One of the many revolutions taking place in the world of international aid and co-operation is the rebirth of a movement that challenges what is now generally described as the ‘traditional’ aid model. Instead of a vertical donor-recipient approach to aid giving, south-south cooperation (SSC) emphasises horizontality and mutuality.

At a conference in Bogotá last week, sponsored by the Colombian and Indonesian governments, delegates reaffirmed their view that, with developing countries growing fast, SSC has as much to say about the future of international development as western aid.

It is one of the big ideas on the development landscape and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), to its credit, is fully supporting it – despite the challenging critique of OECD donor practices at its heart. While the first draft of the outcome document for the Busan Aid Effectiveness conference hardly mentioned SSC, the latest draft has a whole section on it.

SSC aficionados say it all began at a 1955 conference in Bandung, Indonesia, which set out plans for economic and social co-operation between Asia and Africa. Some 29 countries representing more than half the world’s population sent delegates, and condemned ‘colonialism in all of its manifestations’. But SSC has been revitalised recently as the hegemony of the west has faltered, allowing other powers and theories to enter the fray.

SSC is much more than just another aid modality. As well as financing, SSC consists of exchange of experts, technical assistance, goods and services (in kind), information on best practices, and initiatives to increase joint-negotiation capacities.

But its political significance may be as important as its anticipated concrete impacts. At its most radical, SSC challenges a form of development that has served northern interests more than those of the ‘recipients’ of aid. While trying to stay generous in their outlook towards northern donors, who still provide the vast majority of aid, proponents of SSC implicitly challenge the traditional aid approach as self-serving, patronising and lacking in imagination.

While northern development models favour words like growth and poverty reduction, SSC emphasises jobs and institution building. While aid givers in the north are infatuated with ‘results’ (short-term targets being reached), SSC sees the importance of processes and longer-term capacity development.

But there are important critiques to be made of SSC. First, there is the inevitable problem of definition. SSC is estimated to be worth between $10-15bn a year, but almost all of this is accounted for by five or six emerging powers, including China, Venezuela, Turkey and India, not to mention well established non-OECD donors like Saudi Arabia, estimated to give more than $5bn a year.

But what is horizontal about China’s relationship with Zambia (in the news this week because the new president is known for his anti-Chinese rhetoric)? Such aid relationships often look more like traditional vertical pairings, a far cry from the peer-to-peer relationships lauded at the conference and typified by a Bhutan-Benin-Costa Rica project, all learning from each other with minimal cash involvement.

The current habit of splitting aid into two categories – traditional OECD aid and horizontal south-south co-operation – is probably no longer useful. It may be time to introduce a third category to describe emerging, non-DAC countries whose aid cannot seriously be described as horizontal.

Second, all this south-south solidarity is true only up to a point. Bringing in terms like north and south already sounds a little anachronistic given the trajectory and international political clout of the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), among others. There is a great deal that is good about northern aid, and it sometimes gets forgotten amid the excitement.

Moreover, the notion that southern governments are more likely to have the needs of the poorest at heart is a mistake. How many countries in Africa have been run by kleptocrats? And who is responsible for the fact that Latin America is the most unequal continent?

While northern countries shoulder a good deal of the blame for continued poverty, inequality and human rights abuses, so do southern governments who have themselves led or been complicit in policies that have run the poor into the ground. Slum dwellers are moved from their rickety homes by southern governments, and rural communities lose their land because of southern government policy as much as the interminable logic of a global market that desires ever-greater resource extraction.

This is not to deny the historic importance of a growth in south-south cooperation – exploitation by richer countries is by no means a thing of the past. But it is to warn against simplistic rhetoric, and to insist on the importance of fostering ties between peoples, not just governments.

Without increased accountability, there is little reason for poor communities to trust their governments to make the right decisions for them. While governments at the conference tended to emphasise ‘mutual accountability’ between themselves, there was less talk of public accountability, so that civil society, especially the poorest people, is able to hold them to account.

One final thought. Now that we have moved from north-south to south-south, the next logical step is to increase support for south-north co-operation? There are many problems (from social conflict to drugs, to conservation) in European and other western countries that southern experiences could help with, as I argued in a blog on the Guardian’s Katine website a couple of years ago.

The OECD Development Assistance Committee should set up a new south-north cooperation unit. The deep arrogance of the west, a product of centuries of wealth, will gradually erode as other countries find their feet and demonstrate more confidence. All countries will benefit from the horizontalisation of international cooperation.


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