- South-South Cooperation (SSC) has been regaining traction in recent years. Due to setbacks in North-South Cooperation, calls for new development efforts are increasing. Development partnerships among Southern states aim to be complementary to traditional cooperation and is rooted on horizontality, solidarity, and respect for national sovereignty and ownership.
- SSC offers itself as a modality that attempts to shift away from ineffective development cooperation practices. One of its core principles, which came from the Bandung Era, is to forward the decolonization agenda. With this, SSC has the potential to leverage a kind of development cooperation that is linked with peoples’ demands, values, and lived realities.
- Despite SSC’s potential to address the development needs of the global South, it is also laced with several issues such as the emergence of new hegemonic influences, transparency and accountability challenges, lack of accurate analyses and measurement of SSC projects, and limited civic space.
- For SSC to truly respond to crises experienced by global South nations, leaders must ensure meaningful multistakeholder dialogues with partner countries, civil society, and communities; donors must adhere to Effective Development Cooperation Principles; providers must apply a human rights-based approach in their initiatives; Southern civil society must continue forging solidarity with each other, strengthening calls for people-centered development.
In a multiplex world historically challenged by different kinds of crises, varied forms of cooperation were developed and are being developed to alleviate many of our global challenges. From the traditional type of international cooperation to the strong call for locally-led development, partnerships in the development cooperation space have evolved overtime in line with changes in political and socioeconomic contexts.
One form of development cooperation that is gaining traction once again is South-South Cooperation (SSC). The United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) defines SSC as
a common endeavour of peoples and countries of the South, born out of shared experiences and sympathies, based on their common objectives and solidarity, and guided by, inter alia, the principles of respect for national sovereignty and ownership, free from any conditionalities. Operationally, South-South cooperation for development is a process whereby two or more developing countries pursue their individual and/or shared national capacity development objectives through exchanges of knowledge, skills, resources and technical know-how and through regional and interregional collective actions
Beyond the definitions cited by UNOSSC, South-South Cooperation serves as complementary to traditional North-South Cooperation – not aiming to overhaul the necessity and urgency of Northern donors’ historical obligations to global South peoples. During the “Bandung era” of the 1950s when the decolonization discourse was firm as a result of the impacts of the Second World War, SSC was postured as a decolonizing antidote to combat the hegemonic powers of Northern states. The Bandung Conference in 1955, joined then by 29 newly independent nations in Africa and Asia, emphasized the importance of (1) achieving economic modernization via state-led development and (2) demanding greater political and economic equality vis-a-vis developed countries.
However, at its current configuration, . SSC is being practiced and funded by Southern providers such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the IBSA Forum (India, Brazil, South Africa), among others. While capacity building and technical cooperation initiatives are important aspects of South-South development, it dampens the deeper and more political nature of SSC. Now more than ever, SSC needs to revisit its historical purpose of amplifying Southern perspectives and development agenda to respond to critical development issues.
Political relevance of South-South Cooperation
Despite the polycrisis in the form of debt distress, extreme poverty and inequalities, and the climate emergency, traditional international cooperation is falling short in delivering on its commitments to provide effective and meaningful assistance to the marginalized.
Because of the gaps in the aid architecture long-established by the global North, SSC offers itself as a modality that attempts to shift away from ineffective development cooperation practices. One of its raisons d’etres is to advance the decolonization agenda. This means that Southern providers and partner countries are called to raise independent worldviews through and from the lens of previously-colonized peoples who were and are still being systemically silenced by the continuing dominance of the North over development decisions. In this context, SSC is in the position to politically shape and elevate discourses that will forward “strategic autonomy and the role of poor countries in the pursuit of their national interests”.
Using SSC in aiding the decolonization process also puts forth the importance of strengthening an alternative development agenda that is not co-opted by Western powers. For instance, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America-People’s Trade Treaty (ALBA-TCP), considered as a ‘decolonial delinking project’, essentially aims to construct partnerships that are detached from long-standing development processes, anchored on colonial legacies.
Another prominent figure in the decolonization process is Cuba. Following the Cuban Revolution, the country’s foreign policy framework is hinged on the following principles:
- Principle of peaceful coexistence.
- Solidarity with peoples, especially those of the Third World, in their striving for development and in the face of disasters that may affect them.
