Civil society can play a crucial role in managing global affairs

The Asian Age, September 12, 2018

By Pradeep S Mehta and Samir Bhattacharya

One of the first steps to achieve the above will be to build on the gains that civil societies have achieved.

In March 2019, Argentina will host the Second United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation, marking the 40th anniversary of the UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among developing countries. Forty years ago, 138 countries came together to pledge their commitment for achieving national and collective self-reliance through what came to be known as Buenos Aires Plan. Increasingly South-South Cooperation is a happening thing, though not at the cost of South-North cooperation.

The UN Day for South-South Cooperation is commemorated on September 12 every year. This year as the celebrations unfold it will help to revisit the role that civil society can play in far more empowered yet dynamic global south — one that is defined by rapidly changing geo-politics and multipolar world.

Be that as it may, it will also help to look back at what has been achieved and how those gains can be sustained in future. Having caught on pace mostly in the last two decades, South-South Cooperation has a long history. Some Southern institutions’ and developing countries’ record on contributing development assistance goes back almost half a century. For instance, the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development, the first development assistance fund established by a developing country, was set-up in 1961. Similarly, Islamic Development Bank and Arab Bank for Economic Development in Africa came about in the mid-1970s. For almost 50 years, both India and China have also been providing assistance to the low-income African and Asian countries. Some projects made with Chinese assistance such as rail link between Tanzania and Zambia go as far back as the late 1960s. Notably, the largest Southern contributors in recent years, in terms of resource flows are China, India, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, the Republic of Korea and Turkey.

Amidst this, one unique arrangement called the triangular development cooperation (TDC) has been receiving increased attention since 2000s. TDC is the technical and economic cooperation among two or more southern countries, which can be supported by northern (developed) countries or by international organisations through financial and technical means.

The growing relevance of TDC draws from the replicability of development experience of one developing country to another developing country facilitated by a developed country. Thus, it acts as a bridge between North-South and South-South cooperation. As TDC draws on the respective strengths of each partner, it also promotes a new mode of pluralised development cooperation premised upon the fact that a developing country is in a better position to provide goods, services and appropriate solutions to another developing country. This is due to a higher degree of familiarity in dealing with similar challenges.

Viewed from the civil society lens, TDC offers humongous potential for development particularly when a donor country or organisation supports civil society in emerging economies to catalyse change in other developing economies. One of the earliest and perhaps the most successful examples in this context was set by CUTS International, that over last three and half decades evolved into an international research and advocacy group. Over the years, CUTS with the support of northern donors has been working in more than 30 developing countries, involving multiple stakeholders and institutions in the process for awareness generation and capacity building for improved consumer welfare. The organisation has been able to achieve this through focused work on governance, regulation, consumer protection and sustainable development but most notably on competition policy and law.

To put it on record, the organisation has contributed significantly towards the evolution and establishment of several national competition regimes in many African and Asian countries — a fact also duly acknowledged by governments and competition agencies in those countries.

In the current times, changes are reverberating through the international political order and there are new challenges and imminent threat to multilateralism. Even bilateral relationships are feeling the strain of rapidly shifting balance of power. In such a situation, South-South and triangular cooperation can be used as a tool to not only build consensus among different partners but also to enhance the scope and effectiveness of cooperation. It can also contribute to global partnership for sustainable development provided it is played out in a concerted and strategic way.

Doing things right and choosing subjects of cooperation between developed and developing countries will be the key to manage the many disruptions that are coming along with geo-political shifts, increased digitalisation, automation, restrictions on movement of labour, changing demographics and production patterns of goods and services.

One of the first steps to achieve the above will be to build on the gains that civil societies have achieved. For instance, it is an opportune time to reach out to southern civil society, which has emerged in the recent past as a strong coalition advocating for appropriate policies at the international level. This could foster a better regime of economic growth and sustainable development.

Goal 17 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) also recognises the complementary role that South-South Cooperation plays in relation to North-South Cooperation. Therefore, the SDG framework may be a good point to start and in the process those civil society organisations which have been at the forefront of facilitating international cooperation must be heard carefully by the governments of the world.

In short, a greater combination and coordination of Track-1 and Track-2 dialogue would be critical now more than ever. The International Day for South-South Cooperation will be a good day to revive our efforts.

The writers work for CUTS International

This article can also be viewed at: