This is a new translation for The Civil Society Review by Paola Matha, from François Polet’s 2016 French-language article in Alternatives Sud, a quarterly publication by Centre Tricontinental (CETRI).

Editor’s note: Although originally published in 2016, this essay by François Polet is still relevant to current debates on international development. Do geographical designations still make sense in today’s globalised world? Polet argues that they do, because power asymmetries within the international system have not disappeared. The essay is thought-provoking and informative, building a strong case for reviving the Global North-South framework. Polet also invites reflection on the influence of international civil society groups, and the geopolitics of epidemics.

Although Western diplomats have often deemed it obsolete, the framework of North-South has not lost its pertinence in the political and academic realms of the Global South. The growth of emerging nations along with current global risks have not erased injustices stemming from colonisation. Moreover, the socio-historical gaps between the Global North and the Global South feed into divergent assessments of the causes and solutions of the major global imbalances.

In a world threatened by systemic risks of all kinds, where the accelerated growth of emerging nations and the stagnation of Western countries is shifting the balance in the global economy, reasoning in terms of North-South relations is considered obsolete. At a time when Indians are opening and closing steelworks throughout Europe, where the “Chinese are buying out France”[1], imitated by the Qatari, or vice versa, this concept of a global order divided between the wealthy and dominating North and the destitute and dominated South has purportedly lost its legitimacy. More seriously, pressing global challenges require us to recognise interdependence at all levels, whether it be economic, energy or health policy, all of which influence other countries more than ever before. Thinking in terms of North-South would thus be counter-productive, because it would generate discord when what matters most is to reinforce cooperation among the peoples and governments of the Global North and the Global South in order to preserve global harmony.

The recurring burials of the Global South

The North-South divide – along with its equivalent dichotomies “Third World/First World”, “developed/developing countries” – was found guilty of obsolescence many times over the last decades. “The so-called Third World… a misleading term is [sic] there ever was one” (Babb, 2009). But let us reopen the case.

In the early 1980s, the American Secretary of State Alexander Haig made clear the Reagan Administration’s shift concerning the “North-South dialogue”, which had officially begun ten years prior. The contempt for this concept was a reflection of Western hostility, more or less declared, towards a Global South that was becoming increasingly politically organised (NAM, G-77, OPEC…) and more combative within the United Nations. The United States retaliated by simultaneously stopping investment in the most militant UN bodies, destabilising the southern countries affiliated with the Soviet bloc and imposing a liberal reform of international development agencies. At the same time in France, the rising humanitarian movement denounced the “Third-World” ideology and the idea that “the West is responsible for the impoverishment of the Third-World” (Szczepanski-Huillery, 2005).

Ten years later the columnist Barbara Crossette proclaimed on The New York Times’ pages that “The “Third World” is Dead” (1994). Meanwhile, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit was taking place in Bogor, Indonesia. Going against the African-Asian solidarity project, started in 1955 in the nearby city of Bandung, the leaders of the Asian “Tigers” turned their back to the rest of the continent to negotiate “an area of free-trade and economic liberalisation” with Bill Clinton. After the North-South dialogue is replaced by neoliberal standardisation, the end of the Cold War [2] and the different economic trajectories between good and bad disciples of globalisation are used to justify the relegation of the idea of a “Global South”. Just like the French diplomat interviewed by the American journalist*, commentators found out that Burkina Faso and Singapore definitely do not have anything in common.

The acceleration of economic and financial globalisation – which will relentlessly blend the Global South into the great global market – is accompanied by the legal implications of the post-Cold War “new global order” announced by George H.W. Bush in 1990. This emerging consensus on international law and universal democratic values seems at odds with great ideological conflicts. The ambition to extend the principles of the Rule of Law and good governance to the world entails a legal levelling that is blind on specific societal features, on the development gap and on state sovereignty. “The colonial past and the discrepancies between the two groups of countries also appear to have been moved to the background relative to the urgency of identifying the specific problems and responsibilities of each country…” (Gallié, 2008).

‘There now exists a dualism, a Latin-Americanisation in the entire world. The wealthy and the poor are as numerous in New York as they are in São Paulo.’

