South-South Cooperation Defies the North

South-South Cooperation Defies the North

While contributing to economic growth in developing countries, South-South Cooperation creates new challenges for the North.
Photo Credit: The Globalist
South-South Cooperation alters the global balance of power
Developing southern nations have increasingly turned to each other for economic development assistance. South-South Cooperation is seen as an alternative to North-South aid with its overtones of economic and cultural hegemony. Highly successful, it has contributed to substantial economic growth in developing countries.

While reducing pressure on northern countries' aid programs, South-South Cooperation is altering the global balance of power. Rich industrialized nations can no longer count on access to raw materials and consumer markets in southern countries where strategic rivals, particularly China, are gaining greater influence. Moreover, environmental, human rights, and intellectual property rights issues have created North-South tension.

Defining South-South Cooperation

South-South Cooperation (SSC) refers to cooperative activities between newly industrialized southern countries and other, lesser-developed nations of the Southern Hemisphere. Such activities include developing mutually beneficial technologies, services, and trading relationships. SSC aims to promote self-sufficiency among southern nations and to strengthen economic ties among states whose market power is more equally matched than in asymmetric North-South relationships.

SSC is important to these nations for two reasons. First, SSC contributes to economic advances in southern nations, especially in Africa, southern Asia and South America. Second, SSC lacks the overtones of cultural, political, and economic hegemony sometimes associated with traditional North-South aid from the United States, Russia, and Western Europe.

History of South-South Cooperation

The concept of South-South Cooperation has been used by academics for decades. The UN created a Special Unit for South-South Cooperation (SU/SSC) in the late 1970's, which supported academic research and voluntary cooperative efforts between southern countries to promote South-South trade and investment. The Non-Aligned Movement, an international organization of over 100 independent states not formally aligned with any major power bloc, established the Group for South-South Consultation and Coordination (G-15) in 1989. The G-15 promotes bilateral South-South Cooperation by providing unified input to influence the policies of other international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the Group of Seven rich industrialized nations.
South-South Cooperation aims to promote self-sufficiency among southern nations and to strengthen economic ties among states whose market power is more equally matched.

Reductions in foreign aid in the 1980's and 1990's from northern countries, particularly Great Britain, increased southern countries' awareness of the need for mutual cooperation rather than dependence on northern states. Stirrings of such mutual aid were already visible. China and Brazil, for example, signed an agreement in 1993 resulting in greater bilateral trade and the joint launching of environmental monitoring satellites in 1999 and 2003. The satellites, based on Chinese ZY-1 technology, provide high-resolution environmental monitoring data to both countries. Two additional satellites are planned for future launch.

India had long been active in technology assistance to southern developing countries since it established its technical and economic cooperation program (ITEC) in 1964. ITEC funds training for scientists and technicians of developing countries in various areas of technology. To date, over 30,000 students have participated in ITEC programs.

The Group of 77, an alliance of developing countries in the UN, held the First South Summit in Havana in April 2000. This summit set the groundwork for the 2003 Marrakech Declaration and the accompanying Marrakech Framework,
which established long-term goals and strategies for
participating countries.

The Marrakech documents prioritized technology transfer and skill development, literacy, eliminating trade barriers, and direct investment, particularly in infrastructure and information systems. They also highlighted the need for assistance programs to help eradicate hunger and HIV/AIDS and to promote debt relief, environmental-tourism and sustainability. A second summit was held in 2005 in Doha, Qatar and additional follow-up meetings are planned to monitor the work program extending from this effort.
Reductions in foreign aid from northern countries, particularly Great Britain, increased southern countries' awareness of the need for mutual cooperation rather than dependence on northern states.

In December 2003, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 58/220, declaring December 19th the annual United Nations Day for South-South Cooperation. This declaration serves to focus attention on SSC and to promote more extensive participation in SSC efforts. The General Assembly also urged all UN agencies and other multilateral organizations to "mainstream" SSC in their program operations and to increase resource allocations to support SSC activities.

These declarations led to commitments by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and participating nations to set up the South-South Cooperation Fund. This fund supplements unilateral efforts by individual nations such as China, India, Brazil, Egypt, and Japan to assist lesser-developed southern nations. The SSC Fund also contributed 3.5 million dollars in tsunami disaster relief in 2005. Other SSC funds have been set up for humanitarian assistance, livelihood rehabilitation and infrastructure restoration in tsunami-affected areas.

