Skip NavigationMenu

Insights and Analysis

Is There an Asian Approach to Development Cooperation?

April 6, 2011

By Anthea Mulakala

Over the last several months, the Korea Development Institute (KDI) and The Asia Foundation have held dialogues on Asian approaches to development cooperation. The idea for the dialogues, which brings together development experts from Korea, China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, grew out of concern over the absence of perspectives from Asian development partners in the international discourse on aid effectiveness and aid architecture.

The Accra High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness held in Ghana in 2008 recognised the increasingly complex and crowded development cooperation arena of the 21st century. The Accra Agenda for Action advocates for a more inclusive approach to the diversity of actors, particularly those involved in South-South cooperation, and encourages them to adopt the Paris Principles. Countries like China, India, and even Malaysia have been engaged in South-South cooperation and technical assistance for decades, yet the global aid architecture is largely a product of the consensus among OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) donors around what aid is for, where it should be directed, and how it should be managed. For some rising Asian donors, this consensus is not always shared.

First, though often characterized as new or emerging donors, many of these countries have a long history of development cooperation that for many years has simply fallen under the radar of traditional aid frameworks. India, for example, has been providing technical assistance and training to third countries since 1964. China has been aiding Africa since the 1950s. Malaysia’s Technical Cooperation Programme has been in operation since 1980.

Second, these countries share the unique experience of being both aid recipients and aid donors, often simultaneously. This experience provides them with a unique understanding of other developing countries and has shaped the partnership philosophy and delivery of aid by these donors. In particular, these Asian countries emphasize the importance of country ownership, country-led development cooperation, and respecting the sovereignty of their partner countries with few conditionalities or strings attached. They view their approach as distinctly non-western and free from a colonial psyche.

Third, these countries wish to share their own success as an alternative path for developing countries. They place an emphasis on shared and sustained growth through infrastructure, trade, industry, and human resource development, as well as responsive and responsible governance. Since 1950, there have been only 13 economies that have grown at an average of 7 percent a year or more for 25 years or longer. Except for India, all of the Asian countries represented in the recent dialogues are in this group (Commission on Growth and Development 2008). Korea’s “developmental state” model used Official Development Assistance (ODA) to help transform the country from one of the poorest in the world to an Asian tiger. Similarly, Singapore’s investment in human resources transformed the natural resource-poor city state into an economic wonder in the two decades following its independence in 1965. As a result, training as capacity-building is a common type of bilateral assistance across these countries. All six development cooperation programs invest heavily in providing training and technical advice that draws on the experience of their own development success. Importantly, however, they do not propose that that there is an Asian development “model.”

Fourth, development cooperation tends to be more explicitly tied to economic and foreign policy objectives with these Asian partners than it is with traditional donors, such as the UK, whose development agenda is clearly poverty focused. “Prosper thy neighbour” is a shared cooperation objective of these countries. Not surprisingly, the largest recipients of Indian assistance are Nepal and Bhutan. Thailand has concentrated its assistance on its neighbours as a tool for foreign policy and regional integration. Malaysia’s fourth Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, used the country’s technical cooperation program as a means of strengthening the collective self-reliance of southern countries as a counterweight to western influence. In the 1990s, China expanded its geographic focus and made an explicit choice to focus its aid on African countries, to promote both African development and mutual economic benefits. This multi-objective orientation has resulted in complex “aid management” in these countries. While Korea and Thailand have dedicated “aid” agencies, India, Malaysia, Singapore, and China do not. With or without dedicated agencies, cooperation is often managed through multiple government departments.

The dialogue series also explored Asian cooperation partner perspectives on aid architecture, specifically the Paris Declaration, aid modalities and development frameworks like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Strikingly, these Asian partners rarely use contemporary aid terminology in describing their approaches or priorities. “Aid” is rarely used to describe their cooperation partnerships and most do not consider themselves “donors.” Surprisingly, MDGs are not used to describe either the goals or indicators of development cooperation for most of these Asian partners. This may be due to the apparent disconnect between the MDG framework and the economic growth agenda. For this reason, Asian partners may be drawn to the G20 Development Working Group agenda, which may provide a closer fit with their approach and practice.

Significantly, China, India, Thailand, and Malaysia have signed the Paris Declaration, but only as recipients, not as donors. Singapore has never signed, and, along with India and China, is not interested in joining the DAC. Therefore, it is unlikely that significant non-traditional partners like India and China will sign the Paris Declaration as donors. These Asian countries also find the process-oriented framework of the Paris Declaration of little relevance to their approach. Furthermore, the Paris Declaration is premised on aid flows from north to south, and therefore is less useful to assess the range of south-south cooperation that encompasses trade, investment and development cooperation. However, recent efforts by the Working Party for Aid Effectiveness’ Task Force on South-South Cooperation and the G20 may provide an important bridge between the North-South and South-South cooperation modalities by creating space for greater knowledge-sharing and learning from the experienced non-traditional development partners.

Lastly, as most of these Asian countries manage their international cooperation through a myriad of government and private sector institutions, it is both impractical and difficult to apply the Paris Declaration indicators which refer to more structured and institutionalized transfers of aid.

In the run up to 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (held in Busan, South Korea end of this year), the KDI and The Asia Foundation will provide a forum for these Asian countries to articulate their views and present their case for a more inclusive dialogue in Busan. The next dialogue in Colombo in June 2011 will invite recipient/partner countries to articulate their experience with both traditional and non-traditional development assistance.

This post originally appeared on the Lowy Institute for International Policy’s blog, Interpreting the Aid Review.

Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Malaysia and regional advisor for donor relations. She can be reached at [email protected].


About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

Mailing Address:
PO Box 193223
San Francisco, CA 94119-3223

The Latest Across Asia

Change Starts Here Campaign Impact

Thank you for powering The Asia Foundation’s mission to improve lives and expand opportunities.