By Jorge Moreira da Silva, Director of the Development Co-operation Directorate, OECD, and Jorge Chediek, Special Envoy of the UN Secretary General for South-South Co-operation and Director of the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC)
Triangular co-operation is when actors from both developing and developed countries come together, often with international organisations, civil society and private sector partners, to deliver innovative and co-created development solutions. A niche issue for many years, it is now taking centre stage in the global discourse.
2019: the turning point
No country is too economically poor to help and share experiences, and none is too rich to learn from others. That is the idea behind triangular co-operation that came into the global spotlight in 2019 at the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Co-operation, commonly known as BAPA+40. Some forty years after the original Buenos Aires Plan of Action (BAPA) was agreed in 1978, the importance of triangular co-operation was explicitly acknowledged in the BAPA+40 Outcome Document as a way to strengthen South-South and North-South co-operation. The consensus amongst participants, regardless of their level of development, was that triangular co-operation enables countries to access more and a broader range of resources, expertise and capacities to achieve national and internationally agreed sustainable development goals.
The UN Secretary-General confirmed the rising importance of triangular co-operation: “Triangular co-operation complements South-South co-operation by supporting adapted, innovative and flexible solutions to overcome today’s most pressing environmental, economic and social challenges, and by ensuring sustainable development in southern countries” (BAPA+40 report on the role of South-South co-operation and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda).
This political momentum spurred the emergence of a strong community of practice: only a few months after BAPA+40, over 150 representatives from 67 countries, as well as international organisations, the private sector, civil society, academia, trade unions and institutional philanthropy gathered at the fifth international meeting on triangular co-operation in Lisbon to share experiences and concrete tools. Next, the 11th High-level Forum of Directors General for Development Co-operation in Istanbul put forward proposals to institutionalise South-South and triangular co-operation at national and international levels, so as to transform commitments into tangible and sustainable actions.
In our view, the coming of age of triangular co-operation reflects an important ongoing mind shift: the realisation that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) requires development actors to switch from ad hoc project approaches to real partnerships, where all give and benefit simultaneously. In other words, as our discussions in Istanbul made abundantly clear, we need to remove asymmetry in all partnerships for sustainable development.
It will demand strong political will, a clear vision, flexible institutions, but most of all it requires time: for governments to partner more effectively with a wide diversity of partners, they need to sit around the same table from day one, and take the time to find common ground, and build trust. What we often perceive as “transaction costs” – long negotiations, complicated co-ordination and implementation processes among three or more partners – is actually an investment. Only patient, regular, open interaction amongst partners can build trust within trilateral partnerships, before they may be scaled up into global development partnerships.
How do we move to action? To support the implementation of the BAPA+40 recommendations, UNOSSC and the OECD are joining forces with 55 countries from the South and the North, international organisations, representatives from cities and local governments, civil society organisations, private sector and research institutions in the Global Partnership Initiative (GPI) on Effective Triangular Co-operation. The Global Partnership Initiative (GPI), included in the BAPA+40 outcome document, has committed to (i) gather evidence and data, including from evaluations, on achievements and needs in different regions; (ii) convene meetings, dialogues and exchanges; (iii) provide partners with concrete facilitation tools; and, (iv) advocate for, and promote triangular co-operation globally.
Many countries, as well as international, civil society and private organisations are already incorporating the option of working trilaterally, or including a trilateral component in bilateral or regional projects. In international discussions on co-operation related to development, climate change, health, and other global public goods, we should mainstream the option of working trilaterally. This will ensure triangular co-operation as a means to achieve development goals, not an end in itself. As partners, the OECD and UNOSSC, have the resources, the platforms and the knowledge to facilitate this work – we stand ready to help.