Key Initiatives

By far, the principal SSC activities are economic in nature, and either bilateral or triangular (i.e. in partnership with a third country or multilateral organization). In particular, China, India, Brazil, and Egypt have invested in areas rich in extractable natural resources. China has cancelled over 10 billion dollars in debt to African states and invested heavily there in oil exploration and timber development. China has also partnered to develop - and co-own - production facilities and infrastructure across Africa, such as electrical facilities and a railway in Zimbabwe. China has taken a similar approach to Latin America where it is investing in infrastructure projects related to natural resource extraction.

Other players have followed suit. For example:

  • India has invested in farming initiatives in Mozambique and biofuels development in West Africa.

  • Egypt is helping Tanzania with irrigation projects.

  • South Africa has aggressively pursued partnerships across Africa including the Inga Dam in the Congo which provides electricity.

  • Japan has invested in African initiatives such as the agricultural investment program, New Rice for Africa (NERICA), and microenterprise development. Other Japanese initiatives include technical assistance for food production in Cambodia, environmental management in Malaysia, and water management projects in North Africa and the Middle East.

  • Brazil has invested in and assisted with biodiversity projects in Mozambique, biofuels technology in various developing countries to promote renewable crops such as sugar and wood, and HIV/AIDS relief in Latin America.

Tsunami relief dominated SSC efforts since 2005. However, other important bilateral and triangular initiatives continue. Chief among these is medical assistance, particularly in fighting AIDS, which disproportionately affects southern nations. Other recent initiatives include technology assistance, debt relief, and the development of extraction industries such as oil and timber. The latter has provoked some controversy in the environmental communities of Northern countries concerned about safety standards, environmental impacts, and resource depletion.

North-South Tensions

With its considerable economic clout and an aggressive strategy of forging partnerships in new markets, particularly in Africa and Asia, China has emerged as the de facto leader of SSC. This poses some interesting challenges for nations of the North, particularly the United States who views China as a strategic rival.
China's indifference to other states' domestic policies foils developed countries' efforts to pressure rogue states inevitably leading to diplomatic tensions between northern democracies and China.

Unlike democracies in the north, China has no problem cooperating and doing business with non-democratic states. For example, China invests in Sudan and Mauritania; nations criticized for human rights abuses. China's indifference to other states' domestic policies foils developed countries' efforts to pressure such rogue states through economic sanctions. This difference in approach inevitably leads to diplomatic tensions between northern democracies and China.

A second area of difficulty for the North is China's focus on resource extraction at the expense, some argue, of environmental concerns, namely deforestation and resource depletion. China's rapidly growing economy requires continuous expansion of energy resources and timber supplies. Its interests are served by creating supply industries in developing nations whose concern for growth outstrips their concern for environmental impact. Complaints from resource-hungry developed nations fall on deaf ears in the South. Southern countries point to decades of harmful and wasteful practices in the North as evidence that the real issue is fear of competition rather than global environmental impact.

Fortunately, some southern states have begun to express concern about the long-term stability of such industries and are now working toward sustainable practices. Resource depletion is a concern for economic and environmental reasons. More enlightened programs have focused on economic diversity and technological development, particularly those sponsored by multilateral organizations such as the UN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Technonet, a non-profit organization providing assistance to small and medium private enterprises in Asia.

As they grow less dependent upon northern markets, southern states are emerging with new power and a stronger voice at the bargaining tables of multinational organizations.
Two other areas - trade barriers and intellectual property rights - have emerged as thorny issues. For southern countries, respect for intellectual property rights and free trade are imperative for maintaining favorable relationships with northern nations. Foreign investment and access to northern markets remain essential for southern nations' development. SSC participants will need to tread carefully in these sensitive areas if they hope to draw further investment and cooperation from northern countries.


South-South Cooperation is a vital force in world economic development today. India and China, long considered net recipients of aid, are now emerging as net donors, focusing their aid efforts on southern nations. South-South trade is growing at an estimated ten percent annually. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan noted last December that over 40% of developing country exports are themselves headed to other developing countries. Some economists predict that economic growth rates in southern countries will outpace those of the north for the next several years - from five to eight percent a year, compared to 2-3% in the north.

This newfound economic power could alter the balance of political power as well. As they grow less dependent upon northern markets for their economic well-being, southern states are emerging with new power and a stronger voice at the bargaining tables of multinational organizations. Future agreement on important international and multilateral issues in areas of trade, environmental protection, and human rights will require broader outreach to achieve true international consensus. Northern nations, accustomed to leading on the international stage, may see their priorities counterbalanced by those of the South.


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Contributed by Contributed by Gary Corbin, freelance writer and consultant in Portland, Oregon.

To read another Global Envision article about South-South cooperation, see The Shanghai Cooperation Organization and China's Reach.

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