COVID-19: A game changer for the Global South and international co-operation?

By Debapriya Bhattacharya, Chair, Southern Voice and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), and Sarah Sabin Khan, Senior Research Associate, CPD


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.


In a short but seemingly never-ending time span, the COVID-19 crisis has propelled governments into the dilemma of balancing the response to immediate health, economic and social fallouts, with long-term recovery. Some remain vigorously engaged in saving lives. Others are seesawing between loosening restrictions and enforcing new ones to prevent a second wave. Countries from the Global South are among the worst affected by the pandemic. This is due to both their weak pre-crisis conditions as well as their disadvantaged position in global governance. There is a broad consensus that things will not and cannot go back to the way they were before. A “new normal” will emerge in terms of how governments, producers, businesses, consumers and other economic agents conduct themselves. This will be also true for global governance structures and the conventionally dialectical relationship between the North and the South.  

In this context, pessimistic views and optimistic outlooks on the post-COVID world confront one another. 

The pessimistic views emphasise a dystopian outlook, arguing that COVID-19 will exacerbate pre-existing systemic weaknesses.  With the world economy experiencing headwinds even before the pandemic, a protracted global recession seems inevitable leaving countries poorer with further multidimensional inequality, less fiscal space and more debt. Rising economic difficulties will trigger the already trending nationalism, “my nation first” politics, de-globalisation and structural injustice. In an environment of fear and mistrust, governments will continue to become more authoritarian and increase digital surveillance. Global governance structures of an already faltering multilateral system will become even weaker. This will have dire consequences for global public goods and climate change. Voice and space for non-state actors will become even more restricted.

On the other hand, the optimistic views emphasise the necessity and opportunities revealed by the pandemic to reshape the economy, society and the environment on a more humane basis. Consumption and mobility habits will become more sustainable. Green growth will become a priority.  Public and essential–services, especially health, will be more valued. The bright side of the fourth industrial revolution will supersede and improve access,  to counter the deepening digital divide. Scientific data and evidence will be relied upon over rhetoric.  The world and global governance will be more equal and inclusive. Following the much needed nudge of the COVID-19 crisis, there will be a resurgence of international (including regional) co-operation and the multilateral system will finally redeem itself.  Voice and participation of non-state actors will be strengthened.

In either perspective, the narrative on the post-COVID world is once again characterised by the usual dearth of inputs from the global South. Even though it has been accepted time and again that actors from the Global South will be critical in shaping the emerging international development landscape, gatekeepers are yet to come out of their comfort zones and make credible space for more Southern perspectives and initiatives. The current discourse continues to have a top-down view of issues that demand more local level contextualisation and substantiation. This results in a lack of well-defined pathways, indicating the potential roles of traditional and emerging actors at national and global levels, in attaining either the optimistic outlook or mitigating the risks of the pessimistic one.

COVID-19 has exposed the fault lines of traditional development co-operation architecture whilst bringing forth new Global South-anchored initiatives. Co-operation informed and inspired by Southern countries – irrespective of their level of development – has come to light through pandemic related assistance. For example, Cuban doctors were sent to South Africa and Italy through the country’s international medical programme. New Southern multilateral institutions have also emerged as effective responders to the COVID-19 crisis. The Crisis Recovery Facility created by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is to provide up to USD 13 billion of financing (with over USD 6 billion already approved) to both public and private entities impacted by the crisis. Moreover, innovative examples of South to North co-operation are emerging. Bangladesh supplying 6.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) to the United States’ Federal Emergency Management Agency has been hailed as a “significant milestone of international partnership”. However, these new features that have emerged under COVID-19 are difficult to accommodate adequately in the current structure of international development co-operation.  

Despite the increased volume and visibility of Southern players in both the international development co-operation landscape (shifting role and significance as providers) as well as the global economy (with shifting wealth), there still exists a barrier in terms of their presence and voice. The global knowledge ecosystem is tilted towards scholars and institutions from the North, with limited access for the South even today. Inclusion of Southern scholars is still limited to participation in pre-set agendas informed by the interests of dominant groups. The gatekeepers of knowledge systems seem uncomfortable with integrating Southern perspectives in agenda setting and scenario building. This is in spite of general recognition that the Global South has a larger stake, and an enormous potential role and capacity to ensure global recovery post-COVID. Southern actors including scholars and experts also need to enhance efforts to claim their rightful place in the global knowledge market through innovative ideas.

The urgency induced by COVID-19 is a clear opportunity to address the gaps in the current narrative on the world of tomorrow, and to amplify the voice and role of the Global South in development co-operation. The time is ripe to think about well-designed, bottom-up, collaborative efforts spearheaded by Southern stakeholders to contribute to policy debates and impactful global solutions. This would require a “new conversation” to develop an innovative and inclusive governance framework for development co-operation. With renewed governance would come a redefined agenda, participants, roles and relationships. But the moot question remains where will this “game changing” impulse come from?

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