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What is development cooperation? Four criteria to help define it

As the world constructs the next phase of development and poverty reduction, Jonathan Glennie and José Antonio Alonso propose four criteria to help to define what should be considered development cooperation based on their new report for the UN’s Development Cooperation Forum.

A woman prepares rice for her family in Kurigram district, Bangladesh
A woman prepares rice for her family in Kurigram district, Bangladesh (photo: GMB Akash/Panos Pictures/Save the Children)

Development cooperation is crucial to development progress – that much we know. It is the world’s attempt to work together to achieve commonly held ambitions, and to support those parts of the world that need special assistance. But we use the phrase ‘development cooperation’ without much thought. It has become the jargon of choice, especially in an era when people like to look ‘beyond aid’ and the now old-fashioned donor/recipient language.

But what is development cooperation really? In a new paper for the UN’s Development Cooperation Forum, meeting this week in Korea, we try to answer that question.

As globalisation intensifies, and relationships between countries become more specialised, it is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish development cooperation from other actions necessary for the good of the planet or to meet domestic objectives.

This trend is set to continue as the era of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) beckons, setting a range of global objectives not just limited to poverty reduction in poor countries.

Traditionally, the term has been almost synonymous with financial aid – or even more narrowly with official development assistance (ODA). But as the number and diversity of countries and organisations engaged in international development has increased, the ways development support is carried out have become more varied than ever before. It now goes well beyond financial transfers, with an increasing focus on technical and technological cooperation. Furthermore, at the other extreme from traditional financial aid, development cooperation can include, for instance, remittances or foreign direct investment (FDI) that supports development.

As with any new reality, language and definitions are often slow to catch up. But we need clarity to describe support for developing country efforts to build inclusive and sustainable development strategies.

Development cooperation is not just ODA, nor Financing for Development (FfD), international public finance (IPF), or total official support for development (TOSD). All of these terms attempt to measure certain aspects of the field, but none of them capture precisely what we are talking about, not least because cooperation goes well beyond finance. But development cooperation is not the same as international cooperation such as sharing rules on international flights or adopting preventive measures against terrorism either.

While providing international public goods (IPGs) may be part of the global development agenda, it is not necessarily development cooperation. Switching to cleaner fuels at home can hardly be construed as primarily an act in support of poorer countries, although it may also have that benefit.

With the above in mind, here are our four criteria for what constitutes development cooperation:

1. It aims explicitly to support national or international development priorities

Not all international public non-profit activity is development cooperation. For instance, internationally coordinated security manoeuvres or support to developing countries’ military capacity may require plenty of international cooperation but it would not be classified as development cooperation. In order to help classify activities by whether they are developmental or not – there will always be grey areas – we should rely on globally agreed goals, namely the internationally agreed development goals, such as the MDGs and proposed SDGs, alongside other international or regional development agreements.

2. It is not driven by profit

This is the critical added value of development cooperation. Development cooperation means doing something that is not-for-profit, or that accepts a lower profit than the market would offer. It would not happen if profit incentives alone were followed, or at least not in the same way. It is about correcting market failures and rules that impede or undermine developmental objectives. That said, development cooperation can also play a role in incentivising genuine for-profit activities with positive developmental impacts.

3. It discriminates in favour of developing countries

Only if an action tries deliberately to create new opportunities for developing countries, in a discriminatory way, and taking into account the structural impediments that limit poor countries’ development, can it be considered development cooperation. This criterion will be increasingly important when it comes to implementing the post-2015 agenda, as it distinguishes development cooperation from international action on sustainable development more generally.

4. It is based on cooperative relationships that seek to enhance developing country ownership

Development cooperation should be based on cooperative and non-hierarchical relationships between international partners that seek to complement resources and capacities. These relationships should be respectful of national sovereignty in defining and steering national development strategies and should seek to widen developing countries’ room for manoeuvre, limiting the restrictions and enhancing the opportunities that shape their development processes.

Any activities complying with all of these four criteria should be regarded as ‘development cooperation’.

This definition is deliberately broad, and could include a range of activities not explicitly the remit of traditional aid agencies such as aspects of international trade or climate negotiations focused on support for developing countries. Development cooperation is not only about transferring resources; it includes any measure specifically designed in favour of developing country development. For instance, the General System of Preferences (a discriminatory reduction of duties for products coming from developing countries) is development cooperation.

In the not-too-distant future, countries will be judged not just on how much financial aid they provide, but on how much broad cooperation they offer. The next step will be agreeing how to measure it.


This blog was originally published at developmentprogress.org, where you can find a range of resources on development finance and more.


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