The Gentle but Subversive Power of South-South Cooperation

By Alexander O'Riordan · 2 Oct 2014

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Picture: Brazil
Picture: Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, South Africa's President Jacob Zuma and former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh courtesy Post-Western World blog

In 1995 the World Bank took the rare step of commissioning a documentary on its negotiations of a structural adjustment programme in Uganda. The documentary crew followed negotiations for six months in Uganda and at the Bank headquarters in Washington D.C., having access to meetings at the highest level such as between the presidents of Uganda and the World Bank. The documentary demonstrates that that there is never really any doubt about whether the World Bank will provide funding to Uganda or not. By the time the World Bank is negotiating a programme, it has already been decided to award funding at the highest political levels. In the case of Uganda in the mid-nineties, the West wanted to support a Uganda recovering from the ravages of Idi Amin’s dictatorship and still struggling to put down a resistance and mass executions of civilians in the North. The cold war was winding down and brewing conflicts in the Congo, Burundi, Somalia, Sudan and Rwanda made it vitally important to secure stability where it could be found.

Surprisingly the documentary shows that the World Bank’s attention is not really on what one would expect. The Bank is not really interested in increasing tax revenue or reducing spending but rather on getting access to the most intimate details of Uganda’s governance processes. The documentary shows how the Bank officials pedantically request access to Uganda’s military budget much to the frustration of the president and the cabinet. The Bank officials openly acknowledge that how much Uganda spends on defence is not really significant but they cannot tolerate Uganda’s unwillingness to share every detail of the military budget. The whole documentary is overshadowed by the World Bank’ dogged pursuit of this information that is quite reasonably classified in most countries around the world.

The documentary clearly exposes how the nature of aid is transforming: the Cold War relationship that was about donors giving or taking away money to curry influence is giving way to a more sophisticated relationship based on surveillance and access to information. The World Bank is not concerned about what happens to the money or what happens to Uganda. Its only concern is that Uganda opens every aspect of its governance processes to international scrutiny. The negotiation is about sovereignty and dignity more than anything else…it is almost as if Uganda has already agreed to get screwed and now the negotiation is about whether to do so in the dark or not. Uganda’s line on the defence budget is essentially symbolic. Uganda is arguing for some shred of dignity in what is decidedly an unwanted invasion of privacy. On the other hand, the Bank is quite clear: it has negotiated for every secret and private detail that Uganda has and it will have its way.

While the documentary focused on the World Bank, the nature of the relationship is no different with any other donor. African governments and their donor partners agree at a political level how much money is to be spent and on what. The remainder of the time, the relationship between donors and African governments is almost exclusively about collecting and making available ever increasing and ever more detailed data on the workings of the government and other local actors.

Twenty years later, looking at the nature of development cooperation today the World Bank documentary should be seen as illustrating the future of aid. Today the aid relationship is even more obsessively focussed on access to data and information than it was in the nineties. Western donors have expanded their research and analytic capacities at incomprehensible rate. Western universities arguably control more expertise on Africa than there is in Africa itself. Vast networks of Western think tanks and philanthropies set the developmental agenda and international organisations like the World Bank hold all the data so much so that African governments often need to consult the World Bank databases to find information about their own country.

What all this means is that the aid business has essentially become a surveillance machinery. What this achieves is a sense by Africans that they are always being watched and that any decision their governments make is immediately scrutinised by the West. When governments look outside for information all they see are thousands of eyes looking back at them. This sense of pervasive and perpetual surveillance is incredibly powerful because it creates compliance at an unconscious level with the authority of Western perspectives and agendas. The real power of aid, then, is not in the size of the funding but in the disproportional power relationship encoded in conversation and dialogue between African governments (that are presented as lacking) and Western experts (who are presented as having the solutions).

Now, however, for the first time since the end of the Cold War there are signs that Southern actors might be able to meaningfully challenge this decidedly coercive power relationship in which control of all data, discourse and developmental narratives in the hands of Western powers. The rise of China and in Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda is instilling greater confidence in the ability for Southern actors to offer an alternative vision of development. Furthermore, Southern powers are finally putting resources behind their international agendas such as through the establishment of the BRICS bank but also in South Africa, India, China, Turkey and Brazil financing international cooperation and development programmes.

More importantly, though, Southern powers are making progress on creating an alternative dialogue that will in time, displace a Donor-Recipient dialogue with one based on ‘South-South’ cooperation. On the surface South-South cooperation is innocent enough being about sharing developmental experiences and exchanging information. However, what is happening in reality is much more subversive. South-South cooperation creates a space for dialogue in which Western donors who present themselves as having all the solutions are left out of the room and instead developing countries are able to discuss the limitations of these proffered donor ‘solutions’. By creating dialogue between Southern actors, what is actually happening is that the global South is gradually rewriting the terms, definitions and assumptions inherent in the dominant development narrative. Over time, South-South cooperation could meaningfully generate a consensus on the limitations and risks of blindsided adoption of Western ‘democratic standards’, economic regulation, trade regimes and intellectual property rights. Furthermore, because this South-South dialogue is primarily happening outside of the mainstream, it disrupts the current Western controlled management of information, concepts and narrative.

It remains to be seen if South-South cooperation goes anywhere or not but it offers an enormous opportunity for a new space and alternative developmental narrative that puts Southern voices front and centre. For South Africa, there are some signs that the government is paying attention. The South African embassy, with other Southern powers like Mexico, participated in a forum in Jamaica to help restructure the aid relationship there. South Africa is also publicly supporting alternatives with the BRICS Bank and the Southern African Development Partnership Agency (SADPA).

On the other hand, South Africa’s participation seems lacklustre at best when one considers that South Africa’s embassies in countries like South Sudan and Mozambique do nothing to represent South Africa’s interests in local forums. While the occasional South African ambassador is forward thinking enough to participate in shaping the relationship between Jamaica and its Northern development partners, in most places in the world and in Africa, South Africa makes no effort at all to participate in or shape developmental relationships. Similarly, South Africa often seems much more interested in using its resources to improve the reputation of South Africa as a ‘peace keeper’ rather than focusing on real developmental challenges. Being a peacekeeper is flying in to save the day and not valuable to how development shapes national government policy. For example, flying troops into the Central African Republic (CAR) may look good but it is expensive and has no influence on how CAR structures its economy and governance. If South Africa wants to participate in and support Southern voices through ‘South-South’ cooperation it needs to recognise that what may appear as a sexy emergency response is costly and in the end considerably less effective than seemingly mundane activities such as training CAR’s diplomats and working with them to develop a foreign policy in their own country’s interests.

The biggest problem, however, is that South Africa’s commitment to South-South cooperation often appears to be nothing more than lip-service. If South Africa is to compete on the international stage it will need an intellectual authority that is simply not possible to build inside government departments. Building South Africa’s intellectual authority is impossible without investing in academia and civil society and vital to convincing other emerging countries that South Africa can offer an alternative developmental model. The power of Northern donors does not reside with its bureaucrats but rather with its powerful networks of civil society organisations, think tanks and academic institutions. If South Africa is to make good on its intentions to be a global player, the government needs to step up and invest considerably more in the sort of think tanks, civil society networks and academic institutions that can credibly compete and offer compelling alternative developmental models. The global political agenda will only become more balanced if Southern actors are able to advocate and shape the global narrative; to do so South Africa needs critical and authoritative voices and not just flag waving bureaucrats.

O'Riordan is an Aid Effectiveness and Donor Funding Researcher.

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