Do concepts and definitions matter when the work is already under way?
Delegates grappled with this question at a recent symposium in Buenos Aires, organised to reflect on South-South Cooperation (SSC) since 1978, when the first action plan for the framework was adopted in the same city.
From initiatives to reduce poverty, improve access to health and education, and facilitate trade, developing countries have used SSC to establish a more just and fair international system, attempting to end the hegemony of the Global North.
But much has changed since 138 South states adopted the Buenos Aires Plan of Action (BAPA) nearly 40 years ago. Today, the term SSC has far broader connotations.
The international context is also different; back then the Cold War was in full swing. The world today is multipolar. Countries from the South are more influential and economically powerful, increasingly able to assert their ideals on which cooperation should be based.
And since BAPA was adopted in Argentina, under dictatorship at the time, it also contains no references to human rights, rule of law or good governance, which have all since entered the global development discourse.
Strength in numbers
SSC offers strength in numbers to question principles, norms and rules of the old regime which has been unable to adapt sufficiently to a changing international context. An example of this is the Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (TOSSD) statistic, a work in progress by donor countries to measure all financial flows towards development. Dr Neissan Besharati, SAIIA’s Senior Researcher in Development Effectiveness, lists its numerous flaws and notes that developing countries – the main beneficiaries of these financial flows – have been largely excluded from consultations around TOSSD.
Despite lofty aspirations, realpolitik continues to direct the foreign policies of individual Global South states, as they try to expand their markets and their economic power. Power, reputation, status, domestic and regional stability are equally significant in this context. Nevertheless, solidarity is important as it creates a narrative, through which a collective identity is established. Together with historical and cultural ties, collective identity is helpful in development cooperation and exchanges. These are crucial aspects of SSC – it is not just about monetising relations and measuring finance flows. Rather, it is a political construction aimed at strengthening relations between like-minded developing countries, building alliances, offering mutual and empowering support and jointly devising solutions derived from similar experiences.
Case studies vs indicators
Despite consensus on the broader aspects of SSC, differences on the finer details remain. What South-South Cooperation is and is not is constantly debated. Given the number of countries and regions involved, conflicting ideologies and diverse agendas, this is not surprising.
Importantly, stakeholders caution against allowing these tensions to mount. Some call for formal definitions and concepts to be agreed upon by participating states, while others say this would be a political process and it would take years to achieve consensus. As long as the basic principles and parameters are agreed upon, countries should be able to define SSC according to their own interpretations. This flexibility is far more in line with the spirit of SSC than the argument for definitions.
This does, however, raise questions of measurements, monitoring and evaluation. Currently, there is no consensus on a consistent way of recording SSC. Is trade between Argentina and Brazil an example of bilateral economic relations or is it an example of SSC? It fits both definitions.
The Global North wants the South to monetise cooperation to enable universal comparisons – evident from proposals around the TOSSD statistic. Yet there are political, social and cultural benefits of cooperation that cannot be measured in these terms. The North calls for increased transparency, improved indicators and reliable statistics, but the South asks to respect its diversity of approaches.
There is no unified position here either. Some developing countries, particularly in Asia, question the applicability of monitoring and evaluation to SSC. They also point out that the South needs to create its own monitoring vocabulary. Proponents of this view say that SSC is narrative and political, rather than institutional and practical. Therefore it should be measured through case studies, not indicators.
Given the numbers involved in SSC (in 2015 the UN Development Programme reported 689 projects across 132 countries), consensus is vital if participants want to change the current international system and shape it in a more inclusive way.
Yarik Turianskyi is the Deputy Head of Governance and the African Peer Review Mechanism Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He attended the ‘South-South and Triangular Cooperation for Achieving the 2030 Agenda’ Symposium, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, from 6-8 September 2017, and was a respondent during one of the sessions.