It must be taken into account that challenging the idea of the North-South divide is not only the prerogative of neoliberals who agree with Francis Fukuyama’s (“The end of history”) or Thomas Friedman’s (“the Earth is flat”) theses. Important actors in the rising alter-globalisation movements see international law as a privileged front to impose progressive norms to “global” multinational corporations and to all states. Developments such as the closing gap between peripheral and core economies, the fast growth and decentralisation of capitalism, the emergence of Chinese “sub-imperialism” in Africa, or Brazilian “sub-imperialism” in South America, indicate, in the eyes of Marxist intellectuals and militants, the creation of a transnational capitalist class, embodied by the “Davos man”, whose common interests go beyond state frontiers (Funk, 2015). The globalisation of class struggle against this global ultra-bourgeoisie prompts to overcome the differences between the regions of the world.

Meanwhile, the progressive impoverishment in societies of the Global North contributes to the blurring the North-South divide. Today, there are not only some features of the North in the South, such as the financial ascent of the middle and upper classes profiting from liberalisation, but some features of the South are also visible in the North, where the losers of globalisation keep growing in number with the increasing decentralisation and erosion of social security. Thus, Alain Touraine reckons that “there is no more confrontation between the First and Third-World”, but that now exists a “dualism, a Latin-Americanisation in the entire world. The wealthy and the poor are as numerous in New York as they are in São Paulo. There is a world of rich people, a world of less rich people, a world of poor people and a world of very poor people (…)” (quoted in Savio, 2007). The hardships of Southern Europe under structural adjustment policies since 2010 have reinforced the idea that there is a “levelling” of the Global North towards the Global South.

The 2000s saw two growing trends: the rise in the economic and diplomatic power of emerging countries and the breakthrough of the paradigm of “global problems with cooperative solutions” (Rogalsky, 2013). Hence, some have felt the need to abandon the old North-South worldview. The first trend feeds into the shifting economic and political relations on the North-South and South-South axes, leading to the growing influence of a handful of big developing nations, particularly China, India and Brazil, which bring the Western supremacy on world affairs to a close. The creation of the G-20, the status of China as the first world creditor, and the fact that global economic growth has rested on the dynamism of developing countries since the 2008 financial crisis are some of the manifestations of Westerners’ loss of the political leverages that allowed them to decide “among themselves” on the development trajectory of global capitalism.

At the same time, the climate, financial, safety, and health crises pose the urgent question of the international management of global interdependence, which is now entangled with the idea of “global risks”. The realisation of both the danger and its intrinsically global nature makes indeed the climate crisis the global issue par excellence. The most enthusiastic promoters of global climate governance see in this matter an opportunity to build an “international society better organised to protect the common good”, constrained by the common and undeniable danger to overcome national selfishness, putting aside past divergences.

A matter of perspective

Without casting doubt on the structural evolution of the global system, which grounded the aforementioned views, it is important to keep in mind that they remain mere interpretations of reality. On the one hand, they underline particular aspects of undergoing transformations, too often understating the elements of continuity within the international system. On the other hand, they provide determined interpretations of these transformations. Although we should not replace a flawed statement (“The North-South is no more”) with another (“the North-South is everything”), the political and socio-economic trends outlined above should be put into perspective.

First and foremost, the question of socio-economic convergence should be addressed. The growing importance of the Global South in the global economy, particularly of the emerging countries, is undeniable. However, whether they can be regarded as “catching up” with the countries of the Global North highly depends on the unit of measurement – absolute or proportional – that we adopt. If we consider national GDP, indeed China became the major global economy in 2014 [3], whereas Brazil overtook in only three years Canada, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom to reach 6th place, just behind France, in 2011. But if we relate this wealth to the size of the population, the Asian giant ranked 74th, behind Gabon, in 2015, while the per-capita income in Brazil was less than a third compared to the four countries that it had recently surpassed (IMF, 2015). Like in cycling, a long-field frame flattens the distances and can give viewers the impression that the peloton is about to catch a breakaway which maintains, nonetheless, its decisive lead.

