Published: The Hindu Business Line, April 15, 2005

By Pradeep S Mehta & Nitya Nanda

Trilateral cooperation can be an effective way of bringing “appropriate intermediate technology” and “appropriate policy” to developing countries.

AS THE golden jubilee of the Bandung Conference approaches this month, it would be useful to review the progress made in terms of South-South cooperation, since then. The event was held in 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia, when leaders of 29 developing countries met to promote collective self-reliance as a political imperative.

This was followed by the establishment of a Working Group on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) by the UN General Assembly in 1972. In 1978, many more such leaders gathered at Buenos Aires to formulate a Plan of Action (BAPA), conceptual framework and programmatic goals, all endorsed by the UN General Assembly a few months later.

In 1999, the High-level Committee on the Review of Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC), in its eleventh session, resolved that South-South cooperation should be viewed as a complement and not a substitute for North-South cooperation. This meant the committee felt that a North-South-South cooperation was needed. Thus came the recognition for the importance of trilateral development cooperation.

The Millennium Development Goals and the Monterrey Consensus, among other international covenants, have reinforced the need for enhanced and targeted delivery of overseas aid to developing countries. Most of the aid goes through the bilateral route with a large amount being channelled through inter-governmental organisations.

Another route that is becoming popular is through `trilateral cooperation’ where the aid is channelled through institutions in Third Countries for being applied to development projects in poor countries.

However, at the practical level, trilateral cooperation received a major boost in 1993 at the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). It has since become known as TICAD process in which Japanese resources are used to promote exchanges between Asian and African countries.

Trilateral cooperation takes a broad-based approach that promotes partnerships with various actors, which include traditional donors, multilateral agencies, private sector, academic institutions and civil society organisations.

Development cooperation has traditionally been bilateral, though the donors often used the services of private agencies or non-governmental organisations in their home countries. This has led to the emergence of several large NGOs mainly based in the developed countries ā€” CARE, Oxfam and Actionaid, to name a few. Some of them attract support from other donor governments. Thus, a form of trilateral cooperation started involving the developed country donor, developed country technical assistance providers and developing country recipients.

This form of cooperation was extended when some developed country donors started involving agencies and experts from other developing countries. This was done through both involvement of other developing country governments or that of private or non-governmental organisations. Another form of trilateral cooperation takes place when developed country donors engage inter-governmental organisations (IGOs) for technical assistance. This need not be confused with the arrangement when developed country donors channel their funds through IGOs. An example in this regard could be the UNCTAD project on capacity building on trade policy issues in India supported by DFID.

Capacity building requirement is not an issue in the developing countries only. There are requirements for sensitisation and capacity building in developed countries to give the developing country perspectives to the stakeholders there. Bilateral assistance programmes have often been criticised for their tied nature, that is, aid tied to the donor country’s provision of goods and services. For example, it has been reported that in 1999, “71.6 per cent of its bilateral aid commitments were tied to the purchase of goods and services from the US”. Tied purchases of goods and services usually led to recipient countries paying higher prices. Trilateral cooperation can be a cost-effective way of promoting development cooperation.

The problem can be more complex in the provisioning of technical assistance and consulting services as concerns have often been raised that the type of technical assistance or services offered may not be appropriate to recipient country’s needs. Moreover, a number of donor countries coming up with their own type of technical expertise can create problems for the recipient nation as there can be much confusion and duplicity. Trilateral cooperation can be a way out of such problems.

Another issue related to tied aid is that when the donors tie up with local (donor’s home country) technical assistance providers, there is a possibility of monitoring by the donors going lax as they are likely to develop alliances. A third country provider of technical assistance is far less likely to develop such a relationship with a donor and, hence, monitoring is likely to be more rigorous. Hence, trilateral cooperation may bring more accountability in the implementation of development programmes. Many successful development models and tools have been created in the developing world. A glaring example is Bangladesh which has significant expertise and experience in areas such as microcredit, population and rural development. This is being utilised in other developing countries through trilateral cooperation.

For example, the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies is doing poverty-related projects in India, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, with the financial support of Western donors.

It is well-recognised now that importing technologies or policies or legal practices from the developed countries may not be appropriate for most developing countries. It may be better for them to draw these from countries that are developing but yet at a more advanced stage than they. In fact, ignoring this has cost many developing countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, dearly, as they implemented the Washington Consensus agenda. Trilateral cooperation can be an effective way of bringing “appropriate intermediate technology” and “appropriate policy” to developing countries while taking the help of developed countries in meeting the financial resource need.