/ 12 September 2016

​South-South co-operation and solidarity: Beneficial for everyone and truly sincere?

Locals bid Cuban soldiers farewell as 450 troops board a plane for Havana on January 10 1989 in Luanda, following an accord to bring independence to Namibia and peace to Angola. Pascal Guyot, AFP
Locals bid Cuban soldiers farewell as 450 troops board a plane for Havana on January 10 1989 in Luanda, following an accord to bring independence to Namibia and peace to Angola. Pascal Guyot, AFP


One of the less celebrated international days, the United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation – a notion of solidarity, where countries forgo some aspects of national interest in the pursuit of a higher or common good – took place on Monday September 12.

South-South co-operation has a long history, generally traced back to the solidarity politics of the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the subsequent UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1964.

A fuzzy concept, the South African department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) describes South-South co-operation as “co-operation amongst countries and/or groupings in the Global South aimed at addressing and developing a common stance on political, economic, social and human rights issues … in order to overcome the historical legacy of marginalisation …”

The ANC readily points to the military support Cuba first provided in 1975-1976, and again in 1987-1988, to halt apartheid South Africa’s incursions into Angola as a prime example of South-South solidarity in action.

Cuban support raised the costs of South Africa’s military intervention in Angola and played an important role in the subsequent independence for Namibia, which in turn contributed to change in South Africa. It was no surprise then that Raúl Castro was one of only six foreign leaders – of the 91 in attendance – to speak at the memorial ceremony of Nelson Mandela in 2013.

Under successive presidents Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma since 1994, South Africa has gone to exceptional lengths to repay that debt, pouring vast amounts of funding into scholarships and support in Cuba. At a recent meeting of the international relations committee in Parliament, Dirco reported yet another disbursement of R27-million (out of R110-million) for the “Cuban Economic Package Project”, although it provided little additional information.

In its description, the UN Office for South-South Co-operation highlights noninterference, equality, nonconditionality and national sovereignty as principles of South-South co-operation.

Beyond the largesse provided to Cuba, South Africa’s development partnership with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is often quoted as an example of South-South co-operation. Over the past 20 years, the DRC has been the biggest recipient of South African foreign assistance.

According to a recent report by the South African Institute of International Affairs, South Africa contributed more than $1-billion in official development assistance co-operation activities in the DRC between 2001 and 2015, peaking at $181-million in 2008. These are large amounts for a small, middle-income economy and made South Africa the third-largest provider of aid to the DRC.

South Africa says it better understands and appreciates the local political, economic and cultural context, and is thus able to conduct peace-making and governance reform in complex environments such as the DRC more effectively. The modus operandi of the Congolese public system, however, does pose practical challenges to South Africa’s intervention – as does the unstable political situation and lack of capacity of the DRC civil service.

Although the supposedly horizontal relationship has brought numerous benefits to the DRC, it is unclear what South Africa gains from its large investments. But in the same way Cuba supported Angola in its proxy war with the United States, the country has strategic interests given the extent to which the DRC lies at the heart of instability in Central Africa and the Great Lakes Region.

Large projects such as the Grand Inga hydropower scheme hold immense potential benefit for South Africa, in this case for the provision of electricity. In this sense, South-South solidarity is no different to acting in one’s enlightened self-interest.

Is South-South co-operation more effective than North-South co-operation in fragile environments? The answer is inconclusive given the limited data available and lack of systemic outcome evaluations of South Africa’s efforts.

At the global level, the most practical manifestation of South-South solidarity and co-operation is likely seen in Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), an ideological alliance that sees itself as a counterweight to the G7 group of industrialised countries.

The Brics grouping intends to reshape global power relationships away from a Western, neoliberal and free-market dominated framework. Informed by the requirement for individual rights, free trade, democracy and the like, the focus is shifted to national sovereignty, the importance of a strong, developmental state, nonintervention in the domestic affairs of states, and democratisation at a state’s own pace etcetera.

For Africa, the Brics New Development Bank (NDB) is potentially extremely important. Africa’s infrastructure-financing deficit is estimated at $100-billion a year and there is a perceived lack of ambition by developed countries to invest in Africa.

On the one hand, the lack of investment in energy, transport and water infrastructure presents a significant barrier to economic growth and development. On the other hand, there was a huge global savings glut estimated at $17-trillion in 2012 that could be accessed to invest in Africa.

The NDB could therefore complement the existing multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank and the African Development Bank. The NDB differs in five important aspects:

  • The first is speed. Instead of the slow pace of the other banks, the NDB has extended loans to four of its members (Russia being the exception) during the first six months of its operation, providing nearly $1-billion worth of loans to fund infrastructure projects. This is in comparison with the standard time of more than 18 months from application to the loan being awarded.
  • Second: Capital and voting rights are currently shared equally among the five founding members. The NDB is likely to decide to open its membership to all members of the UN, but the Brics countries will retain a 55% shareholding.
  • Third: The NDB intends to provide greater leverage of domestic private capital within developing countries. This is particularly important in South Africa, where substantial financial resources in the private sector are not being meaningfully channelled towards infrastructure development.
  • Fourth: The NDB has started extending loans in domestic currencies (in the case of the loan extended to China). This will assist countries in mitigating exchange-rate risks when borrowing, which typically occurs in dollars.
  • Finally: The bank will rely on existing country systems rather than impose new systems that create overly bureaucratic processes. This will speed up operations and secure greater involvement from domestic players but, given the lack of capacity in some countries, may also be a huge risk.

Time will tell what the future of the Brics grouping will be, but the NDB will certainly survive and it has the potential to contribute significantly to Africa’s development.

In the meanwhile, some practical aspects of South-South co-operation – such as that between South Africa and the DRC – are substantial and will likely continue. A stable DRC is crucial for the Southern African Development Community and for the region, but other aspects – such as the current level of support provided to Cuba – are more questionable.

South-South co-operation has emerged as an important framework for economic, political and other co-operation, but as taxpayer monies are used in the process, much more work needs to be done to cohere data and quantify impact. Until then, the benefits and drawbacks of solidarity funding remain vague and unclear. – ISS

Jakkie Cilliers is head of African Futures and Innovation at the Institute for Security Studies.


M&G Slow