The same reasoning applies to the Global South’s weight in global trade or foreign investment. The share of developed nations in exports went from 67% to 52% between 1995 and 2012. As a result, some argue that the South has “caught up with the North” in international trade. However, when related to the population, this means that the average resident in the South does not even own a 7th of the export share of his counterpart in the North. True, the “Southern” peloton is catching up with the Northern breakaway, but the initial head start is so big that, except for a few ones doped up on chemicals or finance, reaching the fastest riders will still take decades.

Furthermore, a close-up on the “South” peloton would show China “pulling” it for a good part (and even pulling the breakaway…here we see the limits of the cycling metaphor). In 2008, a year when the economies of the Global North entered a crisis, the share of developing countries in global economic growth amounted to 70%. However, if we exclude China from this group the figure falls to 40%. Moreover, a large proportion of this 40% accounts for exports to China, which have surpassed the exports towards G7 countries. The economic drive of the Global South is thus concentrated, in a “disproportionate and overwhelming” manner, in a single country (OECD, 2010).

‘Great inequalities between ‘developed’ countries and the rest of the world have been growing wider since the beginning of the industrial era’

A crucial consequence of the strengthening of economic relations between China and the other countries of the South is that it tends to bring the latter’s economic focus back to the primary sector, due both to competition in the industrial sector (especially in textiles) and to the increased Chinese demand for raw materials. As a result, the countries who are exporters of these raw materials face higher production costs, a phenomenon known as Dutch disease. By joining the core of the global economy, China pushes other developing countries back to the periphery and to their role of supplier of raw materials inherited from the colonial era. Exports from Chile, the wealthiest country in Latin America, depended by more than 60% on copper in 2013 (Funk, 2015). Such a dependency engenders economic vulnerabilities. In the same way as the 1970s recession in the West provoked a devastating crisis in developing countries, the decline in China’s growth rates since 2012 has depressing effects on its African and Latin American suppliers, which we are only beginning to realise.

The idea of a “Latin-Americanisation” of the Global North also deserves to be put in perspective. Indeed, social disparities are experiencing a worrying increase in the more affluent nations, but European societies in particular remain radically egalitarian in comparison to the rest of the world. The comparison of the Gini coefficient shows that the hundred most unequal countries in the world are all developing countries, with the exception of the United States, while the thirty most egalitarian countries are mostly European or part of the CIS. The proportion of the GDP allocated to social public expenditures is another indicator of the immense North-South gap in terms of social structure: 29% in the European Union and 19% in the United States, against 10% in Chile; 3.6% in Thailand and 1.4% in Bangladesh (OECD, 2014; EU, 2013; ADB, 2013). As for the share in global formal employment,  this was 85% for the rich nations in 2009, against 40% in Latin America and less than 20% in Asia and Africa (OECD, 2009).

The idea that the countries of the Global South are catching up economically deserves therefore to be put into perspective – we too often neglect how far back the latter started out. It is rather a question, as stated by Guillaume Duval, of “beginning to correct great inequalities between developed countries and the other ones that have been growing wider since the beginning of the industrial era” (2006). To think that the imbalances between the Global North and the Global South are now over is to make the same mistake of those who believed a century ago that the first conquests of workers and the socialist parties entering parliaments meant the end of social struggles and of the idea of social class.

‘We must not neglect the difference between the might and the role of a nation, between supremacy and influence, between the economic and the political’

We must equally contextualise the idea that the increased economic influence of the Global South equals a growth of its political weight in international relations. This vision is most likely linked to the “unwarranted authority of the accountant” who, to paraphrase Debray, neglects “the details that make the difference between the might and the role of a nation, between supremacy and influence, between the economic and the political” (2014). The French mediologist rightly stressed the political and cultural factors that ground the power of the West: unprecedented cohesion, the ability to present its interests as those of humanity in general, training the elite of the planet, moulding human sensitivities and leading scientific and technical innovation. In all these realms, the Global South is slower to catch up than its GDP is.

