Polycrisis as an opportunity for development cooperation?

Building a better global architecture for international development cooperation after the COVID-19 pandemic

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the multiple crises it unleashed around the world coincided with the beginning of the period that the world leaders dubbed the “Decade of Action” to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Launched at the beginning of 2020, it aims to instill a sense of urgency, thereby spurring action, unlocking development finance, and harnessing innovative approaches for the attainment of the SDGs and the promise of “leaving no one behind”. A strong call for action was based on the realization that the world was seriously off-track in its progress towards sustainable development. Delivering on the promises of financing and the commitments of partnership is key for progress across the goals.

Although the total amount of Official Development Assistance (ODA) experienced a slight increase in 2019, ODA was equivalent to 0.30% of DAC countries’ combined gross national incomes, down from 0.31% in 2018. Slowing global economic growth not only made it difficult for countries to fulfill their international obligations, but pushed them to prioritize domestic issues, thus weakening the principles of multilateralism. Despite broad recognition of the need for international cooperation to address common challenges, countries have been less eager to engage in joint solutions.

In a blog post published in May 2020, we argued, based on consultations with experts, that the COVID-19 pandemic could become a super-accelerator of several trends that had already been observed in international development cooperation over the last couple of years. Some of these trends offer new opportunities (for example, the diversification of international cooperation providers), while others present significant challenges (e.g. development cooperation as an instrument of power approaches). The extent of such changes is hard to predict as it would depend on the duration of the crisis. Meanwhile, the opportunities and challenges accelerated by these different trends will be particularly evident in developing countries. In this context, it is important to ponder whether the global architecture for international development cooperation can emerge better and stronger.

Protecting commitments on the quantity and quality of development cooperation

With the pandemic affecting many developed countries, ODA budgets around the world are under extreme pressure. Even though the members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD acknowledged the need to “protect ODA budgets” in a joint statement, the budgetary processes in these countries have put this commitment to the test. Despite the significant challenges that government budgets now have to cope with, it is important to maintain or even increase allocations for development cooperation. The crises show that there are major returns on such contributions. The rationale for development cooperation needs to be re-thought, as it will need to have a strong business case to compete with domestic priorities of very high importance.

This can be done through the evolution of the global narrative on global public goods or global public investments. However, more debates need to take place at the national level for this to occur.

As the scarcity of resources for development cooperation is becoming a serious issue, it is very important to allocate and deliver resources efficiently and effectively. Therefore, the debate on aid and development effectiveness remains crucial for partner countries. Even though aid and development effectiveness debates have lost much of their momentum, we still need to recognize that the manner in which development cooperation is organized (aid modalities, aid principles such as ownership, etc.) is highly relevant to achieving the intended development impacts.

The importance of effectively using scarce ODA funds is widely acknowledged in developing countries as well. For example, Vietnam last month adopted a new policy on the use of ODA and preferential loans. 

Greater flexibility in the use of funds during the COVID19 response (and beyond)

Flexibility in the use of resources plays an important role. Some areas of public health, such as vaccination, have seen a significant scaling up of donor resources. For example, during the pandemic, donors provided additional funding for GAVI. The flexible use of modalities is also important to ensure an effective response. In Bangladesh, development partners offered budget support, enabling a better fiscal position for a government facing increased needs related to the pandemic.

In recent years, flexibility has rarely been a feature of ODA; yet at moments like this, it becomes a defining indicator of its effectiveness. For example, for multilateral organizations, a “flexible core” was essential in providing a quick response to where it was most needed. While the need for greater flexibility of funding is evident during times of emergencies, donors need to consider how it can remain one of defining attributes of development cooperation going forward.

Beyond national governments: Growing diversity of actors

As official development cooperation agencies took some time to formulate appropriate response strategies, many actors stepped up with cooperation initiatives. Cities and other subnational administrations were at the forefront of the pandemic response and, in many cases, they quickly came up with cooperation initiatives that sought to share solutions and resources across borders.

Cooperation among scientific communities across the world started relatively fast with stakeholders from both developing and developed countries joining forces in the research and development of local solutions. International cooperation played an important role – donors supported research institutions, such as Noguchi Medical Research Institute in Accra, that attracted large amounts of funding to search for local solutions to the disease in recent months.

Research cooperation is important, but it is also important for the actors in academia to work with other partners for lasting impact. The work done by organizations such as STEPI in the Republic of Korea, which  focused on the local capacity to develop solutions for neglected diseases, has established a solid basis for linking science and technology cooperation with ODA. This model is especially significant now in an era when the capacity to produce local solutions is fundamental for “leaving no one behind”.  

Effective engagement by civil society organizations is crucial in drawing attention to the specific challenges of crises and strengthening communication and trust between governments and people. Keeping development partners accountable will be important in implementing commitments related to the quantity and quality of development cooperation.

We also understand that the private sector, as well as the link between private actors and the public sector is crucial. IT startups with numerous applications for analyzing Covid-19 symptoms in countries with insufficient amounts of testing kits illustrate this important dimension.

As the pandemic is lasting and expanding, so are the challenges. However, there is also a growing realization of the need for more and better cooperation. While it is difficult to say whether the global architecture for development cooperation can emerge better and stronger, identifying the key factors for its advancement is an important start.

About the authors’

Dr Stephan Klingebiel is Director of UNDP Seoul Policy Centre. Before joining the Centre, he served as the Chair of the International and Transnational Cooperation research programme at the German Development Institute (Deutsches Institut für Entwicklungspolitik/DIE). He is Senior Lecturer at the University of Marburg, and has been a regular Visiting Professor at Stanford University, a visiting scholar at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) at Stanford University, and guest researcher at the College of Humanities and Development Studies at the China Agricultural University (CAU) in Beijing.

Artemy Izmestiev is Policy Specialist at the UNDP Seoul Policy Centre for Global Development Partnerships. He’s been at the Centre since 2011 and works on sharing Korea’s development experience, effective development cooperation, financing for development and Sustainable Development Goals. He has worked on various development policy issues in Tajikistan, Ghana, Malawi and the UNDP headquarters.

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