BRICS, a new cooperation model?

One of the criticisms made of the emerging economies is that they are using cooperation to gain markets, political influence and access to natural resources. But that is what the countries of the North are also seeking.

Mariano Aguirre
22 January 2013

While official development cooperation and humanitarian aid programmes are being cut in some European countries and also the United States, funding for such purposes is being boosted in a number of countries of the South. This trend, which has grown in the past ten years and is shaping a new landscape for international aid, has become more pronounced as a result of the financial crisis. 

Spain has cut its cooperation budget for 2013 by 70%. According to a new report by the NGO  Intermón-Oxfam, this places it top of the list of countries making cooperation cuts. Portugal, Greece and Italy are going down the same path. In the United States, Congress is debating the scope of an agreement on the budget deficit and, in that context, development aid is at serious risk, with possible repercussions for, for example, support for the Palestinian Authority and development programmes in Afghanistan, to which Washington is one of the biggest contributors.

In some countries, meanwhile, cooperation and humanitarian aid are increasingly being seen as a means of gaining ground in the United Nations and regional bodies, exerting political and religious influence and establishing new relations between countries of the South and some in the North (triangular cooperation). The list of new aid donor countries is growing fast and it is estimated that they provide between 10% and 12% of the global flow of international aid.

First there are countries such as Brazil, India, Turkey and South Africa, described as ‘emerging’ because of their economic growth and commercial and diplomatic expansion. Then there are the states that were powerful during the Cold War and which are now gaining in economic, diplomatic and military importance at a global level (China) or trying to retrieve lost ground (Russia, the heir to the old USSR). Added to these are countries with a range of different interests, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Thailand, Poland, the Czech Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and Argentina.

In her new book, From recipients to donors, Emma Mawdsley, from the University of Cambridge, writes that “seismic shifts [are] taking place in the geographies of power and wealth” at a global level. In this multipolar world, development cooperation, though a small element, “is revealing of wider patterns and trends in political, economic and cultural power”. 

One of the criticisms made of the emerging economies is that they are using cooperation to gain markets, political influence and access to natural resources. But that is what the countries of the North are also seeking through official cooperation. Both traditional and new donors employ specific language to justify their actions. The countries of the North say that their aid serves to reduce poverty, improve governance, promote peace and provide assistance in the case of humanitarian crises.

The emerging economies emphasize solidarity between countries with a colonial past, mutual benefits and common identities. According to Professors Monica Hirst and Blanca Antonini, in the case of Latin America there is a difference in regional South-South cooperation based on political affinity, common interests and solidarity, and they cite the assistance provided to Haiti by several countries of the region.

There is an element of truth contained in the intentions as stated by both traditional and new donors but the key issue is not what those intentions are but whether the aid is effective. In the past decade the effectiveness of cooperation programmes and issues around how to prevent states from manipulating humanitarian aid have come under increasing discussion. Thanks to the criticisms raised by NGOs and experts, three positions have emerged from the growing debate.

The traditional view sees aid as generating economic growth that will reduce poverty. Its critics consider that development cooperation encompasses other aspects of personal wellbeing, such as providing basic services, reducing inequality, protecting the environment, incorporating a gender perspective, providing access to justice, building peace and enabling people who have been excluded to be represented. This approach requires the states of the South to be more efficient. 

The third position believes that cooperation will not achieve its development objectives as long as it continues to uncritically promote the liberal economic model and require the states of the South to modernize without looking at the North’s complicity in areas such as corruption, the plundering of natural resources, illicit flows, capital flight and the arms trade. Both the North and South need to look at how states, private companies and financial actors from both sides, as well as intermediaries operating at a global level, are aiding and abetting corruption. 

The challenge for the emerging nations and other new donors, as well as for traditional ones (such as the European Union) when providing cooperation, is to take up these critical views and improve coordination and accountability so that aid can be genuinely effective and bring about fundamental changes in global relations.


Translated from Spanish by Marion Marshrons. 

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