Two North-South asymmetries beyond economics deserve closer attention. First of all, the difference with regards to security. Quantitatively speaking, the United States alone still account for a third of the world’s military expenses, and the figure more than doubles by adding the European Union. Qualitatively speaking, on the other hand, the Global North dominates technological advancements and the global security architecture, with NATO at its core. Secondly, the Global North is hegemonic within international governance institutions – in the UN Security Council, the IMF, the World Bank, the G8/G20. Of course, this predominance is contended from within (through the formation of coalitions among emerging nations and the – relative – expansion of their influence through favourable reforms); as well as from without (through the creation of regional financial institutions such as the Bank of the South or the Asian Bank). However, it is still far from disappearing. Here again, we must not confuse the signs of a partial rebalancing of international relations with the disappearance of historical asymmetries, especially because these geopolitical shifts could “only lead to the reproduction of inequalities and the effects of the North-South domination, with the only difference that a few emerging countries of the Global South would join the exclusive club of the dominant powers” (Zacharie, 2016).

Fighting the international asymmetries

Although it has lost the significance it had in the heyday of the North-South dialogue, when the rich countries had to concede many important political victories, “the notion of Global South, or at least of a shared identity among the countries we associate with this term, is often reclaimed by the individuals, groups and countries themselves” (Gervais-Lambony and Landy, 2007). The North-South divide has faded more in the minds of The New York Times columnists than in those of the leaders and academics of Latin America, Africa or Asia. After ebbing in the 1980s, Third-Worldism backwashed in the late-1990s, until its resurgence in the 2000s through collective political movements associating themselves with the Global South label. This choice is not only semantic; it expresses a vital aspect of the collective identity and collective bargaining will of the countries involved (Najam, 2015).

These political alliances “of the South” no longer advance alternative development models, nor subversive geopolitical principles, as they used to do between the 1950s and the 1970s under the aegis of the G77, the Non-Aligned Movement or the Tricontinental Conference. Yet, they still stem from shared frustrations over the “asymmetries of international order” (Fernando Enrique Cardoso, former Brazilian president). They still aim to collectively defend certain principles – “special” treatment, “differentiated” responsibilities, policy space – and to adopt common stances within the WTO, UNCTAD or climate negotiations (CETRI, 2007).

Within the WTO, the coordination of different groups of countries of the Global South – G90 (made of ACP states, LDCs and the African Group wishing to strengthen the principle of “special and differentiated treatment” for poor countries); G33 (countries promoting a “special safeguard mechanism” for their agricultural sectors); and G20 (countries which demand to stop the internal subsidies to the European and American agricultures) – has thwarted the Western plans to move forward on the “Singapore issues” [4] at the 2003 Cancun Summit. The WTO, traditionally dominated by developed countries, has never truly recovered from this setback [5].

After being marginalised for twenty years by the WTO-IMF-World Bank triad, UNCTAD regained its role as an important forum for international development policymaking following the crisis of the Washington Consensus. UNCTAD’s double peculiarity is that it is dominated by developing countries and that it has advanced, since its birth in 1964, an alternative development doctrine that moves away from liberalism and highlights the asymmetries within the economic and commercial system as hindering development. The idea of a “political leeway”, or policy space, allowing developing countries to preserve a degree of independence with respect to WTO rules, has brought back North-South tensions within development debates. A dynamic network of international research centres feeds into this alternative thinking on trade, development and the environment “from the South”. Its main nodes are the Third World Network [6], the South Centre [7] and the Focus on the Global South think thank [8].

Finally, negotiations on environmental politics, above all on climate, have been without a doubt the most delicate subjects of confrontation between developed and developing countries since the 1992 Rio Summit. Things have not changed with the most recent climate summit in Paris (Roger, 2015). In the words of a former G77 negotiator at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED), the leaders of the Global South elaborated their negotiation strategy based explicitly on the discussion of two main objectives. First, “to ensure that the South has an adequate environmental space for its future development”; then to “modify global economic relations so as to ensure that the South gets the resources, technology and market access to pursue a development process that is both environmentally sustainable and fast enough to meet its needs and aspirations” (Najam, 2015). After the dialogue on a “new international economic order” winded out, the climate agenda thus provided developing countries with new leverages to influence international relations, which they still collectively view as inequitable.

