Efforts should be made to institutionalize South-South cooperation to boost its impacts
As South-South cooperation grows in scale, complexity and impact, countries of the South are increasingly formalizing and incorporating it into national, regional and global programs, development strategies and frameworks. Institutionalization of South-South cooperation allows the governments of countries of the South to review their development policies, respond to new challenges and reorganize national priorities, apply predictable and reliable mechanisms and approaches, and better design, implement and assess the impact of South-South cooperation initiatives. It can have a direct, positive consequence on delivering the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The central role of institutions in South-South cooperation dates back to the 1960s, with the establishment of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development and the G77. More recently, South-South cooperation institutionalization has been improving at the regional, interregional and national levels.
At the regional level, institutions and mechanisms for South-South cooperation have been continually enhanced or new ones created. For example, in Africa, the African Union replaced the Organization of African Unity in 1999, and the New Partnership for Africa's Development Planning and Coordination Agency was transformed into the African Union Development Agency to coordinate and execute priority regional and continental projects and strengthen capacity-building in 2018. In Asia, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Organization and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are highlights of developing countries strengthening their economic and functional ties and facilitating South-South trade and investment.
A number of interregional economic institutions are also agents of South-South cooperation. The Organization of Islamic Countries has been promoting economic cooperation among Muslim-majority countries, strengthening experience-sharing, and established a preferential tariff scheme across regional borders. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is an institutionalized cooperation grouping, through a regional development bank, contingency reserve, payment system and regular political summits. Other similar institutions include, among others, the IBSA(India, Brazil and South Africa) Dialogue Forum and the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation. Regional development banks such as the New Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank serve as lenders for development and knowledge brokers, and make important contributions to the advancement of South-South cooperation.
At the national level, countries of the South are also reinforcing institutional arrangements to manage South-South cooperation. Many developing countries, including Argentina, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Thailand, Uruguay, among others, have dedicated development cooperation agencies. Some emerging economies are strengthening their institutional arrangements through developing legal regulations and strategies and establishing results-oriented frameworks for South-South cooperation programs. For example, the updating of Mexico's Law on International Development Cooperation in 2015, further strengthened its already robust institutional framework for South-South cooperation.
The enhancing of South-South cooperation institutions enables developing countries to benefit in a variety of domains. The establishment of blocs such as the African Union and BRICS has supported the development of the common positions of developing countries on key issues. The strengthening of regional integration arrangements is credited with reducing the imbalanced pattern of world trade and benefits for the least developed countries in particular by promoting economic diversification and offsetting their overreliance on exports of natural resources. South-South trade grew by 32 percent year-on-year in 2021, above the global average. Regional institutions are also critical in contributing to shaping and implementing the Sustainable Development Goals and, more recently, addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nevertheless, challenges remain in effectively coordinating, managing, monitoring and evaluating South-South cooperation activities at different levels.
First, there is the lack of a shared definition and conceptual framework for South-South cooperation. For example, the Afro-Asian model tends to take a holistic perspective in which all types of South-South linkages including adequate indicators and standards are prone to count as South-South cooperation, whereas the Latin American model focuses mainly on technical cooperation and has a strong social component.
Second, many countries do not have a formal institutional set-up for South-South cooperation, suffering from insufficient national legal and institutional arrangements and resulting in ad hoc and unsustainable projects with suboptimal impact.
Third, there is limited coordination at different levels. At the national level, the involvement of numerous ministries, public entities, agencies, and state-owned enterprises can lead to coordination and harmonization issues as well as an information deficit, and sometimes result in objectives that are not always aligned among partners. At the regional and global level, the multiplicity of competing political objectives, and the vast diversity of goals, capacities and procedures among developing countries makes coordination difficult, obstructing the emergence of a regional governance system and the constitution of a unique global governance system.
Fourth, there are difficulties in quantifying and systematically assessing the impact of South-South cooperation. Some middle-income countries are reluctant to publicize their exact development cooperation figures, since publication may have repercussions in connection to their cooperation arrangements with other countries as well as their domestic stakeholders and taxpayers. Many countries of the South also face big capacity and technical challenges in gathering data. There are also issues related to the establishment of criteria (adequate indicators and standards) to measure capacity building, knowledge-sharing and technical cooperation impacts.
Strengthening institutional arrangements can help transform commitments into tangible and sustainable actions. The increasing complexity and sophistication as well as the substantial scale of South-South cooperation call for improved and effective institutional arrangements at the global, regional and national levels.
At the global level, common mechanisms and institutions for South-South cooperation engagement should be strengthened. It would be useful to outline the different approaches and establish a systematic approach to the institutionalization of data collection with global coverage. This would create opportunities for fostering shared knowledge, simulating innovation and learning, identifying future partners, and permitting benchmarking and comparison.
At the regional level, intergovernmental regional organizations should be further leveraged to serve as useful intermediaries between national and global frameworks and stimulate a good deal of South-South cooperation among neighboring countries. Regional and subregional organizations should continue to promote transparent, sustainable and accountable development practices, and to enable more partnerships and standardize and harmonize shared policies through regional integration efforts, with a view to promoting and scaling up best practices to benefit developing countries.
At the national level, governments of countries of the North could increase their support to developing countries to improve their expertise and national capacities through sharing necessary knowledge, experience and resources, especially regarding institutional arrangements for development cooperation. Developing countries should try to strengthen the South-South cooperation eco-system so it covers the following aspects, including: developing strong political will, formulating national strategies, choosing the best fit institutional formula, establishing a national body, involving diversified actors, improving financing mechanisms, enabling performance management, and strengthening the information bases and evidences.
The author is director of the division of general affairs at the China Center for International Knowledge on Development. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.
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