Due Credit: The value of Southern cooperation

From trade to education to aid, partnerships between developing nations are key to global development — though they are not without challenges.

By: /
September 14, 2015
Chinese Military Health Worker
Beyond the media spotlight: A Chinese military health worker, in Liberia to help in the fight against Ebola in 2014, has her temperature taken. (Reuters)
Doctoral Fellow at the Free University of Berlin

Saturday marked the International Day of South-South Cooperation, recognising the interactions between developing countries. Most world audiences are not aware, or do not widely recognise, such daily dealings. But on certain occasions, like Southern responses to the Haitian earthquake or to the recent Ebola crisis, there is an increasing sense of how developing countries are trying to help solve their own problems.

This past weekend, marking the global day, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon underscored the importance of South-South Cooperation (SSC) in the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, which will be addressed this month in New York.

The occasion is also an opportunity to take stock and review the state, gaps, and opportunities in cooperation among Southern states.

What follows is a brief overview of the complex world of SSC.

A phenomenon begins

In 1974 when the UN created what is now called the Office for South-South Cooperation, they confirmed the potential of solidarity and partnership among developing countries to be a force for development. Now, South-South Cooperation is generally recognised as a framework for understanding economic, political, technological, security, as well as other forms of cooperation among countries of the global South.

The ultimate aim of Southern partnerships is to promote self-reliance through Southern-led development agenda. And, as a framework of organising solidarity and development partnership among developing countries, South-South Cooperation is an old phenomenon that dates at least to the Bandung Conference of developing countries in 1955. It however, seems to have recently regained momentum following recent globalist exploits by the so-called emerging economies.

Players & methods

Since the turn of the century, the multifaceted elements of South-South Cooperation have been revived through transcontinental structures such as the BRICS, India-Brazil-South Africa platform, the many Brazil-African Platforms, India-Africa Forum, Africa-South America Summit, Forum for East Asian and Latin America Cooperation, and several others.

Emerging economies are known for providing some economic aid to Southern recipients, but cooperation goes beyond the giving of economic aid. Under the Africa-Brazil Cooperation in Social Protection, the successful conditional cash transfer programmes of the Latin American country has been transferred to about 18 African and eight Asian countries. Other areas of cooperation include agriculture and technology. In education, India and China have created learning centres overseas and continue to award study scholarships to many African, Asian and Latin American students. South Africa, through its ministries and departments, continues to lead reconstruction and capacity building for governance in postwar societies Africa.

Importantly, emerging economies are not the only states pushing Southern cooperation. Under its extensive medical internationalism, Cuba has bilateral agreements with several African, Latin American, and Asian countries, including a ‘doctors-for-oil’ arrangement with Venezuela, and one with Brazil in exchange for infrastructure. Venezuela has been discussing a joint diamond-processing factory with Sierra Leone.

Botswana has a programme that is helping to provide capacity building to state institutions in South Sudan across several sectors including governance, conflict resolution, disaster management, law enforcement, and education. When it comes to disaster management, Ghana has become a centre for learning to many of its neighbours as well as those far of as Mauritius and Kenya. The FELAC cooperation between Asia and Latin America spans several sectors including education, technology sharing, and agriculture.

An important dimension of bilateral and multilateral cooperation among Southern countries is that the governments concerned have created platforms to promote transcontinental entrepreneurship and private business. Official delegations often include entrepreneurs looking for business opportunities far from home. Africa’s richest person has signed with a Chinese engineering giant, a US$4.3 billion agreement that will see cement manufacturing plants built across eight African countries by year 2020.

But, it must be said that cooperation among private businesses in South-South Cooperation is only in its early stages. As official cooperation expands and deepens, more avenues for cooperation will be created for markets to become a major driving force in SSC.

We know that many countries with diverse capacities act across the various component sectors of SSC. However, there are those that given their wealth capacity can be described as leaders. These states, like the emerging economies, are those usually in the news. And then there are other countries such as Botswana who do a lot behind the scenes and are often not in the news.

And then there is the group of countries that seem to have the capacity to be leaders in SSC, but are currently not living up to that potential. Nigeria for instance, has for long operated below par despite its huge capacity to be a real economic powerhouse in Africa. Now officially the continent’s biggest economy, expectations have only increased that this country will become a moving force in African affairs.

Pressing issues

It is this issue of inadequate capacity that allows third parties to enter the SSC space. So, not all SSC is really South-South. Under triangular cooperation, partnership between two Southern actors is facilitated or sponsored by a Western third party. For instance, emulation of conditional cash transfer policy from Brazil to African and Asian countries was facilitated by the UK’s DFID. There is another type of triangular cooperation where cooperation between a Western third party and a Southern state is facilitated by another Southern state. Brazil’s role as a Southern sub-contractor in the international reconstruction efforts in Haiti and East Timor is an example.

What remains to be confirmed is whether third party involvement enhances or weakens the capacity of Southerners to cooperate among themselves. Yet, it is questionable whether SSC can be far-reaching without third party involvement.

There are also questions about the quality of leadership provided by wealthy Southern countries. A recent study at the University of Sussex concluded that a country that receives economic aid from China is more likely to be violent than one that receives aid from OECD countries.

This apprehension though is that of Western observers and not necessarily of recipient states for whom the Chinese aid with generous terms is a fitting alternative to OECD aid with its suffocating conditions.

While too much of Chinese capacity seems to be correlated with violence, other leaders lack influence of that scale. Since 2012 when it was announced, no other emerging economy has matched China’s offer of $20 billion in loans to African states. Rather, India and Brazil have raised concerns as their economies slow. Similar concerns over slow growth hover around the Chinese economy, but the world’s second largest economy still gives more economic support than its fellow Southern leaders.

The hesitant aid programmes of India and Brazil perhaps point to an inherent insecurity in SSC that emerging economies are still susceptible to poverty, unemployment, epidemics, and other problems that plague the majority of the developing world.

Future potential

On the whole, the world of South-South Cooperation is complex. Though the UN recognised the importance of Southern solidarity over four decades ago, the world of emerging economies and of limping or sleeping giants show that SSC is not operating at full capacity.

It remains a world with potential, perhaps the most important driving force in the 21st century developing world. What needs to be done is an all-hands approach for developing countries to lead their own transition processes. Those with enough capacity must provide the high quality leadership that is desperately needed in the South. And while at it, they must ensure that they solve more problems than they create.

After all, from the outset, the essence of SSC is to promote Southern solidarity as a platform for solving common problems.