Socio-historical gaps

Notions of “interdependence”, “shared interests” and “global commons” have now acquired a central position in official political statements and are progressively gaining prominence in international law. They were historically located within UN agencies and the major international NGOs. Most Western states, particularly [Northern] European ones, have for some years (more or less sincerely) ascribed their diplomacy to this framework [9]. But despite the global framing and the rhetoric on common interests, the way in which these global issues are defined, conceptualised and assigned priority, including how they are integrated into the global economy, cannot be dissociated from the historical trajectories of states and societies (Gabas and Hugon, 2001). Additionally, “although societies worldwide share more and more common risks (…), that does not mean we should stop thinking that these common risks stem from the relations of domination and exploitation that in turn ground and shape different forms of expression between societies” (Pirotte, 2016).

Effectively, the vast majority of developing countries share some significant traits which over-determine their approach to global issues. In particular, on the one side their economies are heavily dependent on the extraction and processing of raw materials; on the other side, for most of their populations, conspicuous consumption remains a dream that is never or poorly fulfilled. These overwhelming socio-economic realities structurally affect international positionings, whereby issues that are pressing for the West are not as urgent for Asian, African or Latin American governments. To explain the gap between the ongoing sweeping economic changes and the modest breakthrough of universal republican values in emerging countries, Guy Hermet astutely reminds us that it is “the revolution of everyday life and not that of rights which is most important for the residents of emerging countries” (Hermet, 2008).

The resulting attitude towards the “environment-development” equation in developing countries is clearly different from that of our post-industrial societies. This is not only due to their political class being imprisoned in a development-centric paradigm, contrary to the claims of those among us who passionately embrace the causes of far-away indigenous communities. No, the preservation of the environment cannot be as easily translated into a national priority when material security for the masses is yet to be assured or has been attained only too recently [10]. And the new environmental pressures are all the more costly to integrate into policymaking, as they are widely perceived as byproducts of the Global North’s industrial development. One of the consequences is the reluctance of the big forested nations of the South towards the “common management” of forests. They see forests as productive capital – hence as assets for economic and social development that are tied to their territory and subject to the logics of state sovereignty – rather than as ecosystems sustaining the ecological balance to the benefit of all humanity (Karsenty and Pirad, 2007).

The “national sovereignty – global integration” equation is another important element of difference in attitudes towards global issues. The countries of the Global South are generally less willing to transfer part of their sovereignty to supranational authorities or to enter binding international regimes. This is not simply a matter of national selfishness, but rather a product of history, or more specifically of a historical gap between the collective Western experience with national sovereignty and the incomplete process of nation building in the Global South. It is easier to concede parts of one’s political autonomy when the latter is long-established and respected. This is even more the case when the country in question is confident of its own individual or collective weight in the decision-making processes shaping major international agreements.

A manifestation of this is the Global South’s distrust of the UN-made concept of the “responsibility to protect” [11]. This does not mean that governments of the South are all potential tyrannies fearing international sanctions. Rather, they perceive Western countries as bearing a disproportionate influence in the activation of this principle. Experiences in Libya and Ivory Coast have reinforced this opinion. More generally, in terms of human rights diplomacy, the defensiveness of developing countries towards references to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights does not concern so much “the evaluation of its proclaimed values” but rather “the assessment of the conditions of its promulgation”. The significance of the charter is namely undermined by its underlying assumptions of domination (Badie, 2002).

A new framework of Western supremacy

Many of the reluctances of the Global South towards the idea of global stakes are due to the fact that the West maintains a disproportionate place in their conceptualisation – how some threats are designated as the most urgent (which opens space for reflection over the influences of civil society-led campaigns); but also in their operationalisation – which global governance instruments are deemed the most technically appropriate and socially acceptable. The fact that a few emerging countries have rapidly increased their economic and diplomatic weight over the last years does not invalidate François Constantin’s reflection, upon which “in a profoundly unequal world, the discourse on global collective goods seems like a new tool for the most powerful nations (…) to impose new norms of conduct on the rest of the world, in the name of the superior interests of “Humanity” or “Future Generations”” (2002).

The same is true for the “global health” paradigm, which has been structured largely through the debates between Anglo-American universities, public agencies, foundations and humanitarian NGOs, at a time in which epidemics in poorer countries have become a security threat for the US government. The consequent application of international health strategies in the Global South hence reflects “the will, actively carried out or tacitly conveyed by the institutions of the Global North, to monitor, prevent and respond to health risks that could harm the world populations, first and foremost their own” (Atlani Duault and Vidal, 2013). Thus, coalitions of stakeholders are set up, merrily bypassing national state institutions and overlooking local diseases with no “global” spreading potential.

