Not Quite the End of the Third World: Chile goes North

Thirty years ago, on the cover of the landmark Brandt Report (North-South: A Programme for Survival, 1980, MIT Press), which examined the challenges and responsibilities of international development, a line was drawn across the map of the world, demarcating North and South. Geographically straightforward apart from the loop including Australia and New Zealand, it seemed an appropriate representation of rich and poor, developed and underdeveloped in the late-1970s. But as Chile is now finding out, you cross it at your peril.

At the beginning of the year, Chile announced that it was to become a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the first Latin American country to do so and only its 31st member. Some international organisations are open to any country who wishes to sign up, but OECD membership is not. In a manner not unlike the lengthy accession procedures and criteria of the EU, NATO and WTO, joining the OECD involves undertaking substantial economic reforms, meeting certain guidelines for the independence of the rule of law, and reforming governance structures, among other things. Been accepted into the OECD is a pretty powerful signal about how your economy is regarded – a mark of approval, particularly for investors, about the transparency and stability of one’s economy – but perhaps also important as much as a status symbol as for its economic implications.

“Being a member of the right club can be important in life, and there are few global clubs as prestigious as the OECD,” the BBC World Service reported at the time. All good, then?

For Chile’s economic prospects, certainly. But what about its place, and image of itself in the world? In this regard, Chile’s attempt to retain its membership of the Group of 77, which organizes the 120+ countries of the developing world in UN-type negotiations, is causing some disquiet among fellow G77 states, who see its OECD membership as incompatible with its G77 one.

The two major countries that have previously left the G77, Mexico and South Korea, did so in the mid-1990s upon their accession to the OECD. But according to an InterPress Service report (strangely, seemingly the only news piece about it on the internet), Chile is trying to hold on to both:

“The African countries that have expressed “concern” over Chile’s decision to retain its G77 membership include Nigeria and Tanzania.

Both countries have said there was a “need for detailed explanations” since Chile’s membership in the 30-member Paris-based OECD is not compatible with the interests of the G77.

“Sooner or later,” one African diplomat told IPS, “there is going to be a conflict of interest because we in the G77 have nothing in common with the OECD.”

Put simply, he said, “You cannot run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.”…

…Chile has maintained there are no rules of procedure for membership in the G77, and more importantly, the OECD has not demanded that Chile quit the G77 as a condition for membership in the OECD.

Chile, which was formally inducted last May into the OECD, has also argued there is no conflict of interest in holding seats in both bodies.”

What’s at stake here is a debate about where the boundaries about North and South in world politics lie today. Throughout its existence, beginning as a vehicle in the 1960s to organize developing countries in international fora, the self-image of the G77 has been one of the struggle of the poor against the rich. In its advocacy of global redistributive economic equality (compared to the inequalities of the market) or its defense of state sovereignty and one-nation one-vote global decisionmaking (compared to the hierarchy explicit in institutions like the IMF and World Bank), the G77 is defined in good part by what it is not – The Other being the the ‘rich man’s club’ of the OECD.

The empirical inconsistencies and contradictions in this description are, of course, rife: after all, if countries can draw international benefit from economic and political liberalization, they have and will, and if countries can benefit from privileged positions in the global political architecture, they have and will.

But the crucial point in this heat and fire raised about G77 membership is that this process of defining who is in and who is not is done, not necessarily (or always) by reference to whatever the empirical, objective reality might be, but instead by reference to subjective images of self and other.

For instance, for the middle-income developing countries storming ahead of the bottom billion, their continuing G77 membership is still a symbol of their own percieved insurgency and underdog-ness in challenging the established (Western) order – even if in practice they are economic competitors to their G77 peers, and desire cooperation with their supposed OECD foes. In the collective identity of the G77 lies a latent suspicion of the nefarious intentions of the North, demanding a circling of the wagons and pleas for Southern unity as the only means of survival in this titanic struggle. Those who step outside the circle can no longer play the game. Accused of betrayal, they relinquish their team membership (for football fans, think Sol Campbell going to play for Arsenal with a Spurs background, or Michael Owen at Manchester United with his Liverpool one).

In the continuing construction of the ‘Third World’, this element of identity still matters greatly. In ideas of ‘who we are’, and therefore ‘who we are not’, lies the impossibility, for many developing countries, for a country to be both a G-77 and OECD member at the same time (despite Chile’s protestations). The enduring nature of this sort of enmity between North and South may seem excessively tribal, or just plain stubborn. But it is certainly not trivial.

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