COVID-19: super-accelerator or game-changer for international (development) co-operation?

By Stephan Klingebiel, Director of UNDP’s Global Policy Centre in Seoul, Republic of Korea and Artemy Izmestiev, Policy Specialist, UNDP’s Global Policy Centre in Seoul, Republic of Korea


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.


development-co-operationThe outbreak of COVID-19 as a global health emergency and the resulting socio-economic crisis is testing global structures of co-operation. The challenges are giving rise to new forms and expressions of transnational solidarity. In an article on COVID-19, “We will come through this together”, the UN Secretary-General reminds us that no country can tackle this issue alone and co-operation is crucial for addressing existing challenges. In April 2020, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Seoul Policy Centre held a series of webinar discussions where think tanks around the world presented their views on what to expect in the area of international (development) co-operation after the pandemic. This blog post, while not intending to represent the views either of our panellists or of UNDP, is informed by those discussions.

We expect that the current global crisis will significantly impact the future framing of development co-operation. As the crisis acquires global dimensions, the provision and support of global public goods seems to become more and more central. Is this a new narrative for development co-operation, particularly with international co-operation budgets coming under increasing pressure in developed countries?

The traditional North-South model remains important, but it is losing significance as the predominant co-operation model. South-South Cooperation has received a push – at least in terms of visibility – with the emergence of new players that have spurred creative solutions. At the same time, we are also seeing other forms of co-operation becoming increasingly prominent, including “South-North co-operation” (e.g. China’s support to Italy) and “East-North co-operation” (e.g. Russia sending medical material to the United States). In these circumstances, the status-seeking efforts of governments are intertwined with peoples’ spirit of mutual solidarity when facing a common challenge.

These examples highlight co-operation that is increasingly multi-directional and universal. Will these developments herald a new form of co-operation or do they indicate the reinforcement of existing tendencies? The establishment and adjustment of institutional structures will be a non-linear process; it will take place through incremental steps. However, change can also happen through abrupt political decisions (like the United States’ decision on its contributions to the WHO).

We do not know the details of what a post-COVID-19 world will look like. However, we do know that developing countries are being severely affected, which makes the case for effective international co-operation even more relevant for dealing with existing and emerging global challenges. Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable countries through development co-operation will be an essential part of future co-operation structures. Furthermore, meeting global challenges through international co-operation aligns with national interests. This is not only valid for the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for mega-challenges like climate change.

In our view, we are facing three main interconnected crossroads when we reflect on the post-COVID-19 international (development) co-operation landscape.

  1. COVID-19: Game-changer or super-accelerator of a number of pre-existing trends?

Initial debates indicate that COVID-19 can be regarded as a game-changer in international relations, including development co-operation. However, looking at the evidence available, the COVID-19 pandemic might instead speed up several pre-existing trends. The international development co-operation environment continues to be highly competitive even during the COVID-19 crisis. Some experts also highlight a fundamental paradox between the increasing demand for greater and better co-operation, and a decreasing willingness of the international community to act collectively. As international co-operation is weakening in many areas, the increasing role of rising powers and their impact on development co-operation norms and standards through South-South co-operation may become even more influential. COVID-19 may turn out to be a super-accelerator of a number of trends that existed in the international system before the pandemic.

  1. Will the crisis usher in better and more co-operation or accelerate the “thinning” of multilateralism?

Is COVID-19 leading to the strengthening or further weakening of multilateral co-operation? Over the last few years, we have seen a fundamental “thinning of multilateralism”. Actors in public health recognise that there is an urgency to follow a “weakest link” approach (e.g. the global public health situation depends on the countries with most limited abilities). Hence, multilateral solutions work naturally. However, in a global context, where a significant number of governments are explicitly competing to maximise national gains, win-win strategies through multilateral approaches become considerably more difficult to achieve. While international relations textbooks would probably suggest an equal footing multilateral approach to manage the pandemic and the underlying systemic weaknesses in global health, the risk is that we might see several different approaches. For example, where governments prefer bilateral co-operation, as well as club governance (like G7 or G20) and “forum shopping” (e.g. looking around for the best institutional offer or even creating new platforms and institutions). These comprehensive forms of collective action might rely on smaller groups of ‘like-minded’ countries. They are not incompatible with multilateralism, but may need to address concerns on legitimacy, if the solutions they propose are to be accepted or implemented by a broader set of countries.

  1. Quick economic recovery vs. smart recovery

Managing the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic might lead to perceived trade-offs between “better recovery” and “quick wins”. COVID-19 requires a massive socio-economic recovery effort. Many actors are in the process of setting up plans to mitigate negative consequences and working on mid- and long-term recovery plans. The recovery process requires vast amounts of financial resources, which can be invested by several OECD countries to some extent. Additionally, many other countries (especially low-income countries), confronted with limited fiscal space, will need significant external support through development co-operation in finance, technologies and knowledge. Will the aid budget increase accordingly? OECD/ Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members, committed to protecting their Official development assistance (ODA), and the G20/Paris Club debt moratorium are positive signs. Given the challenges, more resources will have to be mobilised.

We expect a period of extraordinary pressure, demanding all countries to move as quickly as possible towards recovery. Naturally, countries will look for quick solutions; the same might apply to development co-operation. Economic growth will and needs to be a fundamental aspect of any recovery strategy. However, growth is a means, not an end. The rationale behind the Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remains unequivocally valid. There is a risk that governments might disregard ecological aspects of socio-economic recovery during the implementation of massive recovery plans to achieve rapid results, overriding fundamental priorities of sustainable development and climate change. “The new global ecology we have created through our ravaging of Earth’s resources holds great risks for humanity.” (Geoffrey Boulton & Heide Hackmann) Therefore, international (development) co-operation needs to start with a “smart recovery” approach from the very beginning. Development co-operation, during the pandemic and its aftermath, has been presented with an opportunity to build a better approach for “smart recovery”, one that does not replicate the unsustainable patterns of the past and can potentially accelerate a much-needed transformation.