Global North

A Global North/South Division in the Demic Framework?

As has been argued previously on GeoCurrents, the commonplace notion that the world is starkly divided between a prosperous and powerful “global north” and an impoverished and underdeveloped “global south” (with Australia and New Zealand forming southern outposts of the north) receives little support from world maps of socio-economic development. As can be seen in the state-based map of per capita GDP (PPP) posted below, the so-called global south is a diverse zone, containing relatively wealthy as well as extremely poor countries. As a result, the south fails to cohere as a region; in terms of virtually all development indicators, a well-off southern country such Chile is much closer to such northern regions as southeastern Europe than it is to central Africa. Most socio-economic maps constructed in the demic framework are even less supportive of the notion of a fundamental latitudinal divide. As the demic map of per capita GDP posted below indicates, the real zone of poverty is focused in tropical Africa and the northern part of southern Asia, rather than in a hypothetical globe-spanning south.

Such maps, however, do not tell the whole story. Statistical information can be mapped in many different ways depending on how the data are categorized. By playing with different modes of division, one can generate a diverse set of maps, some of which might uncover patterns that otherwise remain hidden. As it turns out, the database used in the Demic Atlas can indeed produce maps replicating the north-south global divide. Such a pattern is not pronounced, as it takes careful manipulation of the underlying information to expose it. Yet its presence is notable, and hence deserves consideration.

Most of the maps posted in GeoCurrents last week were based on the division of the data into quantiles. Quantiles break up a dataset to yield subsets of equal size; as the same number of units is slotted into each category on quantile maps, relatively well-balanced depictions generally result. In the Demic Atlas, seven such divisions were employed for most maps, as experimental evidence suggests that most people cannot readily differentiate more than seven values in a color spectrum. Although the seven-fold quantile design seems to be the most useful general vehicle for mapping global development, it is not without its problems. Most significantly, it under-represents the discrepancy between the poor and wealthy parts of the world. In absolute terms, the per capita GDP figures of areas placed in the middle categories on the quantile maps are closer to those of the countries on the low end of the spectrum than they are to those of the countries on the high end.

One alternative method of dividing data is that based on “equal intervals.” In this system, the value ranges of each category are of equal numerical scope, set at the same regular intervals regardless of how many units fall into each category. If, for example, the lowest figure in a five-category dataset is 1 and the highest is 100, the first category will cover the numerical range between 1 and 20, the second between 21 and 40, and so on. If most elements of the dataset are clustered in one part of the range, the resulting map may appear quite unbalanced, with several of its categories forming null sets, with no members.

Due to such data clumping, depicting global per capita GDP in equal intervals in a state-based framework yields an uninstructive map. As can be seen in the image to the left, almost the entire world appears impoverished in a seven-fold equal-interval scheme, with most countries falling into the lowest category. Although unsuitable for general purposes, this map does illustrate one important aspect of the global distribution of wealth among polities: a small handful of small countries and dependencies are vastly wealthier than the rest, at least in terms of per capita GDP. Qatar in particular, with its small population and vast reserves of oil and natural gas, towers above most of the world’s richest countries, with a per capita GDP that the CIA regards as almost four times greater than that of the United States. As the detailed map of Europe and the greater Middle East shows, Qatar, Luxembourg, and Lichtenstein monopolize the high-end categories in such a portrayal.

As the demic framework eliminates small countries by merging them with their neighbors, it allows much more effective equal-interval mapping. In the demic equal-interval depiction of per capita GDP (PPP) placed at the top of the post, large expanses of land fall into the upper categories, but even larger areas end up in the lowest grouping. The middle categories, in contrast, are sparsely occupied.

As a quick comparison with the small inset map indicates, the resulting categorization scheme conforms well with the conventional north/south global division. Whereas almost all regions to the south of the heavy black line fall into the bottom two categories (the only exceptions being Regions 19 [Arabian Peninsula] and 47 [Jiangsu and Shanghai]), none of the regions to the north of the line do. The line itself, moreover, falls almost exactly along the north/south division as it is conventionally mapped. The only differences here are the demic map’s placement of southeastern Europe and Israel in the global south and of Kazakhstan and Mongolia in the global north.

Although a north/south global split can be derived from the demic database, it would be unwise to read more into this division than is warranted. As explained above, the global south remains invisible in almost all other methods of mapping the data, whether in the state-based or the demic framework. More important, most of the north is currently exhibiting slow rates of economic growth, and has been for several years, whereas many southern countries, particularly China and India, are moving rapidly forward. If current trends continue, the north/south divide will vanish even on the equal-interval demic map within the coming decade.

