#13 post-2015
Nadine Piefer

Triangular Cooperation – The Big Bone Of Enhanced Partnerships?

“When I think about triangular cooperation, I feel like a puppy: big eyes, high hopes and expectations for the big bone!” remarked a participant at an international workshop in Istanbul in November 2010. But what is this big bone actually about? And what new elements can it bring to partnership between the North and the South?

In our polycentric world order, cooperation between traditional and non-traditional partners is changing. Triangular cooperation is one of these new types of partnerships. And expectations of triangular cooperation are very high - as a new mode for delivering aid and for overcoming the shortcomings of North-South and South-South cooperation by abandoning neo-colonial connotations.

“Both South and North have different experiences and different rhetoric that nourish a variety of perspectives.”

In development cooperation, there is an alleged divide between traditional North-South (NSC) and the newer South-South cooperation (SSC). Both the North and the South have a long history of working in the field of development cooperation. The first Indian assistance, for example, was provided to war-torn Europe after the Second World War. And both South and North have different experiences and different rhetoric that nourish a variety of perspectives. Northern cooperation partners question what is really new about SSC and why it might be more horizontal. Meanwhile, the Southern cooperation partners specifically design SSC to be different from NSC: more horizontal and partnership oriented.

Instead of just offering criticism, it would be more productive to emphasize how NSC and SSC could complement each other, and the lessons that might be learned from both SSC and NSC – in terms of best practices, as well as failures and critique. South African authors Amanda Lucey and Alexander O’Riordan address this issue:
“South Africa should guard against dismissing Northern approaches as being fundamentally different, and should rather use them for insights and lessons that could be drawn from them”.

Another question arises as well: Is there really such a huge difference between South-South and North-South cooperation? Can we generalize and claim that SSC is always a horizontal partnership, while NSC is an asymmetric donor-recipient relationship? Isn’t the perception of a relationship between development partners always subjective? Doesn’t it depend on the way development cooperation projects are implemented? There are, in fact, many partnership-oriented, horizontal North-South cooperation projects, and also many vertical South-South cooperation projects. As a representative of the British Department for International Development (DFID) remarked at a workshop in New Delhi in September 2013: "In terms of distinguishing NSC and SSC, it doesn't matter where you live on the globe, but that the cooperation is horizontal.”

Actors from South and North alike have been calling for a new international cooperation agenda based on partnership, and not just since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Aid Effectiveness Agreement (Busan, 2011), the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation in Mexico (2014) or most recently discussion on the Post-2015 Agenda.

“Newly established international cooperation agencies are currently undergoing an open and interesting learning process that follows a different set of rules from those of traditional donors.”

Partnership as a core principle for international cooperation agencies

Against this background, it becomes clear why most new development partners, like Brazil, South Africa, India, China and Mexico, place great emphasis on the concept of partnership.
Some of the agencies for international cooperation convey the concept of partnership in their very names: The South African Partnership Development Agency (SADPA) and the Indian Development Partnership Administration (DPA) are two good examples. In its policy guidelines, the newly established SADPA foresees a whole phase in a standard project cycle dedicated solely to partnership development.

In many countries, complex and high-performing structures are evolving around creating development partnerships. Newly established international cooperation agencies are currently undergoing an open and interesting learning process that follows a different set of rules from those of traditional donors. Traditional donors primarily began their development cooperation activities under a post-colonial heading of solidarity and altruistic motivations combined with political and economic interests. Since then, they have taken increasingly partnership-oriented approaches with a strong emphasis on ownership. New development partners, on the other hand, are taking a different path. They began with a strong focus on partnership where ownership was enhanced through demand-driven projects combined with the notion of South-South solidarity, as well as economic and foreign policy interests.

“Development cooperation project target groups will not benefit from pledges to effect changes in the nature of international cooperation, but from the results achieved in third countries.”

One could thus argue that while development cooperation motivation differs, paths are now crossing in terms of shaping global partnerships within the scope of the Post-2015 Agenda. Rather than insisting on incorporating Southern providers into the Western-centric structures of the ‘Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) - Development Assistance Committee (DAC)’ or creating a DAC of the South, the focus should be on learning from each other, combining approaches, and negotiating common principles for development cooperation.
To put it more clearly: The proliferation of high-level forums does not enhance cooperation on the ground and emphasizes differences rather than commonalities. Development cooperation project target groups will not benefit from pledges to effect changes in the nature of international cooperation, but from the results achieved in third countries. Triangular cooperation is a promising instrument for these aspects, and has received considerable international attention in recent years.

Triangular cooperation - joint learning in horizontal partnerships

Despite its growing popularity, there is still no internationally agreed definition of triangular cooperation. The OECD DAC (2012) understands it as “a partnership where one or more providers of development co-operation or international organizations support South-South co-operation, joining forces with developing countries to facilitate a sharing of knowledge and experience among all partners involved”.

“If we see [triangular cooperation] as an opportunity, do we give it enough love?”

