This week, the United Nations (UN) High-Level Committee on South-South Cooperation convenes in New York City, and virtually. For the first time in five years, member state representatives and UN officials gather in this setting to review and advise on how the UN system engages with South-South and triangular cooperation. This contribution discusses recent developments and suggests that delegates should encourage stakeholders to
- be more explicit about what they mean by South-South cooperation;
- carefully explore ways to expand UN engagement with triangular schemes; and
- ask UN entities to focus more explicitly on what South-South stakeholders need and want.
South-South cooperation at the UN: an expanding and diverse agenda
For decades, the UN High-Level Committee on South-South Cooperation has accompanied efforts to expand space for collaboration among developing countries. It has a mandate to review, as well as discuss actions required to strengthen or expand, South-South and triangular cooperation within the UN system. The upcoming session was repeatedly postponed, and a lot has piled up since the last High-Level Committee meeting in 2016.
Delegates gather this week to debate issues that are more visible – and arguably more relevant – today than ever before. Over the past five years, UN member states have gone through several rounds of reporting on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, with South-South cooperation as a prominent means of implementation. The UN development system has entered one of its most ambitious reform processes, where South-South cooperation is closely connected to the strengthened emphasis on cross-border work. The 2019 UN Conference on South-South Cooperation in Buenos Aires, also referred to as “BAPA+40”, has put forward an updated UN reference for South-South cooperation. Inspired by BAPA+40, and under the leadership of the UN Office for South-South cooperation, UN entities have drafted the first system-wide strategy for South-South and triangular cooperation. The Covid-19 pandemic, in turn, has generated new sets of international collaboration and coordination challenges, with hopes turning towards Southern solidarity and South-South (emergency) support schemes also, but not only, with regard to China.
The expanding clout of South-South cooperation has left a visible but uneven mark on organisational structures at the UN. As I have shown in a recently published paper, institutional efforts to mainstream engagement with South-South cooperation have led to mixed results. Some UN entities, including the Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Food Programme, have consistently solidified and expanded their support for South-South cooperation. Other entities, however, have engaged with South-South schemes on a more ad-hoc basis, while yet others still do not have a South-South focal point, let alone a related strategy or budget. Although the system-wide strategy the High-Level Committee is set to endorse represents an inter-agency effort to streamline the UN’s role in South-South cooperation processes, considerable differences among entities are likely to remain.
A key role for delegates at the High-Level Committee thus consists in charting paths towards the future. As an inspiration for UN officials and member state representatives, there are at least three issues decision makers should keep in mind:
1. Be explicit about definitions and meanings
Official UN definitions of South-South cooperation are broad and allow for a variety of interpretations and operationalisations. Among stakeholders there is no explicit agreement on who belongs to the South, what exactly counts as South-South cooperation, and how South-South cooperation should be reported on. The position of the UN development system in these processes lacks clarity. What role should UN entities play with regard to South-South schemes? Do they see themselves primarily as supporting South-South cooperation or is their engagement as multilateral bodies, by definition, part of a triangular relationship?
These questions arguably will not be settled once and for all, and they do not need to be. The variety of existing approaches and understandings can make the South-South space an innovative and exciting one. For exchange across borders and institutional silos to bear fruit, however, underlying assumptions need to be addressed – not only to better report on South-South initiatives but also evaluate and show to different audiences why South-South cooperation matters. The recent expansion of South-South spaces requires an even more deliberate and explicit focus on definitions and meanings in order to enable meaningful collaboration and coordination, within and between organisations.
2. Carefully explore triangular cooperation
The UN defines triangular cooperation as cooperation among Southern countries facilitated by a multilateral body or traditional donor. Triangular cooperation has received the most prominent embrace so far in the 2019 BAPA+40 outcome document; and UN stakeholders across the board – including the UN Office for South-South Cooperation – are interested in expanding their engagement with triangular schemes.
A growing number of both Southern and traditional donor countries already have a substantial trajectory on triangular projects outside UN structures. In order to connect their interests and expertise with UN processes, the Trust Fund for South-South Cooperation set up by the General Assembly offers an established tool that partners beyond the South, including traditional donors, could use to support the expansion of triangular schemes at and with the UN.
Throughout these rapprochements, UN entities should carefully factor in concerns by certain Southern stakeholders that triangular cooperation might open the door for Northern players to dominate South-South spaces. Whether triangular cooperation is a space for policy learning across traditional divides, or an arena for the reformulation of power structures among established and emerging players, depends on the contours of concrete schemes that UN entities should make sure to co-shape.
3. Ask – and listen to – Southern stakeholders
For decades, UN documents have suggested that support for South-South cooperation should be mainstreamed across the UN system in order to build organisational capacity. While the promotion of cooperation formats beyond traditional North-South schemes is laudable, the tendency at the UN to build up capacity on South-South cooperation “for the sake of it” needs to be reviewed. A recent report by the UN Secretary-General, for instance, suggests that the number of UN entities with dedicated South-South teams has been decreasing. While this does not mean that South-South and triangular schemes have become less important for international cooperation processes, it highlights the need to critically evaluate attempts to create additional organisational structures and processes.
Above all, UN entities should carefully listen to those they are supposed to support. How do UN member states that self-identify as Southern, notably UN programme countries, see their role in South-South processes? What do they expect from the UN? What do UN entities need to do in order to provide meaningful support? Answers to these questions will differ across UN entities, and from one national context to another. Instead of wasting resources in the setup and demolition of South-South units, entities across the UN system should dedicate time and energy to mainstreaming a commitment to close and continuous exchange with South-South stakeholders across their different layers of work.