - that is roughly one out of every 300 people on the planet. Can you imagine what these figures really mean in terms of human tragedy? Increasingly, in the North, our attention has been diverted away from the South: particularly in Europe we have been looking at ourselves.

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