Today is perhaps one of the less celebrated international days, namely the United Nations (UN) Day for South-South Cooperation – a notion of solidarity, where countries forego some aspects of national interest in the pursuit of a higher or common good.
South-South cooperation has a long history, generally traced back to the solidarity politics of the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the subsequent UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1964.
A fuzzy concept, the South African Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) describes South-South cooperation as ‘co-operation amongst countries and/or groupings in the global South aimed at addressing and developing a common stance on political, economic, social and human rights issues … in order to overcome the historical legacy of marginalization...’
South Africa’s ruling African National Congress readily points to the military support that Cuba provided first in 1975/6, and again in 1987/8, to halt apartheid South Africa’s incursions into Angola as a prime example of South-South solidarity in action.
Cuban support had raised the costs of South Africa’s military intervention into Angola, and played an important role in the subsequent independence for Namibia – which in turn contributed to change in South Africa. It was no surprise, therefore, that Raúl Castro was one of only six foreign leaders – of the 91 in attendance – to speak at the memorial ceremony of Nelson Mandela in 2013.
SA’s partnership with the DRC is often quoted as an example of South-South cooperation
Under successive presidents – Mandela, Mbeki and Zuma – since 1994, South Africa has gone to exceptional lengths to repay that debt, pouring vast amounts of funding towards scholarships and support in Cuba. At a recent meeting of the International Relations Committee in Parliament, DIRCO reported yet another disbursement of R27 million (out of R110 million) for the ‘Cuban Economic Package Project’ – although providing little additional information.
In its description, the UN Office for South-South cooperation highlights non-interference, equality, non-conditionality and national sovereignty as principles of South-South cooperation.
Beyond the largesse provided to Cuba, South Africa’s development partnership with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is often quoted as an example of South-South cooperation. Over the last 20 years, the DRC has been the biggest recipient of South African foreign assistance.
According to a recent report from the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA), South Africa contributed over US$1 billion in official development assistance cooperation activities in the DRC between 2001 and 2015, peaking at US$181 million in 2008. These are large amounts for a small, middle-income economy and made South Africa the third-largest provider of aid to the DRC.
South Africa argues that it better understands and appreciates the local political, economic and cultural context, and is thus able to more effectively conduct peace-making and governance reform in complex environments such as the DRC. The francophone modus operandi of the Congolese public system, however, does pose practical challenges to South Africa’s intervention – as does the unstable political situation and lack of capacity of the DRC civil service.
Is South-South cooperation more effective than North-South cooperation in fragile environments?
While the supposedly horizontal relationship has brought numerous benefits to the DRC, it is unclear what South Africa gains from its large investments. However, in a similar way in which Cuba supported Angola in its proxy war with the United States, the country has strategic interests given the extent to which the DRC lies at the heart of instability in Central Africa and the Great Lakes Region. Large projects such as the Grand Inga hydroelectric scheme also hold immense potential benefit for South Africa; in this case for the provision of electricity. In this sense, South-South solidarity is no different to acting in one’s enlightened self-interest.
Is South-South cooperation more effective than North-South cooperation in fragile environments? The answer is inconclusive given the limited data available and lack of systemic outcome evaluations of South Africa’s efforts.
At the global level, the most practical manifestation of South-South solidarity and cooperation is likely seen in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) – an ideological alliance that sees itself as a counterweight to the G7 group of industrialised countries.
The BRICS grouping intends to reshape global power relationships away from a Western, neoliberal and free-market dominated framework. Informed by the requirement for individual rights, free trade, democracy and the like, the focus is shifted to national sovereignty; the importance of a strong, developmental state; non-intervention in the domestic affairs of states, democratisation at a state’s own pace, etc.
For Africa, the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) is potentially very important. Africa’s infrastructure financing deficit is estimated to be at US$100 billion a year, and there is a perceived lack of ambition by developed countries to invest in Africa.
On the one hand, the lack of investment in energy, transport and water infrastructure presents a significant barrier to economic growth and development. On the other hand, there is a huge global savings glut estimated at US$17 trillion in 2012 that could be accessed to invest in Africa.
The NDB could therefore complement the existing multilateral development banks such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The NDB differs in five important aspects.
South-South cooperation is an important framework, but more must be done to quantify impact
The first is speed. Instead of the slow pace of the other banks, the NDB has already extended loans to four of its members (Russia being the exception) during the first six months of its operation, providing nearly US$1 billion worth of loans to fund infrastructure projects. This compares to the standard time of more than 18 months from application to the loan being awarded.
Second: capital and voting rights are currently shared equally among the five founding members. The NDB is likely to decide to open its membership to all members of the UN, but the BRICS countries will retain 55% shareholding.
Third: the NDB intends to provide greater leverage of domestic private capital within developing countries. This is particularly important in South Africa, where substantial financial resources in the private sector are not being meaningfully channelled towards infrastructure development.
Fourth: the NDB has started extending loans in domestic currencies (in the case of the loan extended to China), which will assist countries to mitigate exchange rate risks when borrowing, which typically occurs in US dollars.
Finally: the bank will rely on existing country systems rather than impose new systems that create overly bureaucratic processes. This will be done in order to speed up operations and secure greater involvement from domestic players, but – given the lack of capacity in some countries – may also be a huge risk.
Time will tell what the future of the BRICS grouping will be, but certainly the NDB will survive and has the potential to contribute significantly to Africa’s development.
In the meanwhile, some practical aspects of South-South cooperation – such as that between South Africa and the DRC – are substantial and will likely continue. A stable DRC is crucial for the Southern African Development Community and for the region, but other aspects – such as the current level of support provided to Cuba – are more questionable.
South-South cooperation has emerged as an important framework for economic, political and other cooperation, but since taxpayer monies are used in the process, much more work needs to be done to cohere data and quantify impact. Until then it remains vague and unclear what the benefits and drawbacks of solidarity funding actually amounts to.
Jakkie Cilliers, Head, African Futures and Innovation, Institute for Security Studies
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