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Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation: Emerging Powers Are Changing the Norms

June 3, 2015

By Anthea Mulakala and Eleana Ankel

For Asian nations receiving international development aid, the emergence of homegrown Asian providers and “South-South cooperation” has offered a range of new possibilities and approaches. As growing Asian prosperity has ushered non-traditional development actors like Thailand, India, and China into the ranks of aid providers in Asia, recipient nations are finding that their new partners may be more nimble than traditional donors, alert to local needs and opportunities, and less inclined to impose conditions such as human rights or the rule of law.

Government officials, policy specialists, and development experts representing more than 10 countries convened in Cambodia for the 12th meeting of the Asian Approaches dialogue.

Government officials, policy specialists, and development experts representing more than 10 countries convened in Cambodia for the 12th meeting of the Asian Approaches dialogue.

On May 27 and 28, development experts, policy specialists, and government officials from roughly a dozen countries convened in Cambodia for the twelfth meeting of the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation (AADC) dialogue series. Organized jointly by the Korea Development Institute (KDI) and The Asia Foundation, AADC brings together experts on Asian development to address the evolving challenges facing the region and explore opportunities for cooperation among emerging and traditional development actors.

Taejong Kim, Managing Director of the KDI School of Public Policy and Management, observed that it is not the scale of South-South cooperation that makes it significant, but the distinctiveness of the approach. “Emerging powers are changing the norms and institutions of global governance, including development cooperation,” said Gulshan Sachdeva of Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. “After World War II, all the major institutions were created by Western powers. Now, emerging powers are coming up with their own new ideas.”

With representatives from Cambodia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, China, India, Thailand, Korea, Japan, Australia, the US, and others, this latest round of talks focused specifically on partner country perspectives. In his keynote address, H.E. Sok Siphana, advisor to the Royal Government of Cambodia, described an aid landscape in Cambodia that was being transformed by resources from non-traditional partners like China, and he welcomed the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to address the infrastructure deficit in the region. He noted, however, that Cambodia would still need the support of traditional donors to complement these new funding relationships.

Indeed, new providers with new priorities can sometimes stumble over old obstacles. Pradeep Peiris, director of the Social Scientists Association of Sri Lanka, discussed how South-South cooperation had been conducted during Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. The Rajapaksa government had preferred Southern development partners, he said, because their aid came with no strings attached, whereas Western donors insisted on human rights conditions. The result was a shunning of Western donors during and after the war, and the creation of several white-elephant, prestige projects, funded by Chinese bank loans, such as the now infamous Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport, located in the former president’s sleepy hometown.

But non-traditional providers can also bring a new nimbleness to the field. Swarnim Waglé of Nepal’s National Planning Commission shared some insights from the recent, devastating earthquake there. He praised India and China, which border Nepal, for their agile and collaborative efforts, noting that emergency rescue helicopters from India were the first to be deployed, arriving within hours of the disaster.

Thailand is a prominent development partner in Cambodia, and conference participants visited a joint project, the Cambodian Thai Skills Development Center, which trains 150 to 300 students per year in six trades, including electrical engineering and construction. Now in its second decade of operation, the Center is one of the subjects of a research project to develop an assessment framework for Thailand’s cooperative projects in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. According to lead researcher Siriporn Wajjwalku of Thammasat University, finding a common framework for evaluating South-South cooperation is challenging, because the context of historical and political relationships between neighboring countries often influences project objectives and outcomes.

As regional actors with their own experiences and objectives enlarge their footprint alongside Western donors, continued development in Asia will require a healthy balance of cooperation and competition – a balance that conference participants tagged “coopetition.” As The Asia Foundation’s Gordon Hein noted, there is much experimentation still to be done, and continuing dialogue is essential. “Different countries have different things to contribute,” he said, “and that is what we are trying to explore and foster through the AADC.”

Anthea Mulakala is director of international development cooperation for The Asia Foundation, based in Malaysia. Eleana Ankel is a university graduate interning with the AADC program. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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