The Global South is Not Made Equal

April 26, 2023

BY Mariam Diefallah

Photo of a small food stall by the roadside
Photo by Mariam Diefallah

I come from Egypt but today I am writing about Sri Lanka. More specifically, I am writing about Sri Lankan bodies working against the backdrop of an American campus in Doha, Qatar where I studied for four years. Positionality here is essential. In the GCC (the Gulf Cooperation Council includes the six countries of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman) world of racialized bodies, my brown, female Egyptian body occupied a privileged space as an expat, compared to service providers and domestic workers who are called migrants.

Inside the classroom, I read, studied, and wrote about North-to-South relationships. Here, I want to recall Dependency and World Systems theories. Proposed in the 50s, Dependency theory explains underdevelopment as the result of core countries (ones that offer capital) benefiting at the expense of peripheral countries (ones that offer cheap labour and raw materials). This theory birthed The World Systems theory in the 1970s which views the global economic capitalist system as an international division of labour. One in which the core develops and the peripheries decline; a vicious cycle that dictates labour conditions and political systems and agreements. Through the framework of these two theories, we can view global inequality as an economic apartheid system that is interconnected to a long history of colonialism and disproportionate economic power between the North and the South. This system persists and is maintained by neo-colonial and neoliberal apparatuses such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). 

Outside of the classroom, I found a different reality at play and started examining my own understanding of South-to-South relationships. Looking at the journey of a Sri Lankan migrant working in Qatar, I could not help but wonder: Can Qatar and Sri Lanka both be put in the same category? Which Global South are we talking about?

The GCC stands out as a region in which migration is increasingly feminised and where its patterns are mostly circular. Under this reality, a Sri Lankan migrant in Qatar is governed by the Kafala system, which is an employer-tied visa structure known for enabling various levels of abuse. These facts, however, do not deter migrants from going. Yoked to conditional loans, countries like Sri Lanka are expected to cap public spending which can impact government subsidies and continue to drive prices up. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these global pre-existing vulnerabilities and injustices and has pushed more workers to head abroad. 

The relationship between nationals and both expats and migrants is a complicated one. In a country where nationals are the minority, the economy depends largely on foreign employment. This is especially true in Qatar; as the host of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, the event called for increased labour demands. While migrant workers get to call Qatar their temporary home, their money departs as fast as it can in the shape of necessary remittances for their original home countries. Although it is true that Qatar has done more than its neighbours to reform the kafala system,  varying degrees of abuse continue to exist

During the World Cup, Qatar found itself caught at the intersection of two opposing narratives: on the one hand, a lot of the criticism in relation to human rights abuses has been made with Islamophobic and racist tones from Western news outlets. Such articles questioned and undermined the small state’s ability to host the event. This type of criticism paved the way to the other end of the spectrum as many Muslims and Arabs rightfully highlighted the hypocrisy of Western societies in their attacks against Qatar. Some, however, washed away the real abuses and inhumane realities workers continued to endure in pursuit of defending the Muslim, Arab nation. From overworking, the lack of safety conditions, and being denied mobility, to a war of discourses – the system is never in a migrant’s favour.

As the world continues to live with the consequences of a public health crisis, increased economic austerity measures, and uncertain realities of climate change, it is important to distinguish that the power dynamics are not only North-to-South. This binary understanding of inherited relationships and power dynamics is, perhaps, limiting our understanding of new realities that continue to unfold and under which ‘cheap labour’ is paying for its consequences. Since the World Cup, Qatar has hosted the 5th United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5) and now bids to host the 2026 IMF and World Bank meetings in 2026 positioning itself as the host of the  ‘World Cup of the Financial Sector.’

One can argue that the Global South is not all made equal.