“The world is a funny little place”, I thought to myself as I stood on the equator earlier today. If I take one step to the left then I am in the Northern Hemisphere, the land of: Santa Clause, trolls, wealth and affluence. If I take one step to the right then I am in the Southern Hemisphere, the land of: rugby, penguins, poverty and exploitation. One toe to the left and I immediately become more statistically likely to be wealthy than if my toe points to the right. But do statistical likelihoods really translate into reality? The pretentious social scientist in me says no.
All of the stereotypes about the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are, of course, contrivances that we humans use to separate ourselves from each other. It is pretty easy to take an entire swath of humanity and label them based on what side of a line they fall on. In Winnipeg, we use the train tracks as our arbitrary boundary to separate the ‘uppers’ from the ‘lowers’; in the social sciences, we tend to use the equator… I can already tell that this one is going to anger some people.
You have probably heard me use the terms “global North” and “global South” to draw distinctions between wealthy and poor parts of the world. These terms are currently accepted by social scientists as a politically correct way to classify a country’s respective level of development. If a country is seen to be “developed” (in the Euro-centric meaning of the word… let’s not go there today) then we say it is part of the “global North”, if it is “undeveloped” (Christ, I hate that word) then we say it is part of the “global South”.
In my view, this terminology is inherently harmful because it perpetuates a way of thinking about the world that is based on false generalizations. Many proponents of the “global North”/“global South” distinction will agree that not all countries north of the equator are wealthy and all the countries to the south are poor. They will say, “Australia and New Zealand are developed and lie south of the equator, but they are the exception”. The latter sentence is a verbatim quote from my lecture notes taken a few years ago in an IDS course.
The fact of the matter, however, is that promoting terminology that homogenizes entire swaths of humanity is lazy social science. Even if the “global North”/“global South” distinction is not meant to be seen in terms of geography, the fact remains that many people outside of the ‘IDS sphere’ do not take the time to reflect on the implications of using such a distinction. In my view, the implications of placing wealthy countries in the “global North” and poor countries in the “global South” (notwithstanding geography) are the following:
- It gives people an excuse to assume that countries in the “global South” are incapable of making the jump into the “global North” because of geographic rather than social-political realities. After all, would you ever really consider South Africa or Indonesia to be part of the “global North” club?
- It perpetuates false hierarchies that are rooted in antiquated notions of modernization. That is, countries in the North are developed and therefore countries in the South should do everything they can to be like a country in the North. I guess this harm is not exclusive to the “global North”/“global South” dichotomy, but give me a break… I am doing this sans google.
- It literally places wealthy countries above poor countries; the North is, after all, on top of the South.
- Even if the people who use this terminology do so with good intentions grounded in more knowledge about IDS than I could ever hope to possess, they inadvertently perpetuate a stereotype about people based on where they live rather than who they are.
So, instead of relying on homogenizing terms to describe particular regions of the world, perhaps we should take the less lazy route and focus on specifics. For instance, Canada’s relatively high GDP should not make it a “developed” country in the “global North”. Rather, it should make Canada a country with a relatively high GDP. If Rwanda has the highest percentage of female parliamentarians in the world that should not make it an “underdeveloped” country in the “global South” – it should make it a country that places a stronger emphasis on gender parity than Canada… oh snap.
Fortunately, the equator is not entirely arbitrary. Social science crap aside, some pretty amazing natural science occurs at zero latitude. As many of you know, at the centre of the earth there is a giant ball of molten iron (I’m going off book here, I think its iron but I am in Poli Sci so just roll with my rhetoric for now and google it later). From what I understand, this giant ball of molten iron spins around a lot. Iron is a metal. For some reason, when metal spins around a lot it creates a magnetic field. Magnetic fields have poles; North and South. The earth has a magnetic field with North and South poles.
