Differential treatment for developing countries in the WTO: the unmaking of the North–South distinction in a multipolar world

Clara Weinhardt*, Till Schöfer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


This article examines the implications of the rise of new powers in the Global South for a central principle of global order: the distinction between the 'North' and the 'South', or 'developed' and 'developing countries', that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. In doing so, we assess whether, and if so, how, the increasing tension between the binary 'North-South' distinction and growing heterogeneity within the Global South - as evidenced by the rise of emerging economies - has been reflected in the rules of multilateral trade policymaking. In the case of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the 'North-South' categorisation forms the basis of the legal principle of Special and Differential Treatment (SDT) that grants special rights to developing countries. To trace the evolution of SDT, we analyse legal developments and processes of contestation based on our conceptualisation of possible options for adaptation: graduation, individualisation and fragmentation. Drawing on a dataset of WTO decisions and agreements from 1995 to 2019, we find that the group of developing countries increasingly competes with other groups of disadvantaged countries for equity-based differential treatment. The resulting fragmentation contributes to the unmaking of the North-South distinction as a central ordering principle in global trade politics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)74-93
Number of pages20
JournalThird World Quarterly
Issue number1
Early online date8 Nov 2021
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jan 2022


  • BRICS and rising powers
  • END
  • IPE
  • WTO
  • governance
  • poverty and inequality
  • trade and growth

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