Understanding the Global South(s)

by Gary Corwin

The differences between the various regions of the Global South are real and significant in terms of their defining characteristics.

When I was a schoolboy growing up in the late 1950s the world was shaken, and school curricula were dramatically altered to emphasize math and science. Why? Because the Soviets launched a small first-ever satellite in 1957 known as Sputnik. In those days, we spoke of the West, the Communist World, and a thing known as the “Third World”—a catchall phrase to describe every country that was not part of either the West or the Communist World.

Over time, it came to be recognized that “Third World” was uncomplimentary at best. It defined a part of the world only in terms of what it was not. It wasn’t a primary player in world affairs, only a playground for the big players. Consciences being pricked in the matter, academics began to speak of the “Two-Thirds World,” a term at least acknowledging the size and breadth of this part of the world. “Majority World” soon followed as an equally acceptable alternative with a similar emphasis. More recently, “Global South” has been added to the stable of acceptable terms.

While attending an international conference in East Africa recently, it dawned on me that this term, too, has a major problem. It was clear from the discussions at this conference that what we speak of as the Global South is way too diverse to be spoken of in many discussions as one entity. There is not just the Global South, but Global Souths. The differences between the various regions of the Global South are real and significant in terms of their defining characteristics. Whether one is speaking of Africa, Latin America, East Asia, or West Asia and the Middle East, each sees things differently, and they often have competing emphases because of their particular history, cultural distinctives, and current circumstances.

It was clear at the conference, for example, that Africa, because of her particular history and circumstances, is dealing with issues of healing and engagement that the other regions are not. Her colonial past and current conditions of corruption and underdevelopment conspire together powerfully to nourish feelings of anger, inferiority, and often despair. The challenges that drive agendas in Africa, therefore, have more to do with discovering and implementing workable structures and international relationships (and thereby having a chance to raise the living standards of its citizens) than in tweaking existing structures and relationships to improve the continent’s relative standing. The Church in Africa is pervasive and perhaps the most effective institution on the continent. It has awakened to its cross-cultural mission calling; however, it lacks a strong track record of discipleship and cultural transformation. It also faces the powerful and ever-present threat of Islamic violence.

In Latin America, there are still issues of underdevelopment and bad government; though in most places, the basic institutions of society are in place and at least functioning to provide essential human services. The big question for Latin America is how to move to the next level. There is a growing confidence and even an excitement about the possibilities for continued progress, but also an acknowledgement that something has held them back for too long. For many, that something has been a pervasive and perniciously negative Iberian Catholic worldview that sees the existing hierarchies of society and church as God-ordained and inviolable. It is only as worldview transformation takes place and more Protestant and modern ways of thinking continue to grow in society that views of limited good (i.e., the economic pie doesn’t grow; no one can get ahead without taking from someone else) will be overcome and entrepreneurial optimism will be unleashed. The Church in Latin America is vital and growing, but has not yet fully caught the vision for its transformational role. It has caught the vision for global mission, and continues to increase its involvement annually.

Unlike both Africa and Latin America, one senses in East Asia that a deeply engrained entrepreneurial spirit is being unleashed. It is true economically where more and more “Asian Tigers” are becoming dominant players on the global scene. They are the predominant manufacturers in many industries, and are penetrating many markets once thought the private domain of Western firms. It is also true with regard to global missions where Koreans, Filipinos, the Chinese Diaspora, and others represent the growth engine of the mission enterprise.

Finally, West Asia and the Middle East (including most of Central Asia) represents an area that more than anything is struggling under structures of religio-political oppression, with people yearning for personal, economic, and religious freedom. Where the gospel has penetrated there is hope, but almost invariably there is also great persecution and suffering. But circumstances are dynamic, and God delights to turn things around when they look their darkest.

Indeed, the Global South is not one. It is a dynamic collective of Souths that show great promise in becoming leading movers and shakers in this century—politically, economically, and in the work of the gospel—but each will make its own particular and distinctive mark.


Gary Corwin  is associate editor of EMQ and staff missiologist with the international office of Serving in Mission (SIM).

EMQ Vol. 46, No. 2, pp. 134-135. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS. 


Related Articles

Welcoming the Stranger

Presenter: Matthew Soerens, US Director of Church Mobilization, World Relief Description: Refugee and immigration issues have dominated headlines globally recently. While many American Christians view these…

Upcoming Events