Triangular cooperation is not a completely new phenomenon. It has been around for decades, embedded in bilateral, regional and global programmes. A strong increase in trilateral cooperation initiatives has been observed since the 2000s. Today, this cooperation modality is deeply rooted in development discourses. Yet, it is noteworthy that few countries actually have a strategy document to guide their triangular cooperation projects. Exceptions include Japan, Germany and operative agreements with a detailed strategy in Brazil, as well as plans for drafting a trilateral cooperation policy framework in South Africa.

An interview partner in South Africa described this phenomenon with the words: “If we see it as an opportunity, do we give it enough love?” Triangular cooperation projects often address very specific issues that are not embedded in the larger context of the third country’s national development strategies. This varies, of course, but as a rule project experience points to the need for establishing triangular cooperation modalities on equal terms with bilateral or regional cooperation – on giving it more love.

Strategic vision of triangular cooperation – we need to tap its full potential!

The role of the third (receiving) country in triangular cooperation is often underrated (and under researched). The focus usually lies on the strategic partnership between the two cooperation providers. In most cases, however, the strategic partnership does not unfold its full potential due to a lack of a long-term vision of where to steer this cooperation modality. Ten years ago, triangular cooperation was perceived as a hype that would be over in a couple of years, followed by a new hot topic. This might offer one explanation as to why many OECD DAC partners do not feel the instrument is strategic enough.
They should, however, see that most Southern cooperation partners attribute high relevance and great importance to triangular cooperation.

“In all areas of joint intervention, the third country’s ownership should be at the core of triangular cooperation.”

So what is needed to tap triangular cooperation’s full potential? First and foremost, we need to think more from the beneficiary country’s perspective. Then, in alignment with national strategies, complementary contributions to existing fields of cooperation involving a range of partners from the private and public sector, and including the modality in the normal toolkit of instruments and modalities, would put it on more solid footing. In the long run, this would mean better development results on the ground.
Additionally, creating trusting relations among the three partners involved should be viewed as just as important as the actual developmental results and impacts. This relationship dimension also paves the way for successful scaling-up and ensures greater project sustainability.
In conclusion, it can be said that the added value triangular cooperation provides is achieved when the synergies created by the contributions of all three partners are greater than what could be achieved by cooperation between just two partners. Ideally, the comparative strengths of all three partners should be used and a harmonization of development efforts envisioned. This should be in line with the national development priorities of the third country and designed to meet its specific need for support. In all areas of joint intervention, the third country’s ownership should be at the core of triangular cooperation. Three is a lucky number– so why not cooperate in a triangle?

Three examples of the diversity of triangular cooperation

Disaster risk management among Brazil – Mozambique - Germany
The trilateral cooperation project on disaster risk management provides Brazilian and German technology for measuring water levels in rivers in Mozambique. Germany developed highly technological solutions, and Brazilian experts contributed their knowledge and adapted these technologies to Mozambique’s climate conditions. These two cooperation providers failed, however, to take the fact that the measurements were to be transmitted via internet into account. This poses problems in the Mozambican context due to power cuts and a lack of consistently available internet connections. The Mozambican experts involved then came up with the idea of adapting the technology so that results could be transmitted via the cell phone network, a solution that works well in the African country’s context. So this project serves as an example of how solutions could only be developed through the contributions of all three partners. It would have not been possible had only one cooperation provider worked alone with the Mozambican experts, as each partner brought specific, complementary experience and expertise to the table.

Reducing transaction costs through triangular cooperation – a case from South Africa
The oft-cited high transaction costs of triangular cooperation might result from the fact that often not enough time is allotted for partnerships and a joint basis for cooperation to be established. Projects might need a bit longer to really take off and catalyse something, so they may seem costly at the beginning. But if managed and directed well, the value added and the partnerships created outweigh the higher costs. A Canadian example provides a good illustration of this: The former Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) completed a triangular cooperation project with South Africa. Canada’s approach here was quite different than that often taken by other donors. Former CIDA worked with the same South African partner on the issue of public administration, and the project design and approach were used for cooperation with three different African countries (Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan). All of them were represented in the steering committee. So instead of the cost of three different projects, costs were reduced by having one central structure with country-specific adaptations and a local regional coordinator in Burundi.

From triangular to multi-party partnerships – a case from India
Energy is one of the areas in which India implements trilateral cooperation projects. One of these projects was implemented by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) - an independent research institution that consults for the government and implements projects on their behalf. A network of partners was initially created with support from Norway and several institutions in Kenya. This “Solar Transitions” project was very successful, and when DFID approached India about working on energy issues in Africa, the same network of partners was employed and enhanced by the UK to further African as well as European partners. Private companies were involved in providing technological expertise and equipment. Instead of creating a new triangular cooperation project with DFID, the existing one with Norway was expanded into a multi-party partnership project. The Indian approach to triangular cooperation was very pragmatic and emphasised the importance of building up stronger networks of multiple partners, rather than proliferating projects and partners in a scattered manner.

These project examples offer excellent illustrations of the wide range of experience and results from triangular cooperation projects.

Photo: Copyright GIZ

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