The Rise of South-South Development

In an era when we all seek an alternative, from foods to music to lifestyle, it should come as no surprise that the international order of donor and recipient states has also sought (or supplied) an alternative: South-South development partnerships.

This emerging order, which is effectively led by China but commonly features a supporting cast of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) and the MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey) nations, is presenting serious challenges to what some would call the post-historical world. While competition between donors could offer substantial benefits to recipients, in practice this is more the exception rather than the rule. Competition in development often favors expediency over long-term effectiveness. This is different from competition in markets, where the better product for the better price wins out (at least in theory). Furthermore, state competition over who develops increasingly involves strategic considerations, as in, it is not so much about the quality of the partnership but the mere existence of the partnership that matters. The concern is that competition is positively correlated to expediency and strategy. This article contextualizes the rise of South-South development partnerships and assesses its impact on the future of international development.

While I hesitate to espouse the proverbial cause of international phenomena in a simplified form, there are two prominent features that make up the recent rise of South-South commitments – the end of the bipolar geostrategic order with the fall of the Soviet Union and relative gains made within the global South vis-a-vis the Western world. These features, while far from exhaustive, are critical towards contextualizing the shifting paradigm.

The Catch-all For Foreign Policy Woes

The fall of the Soviet Union is still the International Relations bogey man when it comes to complicating the once, and at times longed for, bipolar status quo. All at once new strategic opportunities arose, new threats and intelligence blind spots were drawn from the shadows, and organizational rigidity was exposed as new expertise and flexibility was demanded of state and international actors. These challenges were as present and dramatic in economic development as they were in defense and diplomacy.

In what could have been a Marshall Plan 2.0, the past two decades have exposed frailties in the designs of liberal institutionalism. Whether this is a structural flaw or a lack of applicability towards its object, one thing is clear – the Western order has manifested a subversive order or has at least seeded ground for alternatives in the expanding economic bubble. Defining the South-South arrangement, at least in terms as clear as mainstream Western-led donor states and institutions, presents difficulties. Two points of analysis are useful in understanding the nature of their rise to significance. It remains to be seen whether the South-South arrangement is strategic opportunism in the face of relative Western decline or a loose confederacy of states offering an alternative to a general lull in Western engagement. The South-South arrangement does have one point of clear unity and distinction, however, and that is language – they are not donors, they are partners. And these partnerships, at least in rhetoric, come with relatively no strings attached.

Everyone is Rising

Today it is easy to find common headlines along the lines of Africa Rising, The Rise of China, and even a ‘meta-alternative’ relative to this article – Caspian Energy: A Viable Alternative to The Persian Gulf. Apparently everyone is rising. This is of course from a Western perspective and is thus viewed as rising relative to the Western world. It is not just raw economic data that supports these hopes and fears, but the very fact of South-South development. On the lower end of development, many States are graduating up the World Bank scale of economic distinction. From the World Bank’s perspective this is not just a token of prestige, but a substantive policy category that sets parameters for loans, grants, investments, and most importantly, interest rates.

On the higher rungs of the South-South movement are many former recipient nations who have become donors. In some case, many States are operating both as recipients and donors. This apparent paradox not only complicates financial flows (with so many States both requesting economic assistance and exerting economic influence), but it complicates the geopolitical landscape with layers and knots of complicated, competitive, and interdependent arrangements. Nowhere are these conditions more apparent, and more complicated, than in the Caspian, where the global need for energy resources, market share, and projected long-term demands have sought to make this regional alternative a critical strategic chess piece.

A Critique of the New

South-South development, namely the BRICS, has earned the ire of many Western development professionals. The object of Western condemnation is not exclusive to the emerging order, however, as mainstream donors are criticized for currently tying aid to strategic objects, while the rising South-South framework is criticized for altogether dropping standards of governance in development. This, upon analysis, strongly suggests that poor governance not only negates long-term development but sublimates positive economic conditions (read: resources). I believe that this vocal duality, which frames the future debate and sets parameters for the divide, is a red herring. This debate, which is effectively about tactics on the ground, misses the broader geostrategic point – South-South development is not an experiment, a new trend, or a deviation from our most recent version of relative economic barbarism. It is a strategic consortium set to challenge the West on the world stage.

I am not belittling the importance of understanding governance as it pertains to long term development or the debate surrounding bilateral and multilateral investment initiatives. I believe it necessary to improving our collective engagement in the developing world. My concern is that the frame of the debate has been created and sustained by a singularly liberal institutionalist order – one that often excludes grand and strategic analysis. In this sense, South-South development is less an alternative in development/donor options and more an alternative or challenge to power relations. To think otherwise would be delusional. Great powers are still at play: their tactics may be temporary and fluid but their interests are eternal.

This analysis has significant applications for the developing world, especially the Caspian region. The most critical question is how can the Caspian states tie their clear strategic importance to the international community into a deal that balances this importance with their own sovereign needs? Elite bargains have been occurring, and will continue to occur, in this energy rich region. Ensuring that such deals do not come at the expense of Caspian sovereignty or at the expense of its people is the real challenge moving forward into the future. This is where I believe development experts and practitioners should focus their attention on influencing these elite bargains. Without understanding the strategic concerns of great powers and developing states this influence will be misplaced and strategically critical regions like the Caspian and beyond will suffer.