South-South Cooperation

Traditional international development has often focused on countries of the global North sending aid and expertise to those in the South. This model is fraught with problems such as inequality, and regressive conditions that prevent developing countries from achieving self-sufficience, rendering them dependent on foreign aid. Preeti Dhillon proposes that South-South cooperation may be a new development model that addresses these gaps. 

In the most widespread development model, Western countries and institutions set the development agenda and help developing countries progress by providing aid or expertise. This post-war remnant has rightly borne much criticism, ranging from accusations of neocolonialism to charges of inefficiency. There is now a new model on the block: south-south cooperation. That is, developing countries helping each other, by sharing technology, ideas, trade and foreign direct investment. Whilst this idea is not necessarily new, it is only since the 1990s that developing countries have had enough resources of their own to make this a reality. The UN has set up the ‘(UNOSSC)’, and has even declared the 12th of September as the ‘United Nations Day of South-South Co-operation’. Does this fashionable model overcome the problems associated with north-south development?

The numbers regarding this new development model are staggering. Southern countries export more goods to other countries of the south than to developed countries. South-south trade accounts for more than 25% of the world’s total trade. New regional trade agreements between developing nations are increasing: in Latin America alone there are more than 20 intraregional trade agreements. South-South cooperation has seen job creation, built infrastructure and increased trade. The success of South-South cooperation is seen to arise from having fewer conditions attached to projects and trade than is commonly seen in the north-south trajectory. Moreover, south-south relationships are supposedly built on solidarity and a shared past, getting rid of the language of ‘donors’ and ‘recipients’. This equality in development has been welcomed by the world at large.

Overall, how different is the south-south relationship to that of north-south? There are a few key trends in south-south cooperation that undermine the success trumpeted by so many of this supposedly unifying partnership.

©Mjbdodane/Creative Commons license

©Mjbdodane/Creative Commons license

For five years, China has been Africa’s largest trading partner. China’s presence in multiple African countries is now firmly established. As much as it may seem that China is building infrastructure in Africa from sheer goodwill, these relationships carry as many conditions as traditional aid agreements. China has financed a myriad of projects, from rail systems to healthcare, from opera houses to education. The projects are not based solely on the needs of the recipient communities, but are often an exchange for access to the natural resources that the countries possess. For example, in Mozambique, China has built an agricultural research centre, provided soft loans and grants for development of basic services, and has even provided computers and music equipment to ministries. It comes as no surprise then that two Chinese companies have signed an agreement to explore and mine minerals in the country, for the next twenty-five years.

However, this new form of conditionality is not as detrimental as the effects of exploitation. Papua New Guinea has the world’s third largest rainforest, and the land has traditionally been owned by tribes and clans who used the land for subsistence. Now, nearly one third of the country is owned by foreign companies, who extract tropical wood from the forests whilst leaving communities without a means to feed themselves. The largest logging firm comes from Malaysia. It is estimated that within seven years, 83% of the accessible forest areas will be gone or severely damaged. The wood gets exported to China, and from there to the west.

On a wider scale, southern participation in land-grabbing is rife. In Ethiopia, the two countries leading the way in land deals are India and Saudi Arabia. Land grabbing displaces and prevents local communities from being able to meet their needs, increasing their food insecurity and stripping them of basic rights. In Ethiopia, where chronic hunger is a problem, food produced under foreign southern ownership is usually exported, or even sold to food aid distributors. African nations are also land grabbing in their home continent, as the example of South African company ‘Congo Agriculture’ and their 80,000 hectare agreement with the Congolese government shows.

©Mo Ibrahim Foundation/Creative Commons license

©Mo Ibrahim Foundation/Creative Commons license

As with north-south development, the new south-south model has a dark side. The 2009 UN conference on south-south cooperation described it as ‘ a partnership among equals based on solidarity’. Whilst this is an admirable sentiment given the history of exploitation based on the unequal north-south relationship, it also remains an aspiration rather than a statement of fact. South-south cooperation has been a welcome addition to the stagnant development paradigm, but should not be regarded as an unproblematic solution.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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