Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa
Conseil pour le développement de la recherche en sciences sociales en Afrique
Conselho para o Desenvolvimento da Pesquisa em Ciências Sociais em África
مجلس تنمية البحوث الإجتماعية في أفريقيا

International Hegemony and the South: A Tri-continental Perspective

7 November–2 December 2005, Havana, Cuba

Number of visits: 1314

One of the key problems, if not the single most important one, facing the countries of the South is the persistence of a highly unequal international distribution of power and wealth that has been accentuated over the last quarter of a century. A second crucial question confronted by the countries of the South has been the challenge of the state-building process against the background of the erosion of sovereignty provoked by the new international hegemony and its distinct neo-liberal orientation.

Immediately after the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the bipolar order, expectations were high that “peace dividends” would help finance the economic reconstruction and development of countries in the South. Unfortunately, these expectations proved to be too optimistic, as the pre-existing system of economic polarization became even more acute in the last decade of the twentieth century. Growing international inequalities deepened the gap separating the countries of the North from those of the South, and the tendencies towards unilateralism in the world arena, with all its detrimental consequences for the underdeveloped nations, acquired unprecedented importance, both in military as in economic terms. A recent literature has also underlined how the impact of a renewed international hegemonic structure, led by economic and political forces such as the “international financial institutions”, has deeply penetrated the domestic agenda of states and determined new forms of international subordination and domestic class conflicts.

Despite this new structural framework of international life, several authors have elaborated on the different ways in which growing popular reactions against the inequities of neo-liberal globalization have also become a factor to be taken into account. International social movements whose discontent and activism for change have crystallized at several anti-globalization fora (Porto Alegre and Mumbai, among others) and new international South-South coalitions like IBSA – India, Brazil and South Africa Alliance – as well as Doha and Cancun Conferences of the WTO, suggest that the international hegemonic structure is damaged and the cracks that have surfaced are sufficiently significant. The fact, nevertheless, is that a tremendous vertical structure has been imposed over international life. This new situation is reflected in the growing literature on “empire” or, as other authors have named it, “neo-imperialism” or “international hegemony.” Despite the scholarly quarrels regarding the most appropriate name for this phenomenon, the fact is that the asymmetrical network of social, political, and cultural relations that characterize the international system today prevents the peripheral countries from implementing sovereign decisions in crucial areas of governance. The strategic importance of foreign influence and control in hindering the good performance and legitimacy of democratic governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America requires a broad-ranging re-thinking of concepts beyond the framework that is currently provided by the conventional social sciences.

The Role of International Financial Institutions.

Over the last 25 years, democratic policy making in the developing world has been faced with enormous difficulties. As countries are no longer sovereign in international affairs, they can hardly honour popular sovereignty at home, a situation which contributes to de-legitimizing democratic processes within national borders. As posed in the previous section, a crucial instrumental role is played by the international financial institutions (IFIs). Institutions like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, and, in our regions, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the African Development Bank play a dual role of paramount influence in domestic political processes. One is the economic role, promoting orthodox policies of structural adjustment and stabilization; the other is a political role, disciplining national governments into the canons of the Washington Consensus. Thus, no matter the repeated statements of these IFIs declaring the merely technical, “non-political” nature of their mission and interventions, the fact is that they do play an important, even decisive role in ensuring that states become pliant and follow the “right” policy. In doing so, they try to tame contentious governments and help to contain the pressures coming from the popular movements in the South.

Moreover, the IFIs have tried to position themselves as the main agents of knowledge production in their bid to impose their intellectual project, their ideology (historical success is equal to free market economy plus liberal democracy!) and the interests of the forces that drive them on the countries of the South. This is done through all sorts of warnings, pressures, and threats that are exercised through the staff of the IFIs, the members of their board of directors (where the United States has a decisive veto power) and a network of commercial and investment banks, international consulting offices, “country risk” experts, Wall Street “gurus,” the financial press around the globe, the bureaucracies of the other IFIs, the major mainstream economists, and the technocratic and political counterparts of all this international power ensemble in the South. Thus, a poor, heavily-indebted country has little chances of resisting the “policy recommendations” of such a formidable coalition.

As a conclusion, it can be asserted that the IFIs fulfil an important role in reproducing the asymmetries of an extraordinarily unequal international system, facilitating a huge transfer of natural resources, rents, incomes, and riches from the South to the North. The contemporary plunder of the South is conducted today with “white gloves”, and the main characters in the tragedy are no longer the despotic chieftains or military tyrants of yesteryears but a much more deadly army of “experts” and “economists” who, in taking over the country, run it like their exclusive space, filling vital cabinet posts and the key economic agencies of the government with their own clones.

A Research Agenda

It is urgent and important to rethink the role of the IFIs in the international system as part of a broad Southern intellectual response to the new international hegemony. Yet, the dominant scholarly literature on this issue pays little or no attention to this matter. If the countries of the developing world want to find alternative paths to development, the role and the functions of the IFIs should be subjected to an in-depth critique as a precondition for the construction of alternative policies. Some signals and hints of alternative policies that are emerging also have to be advanced examined as part of the effort to counter-balance the agenda of the IFIs. For instance, a few countries are trying to build new coalitions in order to advance positions of autonomy in the international scene. Despite the lack of a concerted strategy in the South, some countries and a host of international social movements are striving to change the terms of the debate. Through the inaugural South-South summer institute and other associated initiatives, APISA, CLACSO and CODESRIA will be inviting Southern researchers to take the following concerns on board:

a) A comparative analysis across the three regions of the impacts of Washington Consensus on economic growth, social justice, poverty reduction, the domestic policy process and democratic governance.

b) A review of the policy alternatives tried at the regional, national, and local levels and how scholars in the developing world have reflected and theorized on them.

c) An examination of the role of current trade negotiations and their likely impact on the current world economy

d) In the face of the blatant injustice prevailing in the international system and the bankruptcy of the existing multilateral organizations, how can the Southern countries promote the establishment of a new, more democratic, global order?

e) A preliminary assessment of the coalition-making process (of social movements) as well as of the states (like the Buenos Aires Consensus, 2003) will be provided in order to evaluate the weight of the counter-hegemonic forces.


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