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The Global South and development assistance

While cooperation between countries in the global South has existed since the 1955 Bandung Asian-African conference, South-South cooperation (SSC) has recently experienced rapid growth and rising global prominence. In 2013, the value of SSC across the world was estimated to exceed $20 billion, up from about  $16.1 billion in 2011. In 2016 alone, over 500 projects were ongoing under the SSC framework in over 120 countries. The growth of SSC is in the context of the economic expansion of countries in the global South such as China, alongside their rising influence in the international political system. As such, a new class of development cooperation actors have emerged as major providers of finance, technology, and knowledge. As aid critics point to the use of development assistance to promote the economic interests of developed countries and exert influence on the foreign policy of the recipient countries, assistance from developed countries has become increasingly viewed with skepticism. With solidarity, shared values, and common interest as its distinct elements, SSC is being presented as a suitable complement to the traditional model of development assistance.

While SSC is not new, its form is. Until recently, SSC was mainly focused on knowledge sharing and capacity building, but now there is an increasing focus on providing finance for development projects, particularly in the infrastructure and the productive sectors such as agriculture and industry. The establishment of the New Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to finance development projects in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the Asia-Pacific region, are key examples. Aside from these multilateral banks, a number of Southern-owned development cooperation funds have been created including the Mexico-Chile Joint Cooperation Fund; FAO-China Fund; India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Fund; and India-U.N. Development Partnership Fund. This new financing from and for the South serves as an alternative to the prevailing system of development cooperation by fostering a participatory approach to development, encouraging collective self-reliance, and creating more integrated development cooperation.

Another key development is the ongoing institutionalization of SSC: Chile, Turkey, Thailand, Palestine, and China are some of the emerging countries that have established dedicated agencies for international development cooperation. The mainstreaming of SSC in the agenda of governments, civil society, and research organizations puts SSC forward as a means to mobilize science, technology, finance, and other means of implementation required to implement the sustainable development goals.  SSC is no longer seen as an independent framework but as part of the larger global development architecture.  In order to better understand the role these agencies are playing in development, in Nigeria, the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa in partnership with the Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (ASIES) in Guatemala, recently developed a conceptual framework to document aspects of SSC initiatives in order to allow for easy comparison.

Notably, African countries themselves are playing key roles in the development of the region. South Africa and Nigeria, with the largest economies and most substantial resources in Africa, are providing assistance to poorer countries in the continent. Already, South Africa leads in the SADC region in providing technical and humanitarian assistance needs, as well as facilitating peacekeeping operations which positions it as a major player in the region. Similarly, Nigeria provides a range of development assistance programs, including concessional finance to less-developed countries, technical assistance, and peacekeeping missions.

In these and other ways, developing countries are playing a more proactive role in meeting the development needs of their compatriots. However, the motivation of the emerging development partners is open to question. With non-African donor countries placing value on resource transfers, these development partnerships are hardly free from promoting the interest of the donor. Even for Nigeria and South Africa, their political ambition to achieve hegemonic powers and the subtle contest between both countries for soft power at the continent-level seems to be linked to their willingness to provide development assistance. If countries are more driven by their self-interests, SSC could create a center-periphery relationship where the emerging countries are at the center and the rest of the South are at the periphery.

Moreover, while proponents of SSC argue that it is a development partnership between peer countries, thus quite distinct from traditional North-South cooperation, critics question this assertion as developing countries are at different stages of economic development. A different strand of argument is that SSC is an ideological construct based on the consensus that there is considerable scope for improvement in the traditional development assistance framework. Despite these emerging issues, SSC reflects a more accountable form of development assistance where developing countries take up responsibility and utilize their resources for the pursuit of domestic needs.

To achieve a more effective and efficient cooperation between SSC member countries, we make the following recommendations:

Increased coherence within SSC and between SSC and North-South Cooperation is required to improve knowledge sharing, meet recipient needs, and avoid reinventing the wheel. Mainstreaming SSC into national development policies and creating a forum for the heads of the specialized development agencies and ministries/departments of foreign aid are critical steps towards enhancing policy and institutional coherence. With SSC still a small component of development cooperation, and developing countries still reliant on the North for support, a more coordinated SSC will improve opportunities for collaborating with the North for development.

Developing a general system for data collection and dissemination, like the OECD-DAC countries, is crucial in improving the design, implementation, and evaluation of SSC initiatives, as well as providing knowledge on its scale and scope. While the plurality of approaches may make the exercise cumbersome, member countries working with regional bodies can develop a common methodology that accounts for both financial and non-financial modalities.

A common evaluation framework that accounts for the diversity of SSC initiatives is required for enhanced learning and accountability. While a number of frameworks have been developed by research organizations and academia in the South, there is no common assessment system for countries to track a program’s progress and explain differences in outcome. Given the horizontal nature of SSC, member countries should agree on a system for evaluating initiatives in order to improve resource use for development.

This article was first published on Brookings Institute