3 October, 2014

Whose Knowledge? The challenges for North-South development co-operation

By Xiaoyun Li
Chair of the China International Development Research Network

The varying degrees of participation in the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation’s High-level Forum in Mexico demonstrated how wider stakeholders’ co-operation has ever been. More than 1,500 participants from more than 130 countries with different agendas and expectations took part in the conference in Mexico on 15-16 April, 2014. Northern partners offered their willingness to work with all parties to tackle global challenges under common goals with differentiated responsibilities. However, the legitimacy of the forum has been debated. The decline in the participation of China and India, as well as apparent disagreement from Brazil, despite its attendance, raised questions over how this new partnership can be further developed. It would be very difficult to imagine the future of the partnership without participation of these three countries.

As soon as I arrived in Mexico, I was immediately asked at the hotel reception: “Why didn’t China come? Will China still come?” These questions reminded me of the situation at the Busan Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2011. China did take part in that event, but in a relatively lower profile group. It is natural to ask why China, India and others have been reluctant to participate in this ever-open forum. Wouldn’t these countries like to share their responsibilities for international development? With South-South Co-operation given high recognition at the Global Partnership’s High-Level Forum, why were those countries still unhappy? Are they really so difficult to “engage”?

To respond to those questions, one should briefly review how this new partnership was developed, and, importantly, note the huge knowledge gap that existed at that time, affecting real and equal communication.

Development assistance after the Second World War was provided mainly by the United States until the 1960s. The US called for the establishment of the “Development Assistance Group” in 1960 with 11 allies. This was the first expansion of a Western-oriented international development agenda. The group was then further institutionalised into the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 1961. This Western-dominated international development agenda continued until the new century, alongside other forms of international aid provided by other players like the former Soviet Union and Arab countries. The Rome from different stakeholders, particularly from recipient countries. From a Chinese perspective, the subsequent formation of the Working Party on Aid Effectiveness and The Busan High-Level Forum signalled further expansions of the Western-dominated international development discourse. The West has been using a similar approach through its controlled institutional structure and well-elaborated framework to secure the “buy-in” of others in order to sustain its basic agenda. China and, I believe, others have been very cautious not to be “bought in”.

China and others felt very much in the position of being “engaged” even though the partnership has a well-legitimised governance structure. The question was not so much about the structure, as the approach and framework which are deeply rooted in Western-based knowledge for development. The modern knowledge for development is very much a marriage of neoliberalism and neo-institutionalism. It addresses “conditional change” – that social transformation or poverty reduction must be based on “good governance”. Furthermore, international development co-operation works only upon a good institutional base, therefore, building good institutions should be the major task of such assistance. Alternative development stories – from China for example – provide different perspectives, for instance,firstly to prioritise infrastructure and agriculture even if they do not run entirely against this norm.

In my view, the West has established well-elaborated knowledge production systems via huge tax-payer funding to constantly generate seemingly undeniable theories, creating the field of Development Studies, and producing ‘independent development industries” to justify, modify and sustain this development business. This has at least created deep knowledge and path dependence, even if we ignore the element of self-interest possessed by the development industries. This system intends to continue while China and others might find difficulties in owning this process, or phasing in to share the costs. This knowledge dominance has affected to a certain degree the mutual and equal communications between the North and South. At the same time, in recent years we have witnessed other actors playing an increasingly important role in development co-operation, for example the Arab donors, civil society and philanthropic foundations.

Rather than completely joining the system, China and others insist upon South-South Co-operation by advocating a “non-interference” policy toward partner countries focusing on an “, or not focusing on immediate institutional reform. The South-South Co-operation providers also felt that a knowledge gap existed between Southern and Northern partners. Unlike the mainstreamed development knowledge produced by the West, South-South Co-operation providers have little knowledge on their own development assistance, while large bodies of knowledge are generated by Western research institutions.

It is essential to have a balanced knowledge base for real and meaningful development co-operation between the North and South. This co-operation relies upon an interaction of knowledge, reflecting each side’s comparative advantage.

Think tanks from South-South Co-operation provider countries during the Global Partnership’s Mexico High-Level Forum agreed to develop a network focusing on generating its own understanding of its members’ development assistance. This initiative will not only help South-South Co-operation providers to strengthen and improve their development assistance programmes, but also aid mutual communication between North and South in international development. The Global Partnership can serve as nuanced platform for think tanks from the South to share their knowledge with those from the West. Also, the Global Partnership can facilitate exchange among southern partners to strengthen their solidarity. The voice from Southern countries about their own development can be better heard here, as the platform is widely attended.


LiBioXiaoyun Li is Dean of the College of Humanities and Development at China Agricultural University, and Chair of the China International Development Research Network. He is also a member of the Rising Powers in International Development Advisory Council, as well as the Future International Cooperation Policy Network.

DISCLAIMER: This blog is a forum for sharing the diverse views of its varied contributors on important and emerging issues of Effective Development Co-operation. The posts do not necessarily reflect the view of the Global Partnership, its Co-Chairs, Steering Committee members, or of the joint UNDP/OECD support team.