COVID-19 and the future of international co-operation: consolidating a new approach

By Annalisa Prizzon, Senior Research Fellow, Overseas Development Institute (ODI)

This blog* is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.


At the time of writing this blog in early April 2020, we didn’t really know how deep and long-lasting the economic and social consequences of the COVID-19 crisis would be. Despite these uncertainties, I would argue that aid commitments should be scaled up despite the challenges ahead for aid budgets, more flexible instruments should be considered and that the coronavirus crisis will fast-track the transformation of traditional donor–recipient aid relations to a model of international co-operation between all countries.

Scale-up aid commitments and adopt more flexible modalities

An international response is essential to avoid far-reaching economic and social consequences for developing countries and the global economy too. The UN put it boldly and eloquently; “it is in everyone’s interest to ensure that developing countries have the best chance of managing this crisis, or COVID-19 will risk becoming a long-lasting brake on economic recovery”. So is the plea of the Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in the FT; “if COVID-19 is not beaten in Africa it will return to haunt us all”.

Bilateral donors should keep aid commitments and allocate 0.7% of their fiscal packages to official development assistance (ODA). Even though government budgets face unprecedented pressure to cope on multiple fronts, development co-operation should be kept at existing levels, if not increased. During the global financial crisis, the president of the World Bank at the time, Robert Zoellick, proposed a “Vulnerability Fund”, destined for low-income countries amounting to 0.7 per cent of the stimulus packages of rich economies – reflecting the 0.7% ODA/GNI commitment. If we were to estimate a similar commitment in light of the current COVID-19 crisis, such a proposal would generate nearly $30 billion, which is a 28% increase from the current ODA disbursements by bilateral Development Assistant Committee (DAC) members. [1]

Furthermore, a rapid response to the crisis – to mitigate its consequences before it escalates – requires flexible instruments and rapid deployment of resources on the ground. This would call for a bold move to channel bilateral resources towards those development partners that already have budget support programmes in place, notably the European Union, as well as to delegate as much as possible to local implementers, accepting a higher degree of risk tolerance.

Towards a model of international co-operation between all countries [2]

Despite these turbulent times, there is potentially a positive outcome for the future of development assistance. The unprecedented systemic challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis and the responses we have already seen, will fast track the transformation of an old paradigm of donor–recipient aid relations towards a model of international co-operation between all countries.

This transformation, which has been advocated by many commentators, was already underway pre-virus. Our previous research on the implications of countries moving up the income capita ladder shows that many economies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have seen their dependency on aid falling as their socio-economic indicators improved. Development partners are also increasingly reflecting on how they should forge new relations with partner countries.

So how is the crisis accelerating this trend? And what are the potential consequences?

From donor-recipient relations to partnerships between countries

As an Italian expatriate stuck in London with immediate family in Northern Italy, the images of and articles about the technical assistance from countries like Albania, China and Cuba, among others, are very touching. We will certainly see more such examples as the crisis sweeps through countries usually labelled as ‘donors’.

Countries like China are often called ‘emerging donors’ and their assistance described as ‘non-traditional’. These descriptions derive from such countries often being perceived as having different modalities and priorities around aid compared to their Western counterparts; or simply because they are recipients of assistance.

Many drivers, including geostrategic ones, motivate support from China and others to coronavirus-stricken countries. Yet, in this crisis, a key catalyst for support is the spirit of mutual solidarity, linked to a common challenge and lesson sharing, when seeing a country struggling and under emergency.

Greater emphasis on knowledge-sharing and peer learning

During interviews for our project reviewing country experiences in the transition from official development assistance (ODA), government officials repeatedly demanded other modalities of co-operation beyond financial transfers, such as knowledge sharing and peer learning. Countries want to learn how others have dealt with challenges and which solutions have worked.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and deepens, the value of lesson learning among countries will become increasingly evident. Countries in the Global North might not always be the ‘experts’. The way China has shared lessons with Italy to mitigate the impact of the outbreak is, again, a timely and visible example that will certainly be replicated in the coming months.  As my colleague Sorcha O’Callaghan pointed out in her blog, several lessons could also be learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and DRC too.

A reminder that global challenges need international co-operation

This worldwide crisis is providing a painful reminder that many critical development challenges cannot be solved by individual countries working in isolation. While news articles cite examples of competition and beggar-thy-neighbour behaviour when it comes to securing medical equipment and provisions, there is a clear need for focus and investment on how to achieve common goals across all countries and challenges, including pandemics, climate change and security. These global challenges will not be addressed by development agencies on their own, but will need co-operation for example with health or environmental ministries, as Professor Inge Kaul has argued in a previous report.

Our actions are intertwined now more than ever. The above examples demonstrate how global challenges require knowledge-sharing and collaboration between all countries. This crisis offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to finally move away from an old paradigm of traditional donor–recipient aid, and towards a model of international co-operation, independent from income per capita. We should not miss this opportunity.

[1] Referring to fiscal packages announced by Australia, Canada, European Union, France, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, Italy, United Kingdom and United States as of April 3rd 2020.

[2]  This section is an amended version of a blog published by Annalisa Prizzon for the Overseas Development Institute available here.

*This blog series contributes to the debate on new approaches to international co-operation and public funding to support sustainable development and global public goods. The COVID-19 crisis is showing us that international co-operation is vital. So, what lessons can be drawn from the response to global challenges such as pandemics and the climate emergency?

Offering personal insights from across the globe, this series, co-hosted by Development Initiatives, United Nations University International Institute for Global Health and OECD Development Centre complements Wilton Park’s Future of Aid dialogue, with partners Joep Lange Institute and Coalition for Global Prosperity.

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