The earth’s magnetic field does a lot of good stuff. For instance, without our handy magnetic field, every solar flare that the Sun shoots our way would immediately wipe out all of our power grids and expose every living creature to more radiation than an atomic bomb. In addition to keeping us safe from cosmic radiation, Earth’s magnetic field provides tourists with a lot of entertainment when they visit the equator. Allow me to explain*:
When my fellow Scholars and I approached the equator earlier today we saw three saucers propped up on stands. Each saucer had a single hole located at its centre. One saucer was placed 5 metres north of the equator (i.e, under the influence of the North pole), one was placed 5 metres south of the equator (South pole), and the third was placed exactly on the equator (no pole… I think). We approached the saucer in the northern hemisphere and saw a pretty familiar sight. When water drained through the hole in the bottom of the saucer it spun a small flower placed on the surface of the water in a clockwise direction – much like our excrements do when we flush them in the “global North”. We then crossed into the southern hemisphere and tried the experiment again. This time, the water drained in a counter clockwise direction… “witchcraft!” I nearly shouted. Finally, we tried the experiment at zero latitude. To our amazement, the water drained straight down and sucked the flower through the hole with it.
Man the Earth is cool when pretentious social science people like me take a second to stop quibbling about what words mean.
*I was under the impression that the coriolis effect was responsible for the different directions that water drains in, but apparently magnetic fields also have something to do with it according to the guy who conducted the experiment with us. What I explained above is what he told us, not necessarily scientific truth. If anybody actually knows the answer please feel free to let me know.
After our adventure on the equator our co-worker (G) accompanied my fellow Scholars and I to his nearby village for some lunch. G no longer lives at the family home in his village, but visits several times a year. Like his nine other siblings, G left the village to pursue a university degree and work as a professional in Kampala. As a side, it is still quite common for Ugandans to have upwards of ten siblings. In many cases a man will take several wives and have multiple children with each. The result: families in excess of forty children are not the rarity in Uganda that they are in North America. Take that, “John and Kate Plus 8”.
G’s home and surrounding garden was a prime example of the way the world should be. When we arrived at the house, G and his mother (Ms. G) took us for a tour of the property. We were immediately shocked by the diverse range of life that was scattered throughout G’s two or three plots of land. For starters, two large pig pens were nestled among banana trees ten metres behind the house. Each pig pen housed three or four large pigs along with several piglets. I still maintained that one of the pigs was a bear in spite of Ms. G’s protests. Next to the pig pens sat two or three chicken coups and next to the coups also sat a large area full of ducks and other unidentified fowl. A cattle stable was next to the chicken coups, but remained empty as Ms. G recently sold her cattle. She plans to acquire new ones soon from what I understand.
Although the livestock was incredible, what really blew my mind was the immense garden that surrounded G’s house. On our half hour tour of G’s property, Ms. G proudly showed us: six different types of banana trees, mango trees, avocado trees, maize plants, sweet potato plants, coffee plants, timber trees, orange trees, and tens of other edible crops.
I was absolutely dumbfounded by how well Ms. G used her land. Absolutely everything on G’s property served a purpose: dung from the livestock fertilized all the plants, spare maize and tall grass was used to feed the livestock, the methane produced by the livestock was then used as gas in the cooking house. More, their home was powered by solar energy. They even collected rainwater in large drums beside the house.
At one point I naively asked Ms. G how many times a week she buys food. She looked at me with a smile and replied: “If you have land then you do not need to buy food”. I almost burst out in laughter. My response: “Ms. G, you have no idea how much money my mom spends on food every week”. Ms. G chuckled as she grabbed my hand and led me to the next area of the garden.
Her words became less shocking as we continued the tour. In one instance I pointed to an unfamiliar tree and asked Ms. G its purpose. She explained that when she has a sore throat she makes tea with its leafs. G went on to tell me that they use another tree’s leafs to clean pots and pans. Heck, these people even have trees designated for fire wood! Talk about living off your land.
More, Ms. G knows her stuff when it comes to smart farming. For instance, Ms. G only sells what she and her family do not eat. She still has a few cash crops – coffee, for instance – that provide a stable flow of supplementary income (she is a teacher, remember); but, according to Ms. G, her cash crops are of secondary importance compared to her food crops. She also plants a variety of crops in the same vicinity which helps keep the soil fertile.
After our fascinating tour of G’s property, my Scholars and I returned to the house for lunch. The meal: matooke (from bananas in the garden), beans (from the garden), boiled cabbage (garden), potatoes (garden), pumpkin (garden), beef (cows, RIP), and rice (market – can’t win ‘em all).
There is so much more that I would like to talk about, but alas it is my bed time. Other highlights of the day included a trip to a crocodile farm, a riveting conversation about monarchy in Uganda, and comparing Canadian and Ugandan family structures (click on the attached links to see Rachel’s fantastic description of these events).