A shift in the global powerhouses of international aid and development is opening the door for city governments in Africa, Asia and Latin America to pick their own partners with an eye toward south-south cooperation.
Does who you work with affect how well you perform or for how well you learn?
The answer is seemingly obvious — yes, of course. Learning on the job depends heavily on the nature of working partnerships, which in turn are shaped by the experiences partners carry and the power relations between them. Yet city governments in parts of Africa, Asia and Latin America do not often choose whom they work with on urban development projects supported by international aid or technical assistance. But they can and they should.
The rise of regional political and economic powers such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa on the world stage is shifting the center of technical expertise, international aid and development work. It is also providing those development stakeholders fighting for human well-being in their local communities with an opportunity to choose whom they wish to work with.
Much ado has been made about the value of this international development work led by countries in the global south, as opposed to traditional development partnerships with countries or organizations such as the World Bank or those based in the global north. Several international organizations such as the United Nations and the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, as well as regional leaders themselves, herald partnerships between “developing” countries — or “south-south cooperation” — as a distinctly valuable way of promoting national development and learning among southern countries because of similarities in histories and the challenges they face.
For African cities in particular, this approach to tackling development problems is fostering what might be described as a buyer’s market for international cooperation. In other words, now that regional leaders like China, India or Brazil have become more significant providers of aid or assistance, the West is no longer the only partner in town.
Municipal authorities, particularly in capital cities where so much of the international development industry is based, actually have a choice about whom to work with on international cooperation projects. Almost a decade ago, India, Brazil and South Africa established a memorandum of understanding to foster cooperation between cities in the three countries, centered on sharing urban policy and technical assistance for challenges in creating affordable housing and other related urban development needs. In 2012, Brazil launched its own program to support south-south partnerships for development through technical cooperation projects at the subnational level, with a particular focus on projects between Brazilian municipalities and African partners in cities across the continent.
Of course, China is also heavily involved in promoting southern partnerships. Its Export-Import Bank (EXIM) and construction companies are investing significant funds throughout the continent, targeting the transformation of urban landscapes through special economic zones in and around cities such as Lusaka, Zambia and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; infrastructure projects such as the Catembe-Maputo bridge in Mozambique (what will be the longest suspension bridge in Africa); and even whole cities, such as Kilamba — just outside the Angolan capital of Luanda.
Yet critics question whether south-south cooperation is just another wolf in sheep’s clothing — a dangerously familiar and extractive means for new regional leaders to secure market depth and political support from less powerful countries. Whether positive or negative, big claims about international cooperation partnerships typically overshadow the local contexts in which aid is delivered and the importance of strong working relationships on the ground. In a forthcoming book, Disrupting Development, I argue that municipalities should more aggressively choose which development projects and partners to work with based on characteristics that include, but importantly also move beyond, simple geographies such as whether an international partner is from the global south or north.
These subtler characteristics of development cooperation give local authorities a sort of road map for anticipating which development partners will be best for different urban development projects — and for strategic learning.
While geography still matters, who you best work with is not a static concept. A shared geography or history alone is insufficient in helping authorities think about what really matters when working with an international cooperation partner on the ground. Luckily for cities, such peers can evolve, and unlike geography or history, can change over time. This means cities can learn about whom they best learn from and work with for effective urban development cooperation. While the learning curve is steep, the time is ripe to act.