The same biases can be detected in the natural resource management models prescribed by major international agreements on the protection of biodiversity. These paradigms are imposed on countries of the Global South, but they mainly reflect the preoccupations of Western environmental representatives, who are themselves subject to changing paradigms (conservation, protection, sustainable development, participation, eco-tourism, etc.). Moreover, only an increasingly advanced expertise can lawfully define and implement the models of biosphere management and evaluation, and to identify and establish the rules for the legitimate usage of natural resources in protected areas (Promel et al., 2009). This kind of expertise has always been an almost exclusive prerogative of the countries in the Global North, which also see access to genetic resources located in the tropical forests of developing countries as a major economic interest (CETRI, 2013).

Finally, isn’t the most persistent asymmetry between the North and the South precisely the former’s renewed ability to produce universalist approaches which advance (or protect) both their interests and sensibility, so as to pursue its power strategy by controlling the narrative on humanity’s best interests? From this perspective, the rhetoric of the great global challenges, far from lessening the North-South imbalances, constitutes their ultimate expression. Within the scope of climate, human rights, trade or aid diplomacy, States do not give up their power ambitions, but rather seek to impose global norms which are technically and culturally more accessible to them than to outsiders, thus reinforcing their position of power. The undeniable need to reinforce international cooperation mechanisms does not attenuate this balance of power, but rather provides it with a new framework.

*The French diplomat was Jean-Bernard Mérimée, quoted by Barbara Crossette in her article in The New York Times, which is referenced at the beginning of the paragraph [Editor’s note].

**Some revisions were made to this translation on the advice of the original author. Thanks to François Polet for his guidance.

Paola Matha is currently finishing her undergraduate studies in law at the University of East Anglia and plans to go into journalism and advocacy. She is passionate about human rights issues, development and global peace and security. Find her Linkedin here.

Thank-you to Centre Tricontinental for giving permission for this translation. The original article, ‘Réhabiliter une lecture Nord-Sud du monde’ was written in French by François Polet and published both in print and online in April 2016, as part of Volume XXIII, No.2 of CETRI’s quarterly publication Alternatives Sud.


[1] Title of an episode of the TV programme “En Quête d’Actualité”, aired on 3 February 2016 on the French channel D8.
[2] The Cold War context was also at the origin of the term “Third World”, coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, to highlight the existence of a third sphere alongside the capitalist First World and the soviet Second World. While the conflict between the latter monopolised the attention, the Third World, “ignored, exploited and despised as a Third-Estate, also wishes to be something” (L’Observateur, 1952).
[3] This refers to purchasing power parity. China remained second in terms of nominal value, with a GDP 40% lower than that of the United States (Meyer, 2015).
[4] These are investments, competition, transparency and trade facilitation.
[5] In 2002, a debate internal to the no-global movement, about reforming the WTO, revealed the existence of “North-South” tensions within the movement. For the NGO Oxfam, international trade, as long as it was equitable, could uplift people from poverty in poor countries. Such a stance was unacceptable for the think tank Focus on the Global South and other alter-globalists of the South, such as Vandana Shiva, as it validated the export-based development model which was at the root of the problem. More generally, recurring misunderstandings between alter-globalists of the North and of the South are often based on the latter’s “antagonistic” strategic vision of the North-South relations, which regards neoliberal globalisation as a project of reassertion of Western interests in peripheral regions, as well as of world marketisation.
[6] Penang, Malaysia –
[7] Geneva –
[8] Bangkok –
[9] The 2009 white paper on British development cooperation – Eliminating world Poverty: building our common future – was entirely devoted to showing that the British and the rest of the world shared common interests in the domains of economy (“their growth pulls ours”), security (“the fragility of their States jeopardise our security”) and global warming (“source of refugees and costs”).
[10] The loss of traction of the environmental discourse in countries of the North in times of economic crisis provides an illustration of this point.
[11] The principle of “responsibility to protect”, adopted in 2005, legitimises the international community’s military intervention in the national territories of States that manifestly fail to protect their populations from crimes against humanity.


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