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Reflecting on 60 Years of South-South Cooperation: Then and Now

November 4, 2015

By Anthea Mulakala

2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the historic 1955 Asian-African conference held in Bandung, Indonesia, which laid the foundation for the solidarity that underpins South-South Cooperation (SSC) today. While the principles of SSC (mutual benefit, respect for sovereignty, non-interference, non-aggression), remain the same then and now, six decades later, some objectives and modalities have changed.

Last week in Jakarta, development experts, policy specialists, and government officials from 13 countries reflected on SSC’s historic path and dynamic future at the 13th meeting of the Asian Approaches to Development Cooperation (AADC) dialogue series. (Read more about this ongoing dialogue).

In 1955, the objectives of SSC were overtly political and ideological. Many Asian and African nations were newly independent or engaged in liberation movements, while also navigating Cold War politics. Unsurprisingly, the Bandung Conference forged solidarity against the challenges of colonialism, imperialism, and Cold War aggression. During the same period, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai launched the five principles of peaceful coexistence. India provided complementary capacity-building and technical cooperation to emerging nations. India’s flagship Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) program was launched in 1964 to promote the social and economic advancement of countries recovering from colonial rule. SSC was mostly bilateral in nature, with the countries of the global south sharing their own development lessons and experiences with partners.

Western foreign aid also emerged during this period, and many SSC providers were also recipients of Western aid. As Western aid grew in volume and scope, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) was established in 1961, SSC went largely under the radar.

Fast forward 60 years, and SSC has become a centerpiece of development cooperation. As traditional aid stagnates, volumes of SSC have risen dramatically. Chinese and Indian development assistance reached $7.1 billion and $1.3 billion in 2013, largely a reflection of the growth of these economies. SSC has also diversified. While grants and technical cooperation remain key components, they have been surpassed by concessional loans and line of credits, largely for infrastructure projects. Today, concessional loans comprise more than 50 percent of China’s SSC, while India’s LOCs totaled $10.2 billion in 2014.

Technical cooperation and knowledge-sharing remain a cornerstone, however, with new countries like Singapore and Mongolia contributing their expertise. According to Chng Tze Chia, assistant director of Technical Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, who spoke at the Jakarta dialogue, “Singaporeans share the belief with many in the South-South Cooperation community that the sharing of skills and knowledge transfer is equally, if not more important, than funding in breaking the cycle of low development.” Singapore launched the Singapore Cooperation Program in 1992 and has trained more than 100,000 officials from 170 countries in a wide range of technical fields central to effective governance and improved development outcomes. Mongolia established its International Cooperation Fund in 2013 to share Mongolia’s experience in democracy and market economy with emerging democracies such as Myanmar, Kyrgyzstan, and Afghanistan, as well as North Korea. Ambassador Jambaldorj Tserendorj, executive secretary of Mongolia’s International Cooperation Fund, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that “the ICF is an important tool to strengthen Mongolia’s role and contributions internationally as a means of diplomatic soft power policy through sharing of its experiences of transition to democracy and democratic process, expanding bilateral cooperation with countries in the region, and providing development and technical support for emerging democracies.”

Multilateralism and collaboration with Western nations has also grown. In 2010, Korea became the first former Least Developed Country (LDC) to join the OECD-DAC. China, India, and Indonesia have signed Memoranda of Understanding or established triangular partnerships for development cooperation with traditional donors. In 2015, two new development banks were launched by Southern providers. The New Development Bank of BRICS and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank pool the resources of southern and other providers to address the critical infrastructure gaps facing the developing world.

As SSC has grown, so has the need for better structures, governance, management, and monitoring of these resources. China, India, Thailand, Korea, and Indonesia have multiple government departments or ministries that hold responsibility for different aspects of their SSC. Indonesia’s system is perhaps the most complex, with four key ministries involved. In her keynote address, HE Esti Andayani, director general for Information and Public Diplomacy in Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, indicated that Indonesia intends to streamline this infrastructure and form a single agency under the Mid-Term Development Plan 2015-2019. India similarly established a lead agency, the Development Partnership Administration in 2012. Measurement of SSC impacts is also a thorny issue. Dr. Siriporn Wajjwalku from Thammasat University in Thailand commented that developing indicators is challenging because most SSC has both foreign policy and aid objectives which may differ between collaborating partners.

While the context of the Bandung Conference has changed, the spirit of Bandung remains. The New Asia-Africa Strategic Partnership (NAASP) launched on the 50th anniversary of Bandung, reaffirmed the original principles of mutual benefit and peaceful co-existence and embraced new principles including democracy, protection of human rights, and multilateralism. Meeting 21st century challenges, embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals, will require both effective SSC and collaborative North-South solutions.

Anthea Mulakala is director of The Asia Foundation’s International Development Cooperation program, based in Malaysia. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Washington DC
Related programs: Development and Aid Effectiveness, Good Governance


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