There Is No Third World; There Is No Global South

In the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, scholars divided the earth into three parts: the First World, the Second World, and the Third World. The reigning “three worlds theory,” however, was conceptually incoherent, combining incommensurate geopolitical and socio-economic features. The “First World” encompassed all industrialized, democratic countries, which were assumed to be allied with the United States in its struggle against the Soviet Union. Yet not all were: Finland and Switzerland, among others, maintained strict neutrality. The “Second World” was anchored on the industrialized, communist realm of the Soviet Union and its eastern European satellites, yet it often included poor communist states located elsewhere. The “Third World,” was defined simultaneously as the non-aligned world and as the global realm of poverty and under-development. Poor Soviet allies – Mongolia, Cuba, North Korea, and North Vietnam (after 1975, Vietnam)– were thus counted as Third World in economic terms and as Second World in political terms. China’s Cold War situation was even more ambiguous; a non-industrialized country at the time, it ceased to be a Soviet ally in 1961, and by the 1980s was no longer an enemy of the United States. Yet it continued to be commonly mapped as part of the Second World.

The very concept of non-alignment, moreover, was always murky. Third World countries, non-aligned by definition, actually made many alliances with the United States and the Soviet Union, although such linkages were often unstable and shifting. When Somalia was a client of the Soviet Union, Ethiopia was allied with the U.S.; when a communist insurrection gained power in Ethiopia in 1974, both countries switched sides.

The Three-World model is thus difficult to map, as its categories were inherently ambiguous. The Wikipedia map posted above attempts to solve the puzzle by considering only geopolitical criteria. Even so, it does not do justice to its subject matter. To begin with, it is anachronistic, depicting both China (pre 1961) and a united Vietnam (post 1975) as Soviet allies. Its depiction of Yugoslavia and Albania as Soviet allies is incorrect, as is its portrayal of Switzerland, Sweden, and Finland as American allies. It also errs in labeling as “neutral” such “Third World” supporters of the United States as Thailand and the Philippines.

The Second World, by any definition, ceased to exist between 1989 and 1991, when the Soviet system collapsed. With the Second World gone, the three-words model no longer made any sense. But the conception persisted in truncated form, with the First and Third “Worlds” retaining currency. A Google news search for “Third World” returns over 3,000 hits; a recent Time Magazine “exclusive” tells us that “Bill and Melinda Gates Set Record Straight About Third World Countries.” The terminology lives on because the underlying model has been stripped of its geopolitical content. According to Wikipedia, “[Third World] continues to be used colloquially to describe the poorest countries in the world.” Actually, the current “colloquial” usage is much broader than that. A second Wikipedia map posted above, this one depicting the post-Cold War world, tells us that such well-to-do countries as Oman and Malaysia are “usually considered Third World,” and that such truly wealthy countries as Kuwait and Qatar are “sometimes considered Third World.”

A more considered response to the demise of the Second World was to adopt new terms for the socio-economically divided planet, differentiating a wealthy “Global North” from an impoverished “Global South.” The resulting north-south split, however, was never as geographically fixed as its terms imply; Australia and New Zealand were always regarded as southern outliers of the North. But the model still rests on a fundamental latitudinal division. As the third Wikipedia map posted above clearly shows, high latitude countries are classified as wealthy and developed, while almost all countries south of 30 degrees north are categorized as “poorer and developing.” At least the map allows an honorary northern position for equatorial Singapore, which is not the case for Wikipedia as a whole. An October 26, 2010 Economic Times article outlines the on-line encyclopedia’s push into the “Global South,” which is defined by Wikipedia’s leaders as encompassing all of Asia bar Japan.

The North-South global divide appeals because is straightforward and simple, helping to make sense out of a messy world – or so one might hope. In actuality, it is highly misleading. A literal reading of the Wikipedia map, for examples, tells us that the Kuwait, Brunei, and Qatar – with respective per capita GDP* levels of $38,000, $48,000, and $78,000 – are poor developing countries, and that Armenia, Moldova, Kosovo – with respective per capita GDP levels at $5,000, $2,800, and $2,300, and – are wealthy developed countries. Like is classified with unlike, and nonsense results.

The world is indeed marked by stark divisions between prosperous and impoverished areas. Such divisions, however, are far too complex to be captured in any simply bifurcation of the globe. Over the few postings, Geocurrents will explore global socio-economic disparities in more detail, trying to make better sense of the geography of wealth and poverty.

* Given in purchasing power parity, as measured by the IMF in 2009.