- Unconditional collaboration, with unrestricted respect for nations’ sovereignty, national laws, culture, religion and self-determination.
- Rejection of the use of collaboration as a political instrument to interfere in the internal affairs of States.
- This collaboration and the Cuban personnel participating in collaboration activities must exemplify the values of solidarity and moral integrity promoted by the Cuban Revolution.
- Principle of mutual respect and sovereign equality
These aspects of Cuba’s involvement in South-South Cooperation exemplify a concrete effort to reaffirm their internationalist and anti-imperialist groundwork on collaboration and self-determination. Such a positioning emphasizes how SSC can be an avenue to promote a kind of development cooperation that is linked with the demands, needs, and lived realities of Southern countries.
With Agenda 2030 lagging behind, South-South Cooperation can also be a relevant tool to achieve the SDGs. SSC has produced good practices related to capacity-building, knowledge generation and lesson learning, and technology exchanges, among others (e.g. the 2010 high-level event on South-South Cooperation in Bogota, Colombia), to help drive the Goals forward. Using SSC principles, achievement of the SDGs is expected to be in tandem with partner countries’ development plans and priorities. Contrary to North-South Cooperation, SSC leverages itself as a development cooperation modality where the primary drivers of achieving development are equitable partnerships and solidarity among countries.
South-South Cooperation’s political relevance continues to be anchored on its potential to address structural problems that are disproportionately affecting global South peoples. Since its essence is founded on fostering equitable partnerships, it has the ability to mobilize solutions that can respond to peoples’ development demands. The implementation of such principles and systems above are, of course, not without gaps. Different issues within the SSC system and the external context that shapes it contributes to how it is and can be mobilized.
Some issues of South-South Cooperation
South-South Cooperation risks following the same development scaffold of traditional cooperation which is based on deepened policy conditionalities and ineffective systems that only perpetuate the marginalization of many global South states. Despite similar experiences under colonization, recent history has given way for some Southern states to acquire more power than others. Alliances such as the BRICS replicate and share the same development rhetoric that reinforce structural inequalities and the illusion that partner countries have the freedom to choose among different donors.
In a 2016 Report of a number of SSC case studies, BRICS interventions, particularly in Africa, create the same dire conditions for developing countries. Despite South-South Cooperation’s supposed uniqueness that is distinct from traditional international cooperation, violation of peoples’ rights and national sovereignty were reported. BRICS states have been exposed to engage in extractive industries, large-scale infrastructure projects, and privileging national elites to forward their foreign policy agendas. Especially with the current state of affairs among China, Russia, and the United States, SSC is at risk of being instrumentalized to direct partner countries towards interests largely paved by powerful countries and emerging ones.
Transparency and accountability in SSC spaces
Seeking transparency and accountability in projects also poses a challenge to the development legitimacy and effectiveness of South-South Cooperation. Since its inception, SSC providers only did minimal efforts to provide project information because activities are usually scattered, irregular, incomplete and incomparable. One reason is because aid from Southern donors come from different ministries, delivering different kinds of assistance with no overarching institutional structure to have an overview of SSC flows in aggregate. Except for efforts under the Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) to collect SSC data, other ways of collecting data on disbursement flows remain limited and are difficult to collect and consolidate. Even mechanisms within TOSSD are still in the process of being improved especially in terms making comprehensive reporting by SSC providers.
Graph 1: Sectoral distribution of South-South cooperation (TOSSD 2020 activities, by pillar)
Furthermore, access to aid flow information is usually either partial or unavailable, and seldom covered by information access laws, opening up the possibilities for secrecy and corruption.
The diversity and plurality in SSC are also reasons that contribute to the difficulty of pursuing transparency in reporting and information dissemination. As much as openness in aid disbursements allow for more flexibility, lack of transparency and accountability standards increase the probability for corruption to happen as well as having lapses in judgments that affect the quality of SSC assistance.
Lack of clear analyses and measurement
While a basic level of analysis and measurement can be done through TOSSD, it is still generally challenging for SSC to craft comprehensive implementation reports as many Southern providers are yet to establish robust information management systems that would feed into their works.
In the case of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC), while monitoring exercises are open to SSC providers, donors face difficulties in implementing the monitoring indictors due to the nature of SSC flows. The gaps in bolstering a constructive monitoring framework and tools to address the rational, technical, and development needs of SSC are obstacles in clarifying how it actually contributes to peoples’ development.
