Neither Black nor White: Relating North-South and South-South Cooperation

18 Sep

Editor’s note: The following is a discussion written by a junior associate, Kritika Seth of Mumbai India, regarding a topic that is important to a wide range of development and security frameworks.  Promoting more holistic collaborations among global south states that often share a common history and current economic challenges builds important skills and helps ensure that policy reflects local social and cultural contexts.

The origin of South-South cooperation can be traced back to the creation of the Group of 77 (G-77) in 1964 to promote economic and technical cooperation among developing countries. In 1974, UNDP created a “Special Unit” for Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC). A high level conference on Economic Cooperation among Developing Countries (ECDC) held in Caracas in 1981 urged negotiations on a Global Systems of Trade Preferences (GSTP) among developing countries to promote joint initiatives in marketing and technology transfer. In 2003, the UN General Assembly formally opted to use “South-South” instead of “ECDC/TCDC” when referring to cooperation among developing countries.

On September 12th 2013, the UN office of South-South Cooperation celebrated the 10th annual United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation at UN Headquarters in New York.

The global south nations have a shared history (colonialism); shared challenges in development progress (low industrialization); and shared experiences as recipients of aid from the global north. Thus it would be reasonable to anticipate that more south-south exchanges would facilitate a more balanced and effective cooperation that would lead to “peer learning” and exchanges of experiences and development-related ‘best practices.’ Such outcomes could, in turn, lead to more positive development outcomes and reduced poverty levels (aligned with the post-2015 development agenda) in the countries of the global south, and even help to avoid the unbalanced relationships characteristic of much North-South cooperation. As the Indian Ambassador, Mr. Asoke Mukherji explained the “UN needs to catch up to this flexible paradigm and not relate it to North-South Cooperation since they both are different.”

The distinction between North-South cooperation and South-South Cooperation was highlighted in a statement repeatedly elaborated by the panel members who spoke during the morning session. “South-South cooperation is not supplementary to North-South cooperation but complementary to North-South cooperation.”

During the inaugural session panelists deliberately made an effort to make these seemingly similar adjectives sound significantly different. The term ‘complement’ is to create a satisfactory, relational whole, whereas the term ‘supplement’ (in non-economic terms) refers to enhancing or filling in a missing void. Thus, complementary acts to bind and make whole while supplementary acts to enhance what exists or make up for something missing.

Therefore, according to the statement reiterated by panelists, South-South cooperation is the satisfactory whole and is not merely an effort to address the deficiencies of North-South Cooperation.[1]  This however raises a question: Why is it important to establish such a defining line between the two types of cooperation?

South-South cooperation should not presume an either-or but should be supplementary (on ideas and capacity assistance) where North-South cooperation falls short and should also make sure to offer more comprehensive, context-specific, culturally sensitive, assistance across the global south as well. The merging of the two types of assistance offers a win-win situation for nations directly and indirectly involved in development assistance to help balance development efforts and make them sustainable   There are gaps to be filled in social development, but the ultimate goal must be to create more holistic and cooperative engagements among states that share a common history, social contexts and economic challenges.  Such engagements can both inspire development in the global south and help reform development frameworks and priorities in the global north.

The morning inaugural session of the event was witnessed by a relatively full audience; however, an afternoon session that was packed with vital strategy proposals and recommendations for implementing sustainable social protection addressed only a handful of people. Overall, the event included involvement by a number of eminent members from the South-South cooperation team including representatives from UNDP, ILO, the IBSA fund and Group of 77.  In the main, this was a well-structured event that deserved broader interest from the UN community.

Kritika Seth, GAPW

[1] Wanjiru Rose, Is the South-South cooperation achieving its intended outcomes? (2009)


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