Triangular, the shape of things to come?

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By Alicia Barcena, Executive Secretary, ECLAC, Mario Pezzini, Director, OECD Development Centre, and Stefano Manservisi,

This blog is part of an ongoing series evaluating various facets
Development in Transition

As the global community gathers in Argentina to mark the 40th anniversary of the United Nations Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries, we have an additional opportunity to discuss, debate, and design a reinvigorated international co-operation system.

And something as small as what is currently called “triangular co-operation” can take centre stage in that system. Just like few imagined that the European Coal and Steel Community created in 1950 would grow into what the European Union is today, we think triangular co-operation’s future potential could very well dwarf its current status.

Rather than rationalise business as usual, we believe triangular co-operation could give us, instead, wide space for unleashing new thinking about the promise and value of multi-partner engagements to advance inclusive and sustainable development.

Shining the spotlight on triangular co-operation begins with understanding its rather marginal role thus far. An OECD Development Assistance Committee 2012 survey shows that most developing countries received less than USD 5 million in total triangular co-operation. We can point to several examples of diverse countries and organizations coming together to address development challenges. Just look at Austria, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda co-operating on a project from 2014-2016 to strengthen the capacities of East African NGOs to engage in policy dialogue.
But is triangular co-operation’s destiny to remain just a source of piecemeal illustrations on the margins?

As we consider this question and continue to raise the curtain on triangular co-operation, we need to take a closer look at the larger — and changing — context in which such co-operation acts.

A world focusing on the eradication of extreme poverty through bilateral financial transfers from donors to recipients is essentially a two-actor play with a narrow view in the end. That story fails to address other development challenges and to account for structural traps that together with extreme poverty hold people back, even in the face of significant development progress.

It disregards collective efforts to produce and preserve global and regional public goods. It also overlooks multiple and varied partners that are now on the stage, including China and India, as well as businesses, philanthropies, civil society, mayors, and other local leaders.

In short, with the adoption of the universal, multifaceted, and interrelated Sustainable Development Goals, the script for international co-operation is increasingly being redrafted to one that is designing, implementing, and assessing complex policies — and not just financial transactions — to advance both national sustainable development and global public goods.

This changing context built more and more on integrated, multidimensional, and multistakeholder approaches might very well present triangular cooperation with a new, leading role to play in connection with South-South co-operation. We have been witnessing a progression towards a multilayered and multilateral co-operation.

Indeed, as development is in transition toward the SDGs and as international co-operation evolves to embrace the changing scene, multilayered co-operation must move from the margins to the mainstream — from a supporting role to a leading one.

Countries facing development challenges bring different but complementary, roles. Middle-income countries, for instance, may have the freshest recollections of what it takes to address structural impediments to sustained development to share with least developed countries as they seek greater voice, action, and self-determination toward the same goal. Advanced economies have clear interests in an interconnected world to facilitate such smooth interactions toward greater sharing.

Like a sturdy three-legged stool, advanced, middle-income, and least-developed countries are critically important co-actors in co-operation and co-creators of shared impacts. Collectively, they could help transform triangular co-operation into a laboratory for testing, defining, and scaling up what works in international cooperation.

We recognise multi-layered co-operation’s comparative strengths. Already, it is a mechanism for sharing and co-ordinating diverse knowledge and experiences amongst different actors on equal footing, drawing from the respective expertise and strengths of each. Already, it is a way of building trust — and with deeper trust the transaction costs of multilateral co-operation decrease.

If we seek to respond to collective challenges and global responsibilities, and address the corrosive burden that inequality imposes on all of our societies, then seeing triangular cooperation for what it actually is — namely, multi-partner engagement — could very well give it a starring role. Multi-partner engagements for development can set in motion a virtuous cycle of interactions, where diverse development actors survey national and global challenges, match those needs to co-operation opportunities, assess if those co-operation strategies are working, and reaffirm or change underlying policies to respond to realities.What lies at the heart of multi-partner engagements is actually a partnership amongst equals built on joining forces to pursue joint work that taps the respective accumulated knowledge of each country involved to generate a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts and that leaves no one behind. So, we want to be part of the cast discussing, debating, and designing triangular co-operation’s next act. Count us in.

This piece first appeared in Devex on 28 March 2019.