Although a pilot test of the self-assessment framework for measuring the effectiveness of South-South Cooperation was already led by Colombia last year under GPEDC, a broader and more rigorous structure of analyzing and measuring SSC is needed to see how projects really contribute to address development needs in the global South.
Lack of civil society space
Similar to North-South Cooperation, SSC offers limited space for civil society to engage in. In a plethora of high-level meetings and other conferences, Implementation of projects on the ground level are also not sufficiently consulted with CSOs and communities. Save for a number of efforts in the Latin America and Caribbean (LAC) region, civil society is generally not directly engaged in SSC initiatives for a number of reasons such as the lack of trust between states and CSOs, lack of information systems provided for civil society, and SSC’s state-centric approach that mostly value government to government partnerships. Due to hindrances with bringing in CSO and community perspectives in SSC projects and policies, clear measurements of project effectiveness and impacts are also difficult to establish.
On a positive note, CSOs are active observers in the TOSSD task force and could participate in deliberations. Particularly, CSOs were supportive of the proposed framework by Brazil which highlighted needed adjustments to the overall reporting requirements of providers.
How do we envision the future of South-South Cooperation?
With the SDGs off-track and development finance constrained by corporate capture, lack of coordination, and geopolitical considerations, South-South Cooperation must urgently be directed as an effective tool to address multiple crises.
While it continues to forward state-centric approaches, SSC actors and institutions must amp up their efforts to foster meaningful multi-stakeholder dialogues with CSOs and communities. A bottom-up approach that will enrich conversations around the country and democratic ownership of aid must be a priority. These include iterative negotiations and discussions on respecting government choices, aligning with partner country priorities, and non-imposition of reform conditions. Undoubtedly, CSOs and communities bring value to South-South Cooperation efforts. With this, it is imperative that policies and implementation of projects embrace policies and modes of engagement that include civil society and community insights.
Donor states must also adhere with the Effective Development Cooperation (EDC) principles. Banking on SSC’s foundation of solidarity, equitable partnerships, and respect for national sovereignty among others, Southern providers are expected to adhere with the Principles the same way these are demanded from Northern donors. SSC providers are then challenged to minimize tied aid and instead, focus on being more transparent in their decisions and open with other developing country partners in terms of development priorities.
In relation to SSC’s political relevance, it must craft approaches and frameworks that will strengthen its own philosophy that is distinct from the hegemonic take of North-South Cooperation. Moving forward,prioritize a development trajectory that is not anymore aligned with neoliberal and neocolonial tendencies. For instance, multilateral and regional development banks from the global South should support and strengthen mechanisms and policies that would continue to ensure the primacy of concessional financing. While openness among providers and recipients is encouraged, a rules-based system is necessary to ensure adherence to the effectiveness agenda and for ease of impact measurement.
Especially in an international economic system that regard private sector-led development as paramount, it becomes more pertinent for SSC actors to strictly place human rights-based approaches at the center of their policies, political frameworks, and implementation. This means that aid relationships must empower people on the ground as part of attaining development goals of and for global South peoples.
As civil society and peoples’ organizations, it is imperative to continue strengthening and establishing solidarity with other CSOs and social movements forwarding people-centered development. In line with this, civil society should be further pushing calls and political positions that emphasize the crucial fulfillment of a genuinely Southern-led development. Calls must raise messages pertaining to decolonization, locally-led development, and seeking accountability and reparations from Northern states. In addition, CSOs must continue asserting and pursuing spaces in SSC policy arenas to elevate peoples’ demands and call for transformative shifts in development cooperation.
Ultimately, just like in long-standing critiques on all forms of development cooperation policies and mechanisms, a reform of the aid architecture is the key to achieve people-centered, rights-based, and effective development. If South-South Cooperation seeks to change the way development is being practiced today, it must herald new and grassroots paradigms that will put global South peoples at the heart of solutions to global crises.
 Issues on South-South Cooperation, CPDE (2014)
 Country Case Studies on South-South Cooperation, CPDE & The Reality of Aid Network (2016)
 Issues on South-South Cooperation, CPDE (2014)
 Issues on South-South Cooperation, CPDE (2014)