Emerging economies in Africa and triangular dialogue: from aid to development effectiveness

6 May 2011

The financial and economic crisis along with the new growth poles in the developing world - China, India and Brazil, as well as Turkey, the Gulf countries and South Korea to name a few - are creating new opportunities for African countries in their relations with external partners.   The involvement of emerging players in the continent provides fresh opportunities for Africa and its traditional partners, notably Europe, to engage on new terms that recognise the political and economic transformation of Africa over the last two decades, and that consider its increasingly complex global role. In particular, Europe's response to Africa's new partnerships will determine its own relations with the continent, especially its ability to project its values and influence. On the other hand, African states now have an opportunity to evaluate the form and substance of their engagement with both developed and developing countries, identifying good practices within each of them and seeking to optimise these in other relations.

What also seems to emerge from this new landscape is a need for traditional donors to consider not only aid effectiveness but, more broadly, development effectiveness on the basis of ownership and agenda of low income countries and not that of the donors. This would be an opportunity to initiate      a   real dialogue with the emerging players on how to jointly support development, beyond traditional donors' circles.

A new landscape

Although the rise of the emerging economies in Africa is no longer new, it has spurred a lively debate in traditional donor countries on the comparison of respective cooperation approaches and impacts (in particular with China), and on the opportunity of triangular dialogue and initiatives.

The changed context for Africa's partnerships relates to recent developments in the international aid debates, linked to the growing role of South-South cooperation and emerging North-South-South triangular cooperation (1), as well as increasing criticism over traditional aid, which could possibly lead to the emergence of a new development paradigm.

Emerging economies reject the notion that some countries are "donors" whilst others are "recipients" and they are not members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In fact, China, India and Brazil are all both donors and aid recipients simultaneously, as are an increasing number of developing countries (e.g. South Africa). As such, they have tended to be marginal to international aid policy debates and are not necessarily committed to 'aid effectiveness' processes such as the implementation of the Paris Declaration, launched in 2005. However, emerging economies and providers of South-South cooperation have played an increasingly important de facto role in the international development architecture, as donors, trading partners and sources of expertise. Their rising influence has been recognised in 2008 in the Accra Agenda for Action, where OECD traditional donors encouraged emerging players to follow the Paris Declaration and stressed the importance of exchange of experience between developing countries for capacity development.

Concerns over traditional aid approaches have contributed to refocusing the attention towards more systemic factors of development and the engine for sustainable and equitable growth. Indeed, development effectiveness (the output and results of development policies and assistance) is gaining increasing attention internationally, somewhat at the expense of aid effectiveness (the input and management of aid).  This is a new debate and development effectiveness means different things to different people. Since emerging economies do not see themselves as donors, they have not participated in aid effectiveness debates and processes. Thus, intuitively, the emergence of new players and the closer relationship between their commercial, diplomatic and assistance interactions with developing countries naturally link with development effectiveness discussions. This can be seen as a move from a narrow agenda on development cooperation to broader development considerations.

Responses from Africa to the new landscape

Having different partners entails the application of different business and development support models as well as receiving different degrees of appreciation. There are thematic areas where the EU is still seen as the favoured partner (e.g. peace and security) and others where it is China (e.g. infrastructure), Brazil (social protection) or India (telecommunications). An enlarged pool of partners, beyond the traditional ones, brings the opportunity of simultaneously drawing from different development models and benefitting from comparative advantages of different partners. Some actors, notably government officials from both Europe and Africa, believe that a general tendency emerging in Africa is that of adopting a 'multiple strategy' vis-à-vis different partners based on what each can offer; typically grants and capacity building support from traditional donors and increased investment from emerging players (in all sectors from China, and more concentrated in agriculture from Brazil and in technology transfer/telecommunications from India).

Other stakeholders (including those from civil society, academia and the private sector) do not believe that competition among partners translates into a clear and coherent strategy to best benefit from each partnership, but rather into ad-hoc reactions to what each partner offers to Africa based on its own policies and interests.

Though a full-fledged, totally coherent and effective strategy vis-à-vis all partners is incredibly difficult to design and implement, the cost of having no strategy is high. The absence of a bold strategy vis-à-vis traditional donors, for instance, led many African countries to make unclear demands to their partners, whilst having scarce capacity to deliver on their  side of the partnership. This contributed significantly to some of the drawbacks attributed to traditional donors (e.g. focus only on aid, fragmentation of objectives and programmes, etc).

At national level, very few African countries (e.g. Mauritius and South Africa) have a coherent-coordinated-complementary strategy, based on national strategic interests and articulated vis-à-vis different partners depending on their comparative advantages. Moreover, existing regional and pan-African plans do not address the new landscape of multi-polar partnerships and therefore do not put forward a more coherent and rational strategy, though some African institutions have started working towards this objective.

The way forward

A number of conditions should be put in place in order for Africa to implement coherent-coordinated-complementary strategies towards different partners. The most important precondition is the strengthening of institutions and capacity in Africa to design and implement such strategies and to negotiate 'good deals' with partners.  High-level political backing in Africa, as well as in traditional and new partner countries, is also critical throughout the process of improving partnerships and implementing agreed plans.

One question is whether African states want to have different fora of dialogue and coordination for each partner, or whether there is value in bringing them all to the same table to dialogue in a North-South-South triangular format.   A 'triangular' process of dialogue led by Africa with two or more partners from the North and South would contribute significantly to the strategic thinking about the continent's economic strategies and each partner's added value for Africa.

A general air of skepticism remains in Africa over attempts by traditional donors to initiate triangular dialogue. For instance, why should a third party such as the EU deal with Africa's relations with other partners? Why should China try to learn from the EU in terms of engagement? Emerging economies often provide an attractive alternative to traditional donors; greater coherence and coordination among major partner countries/donors is therefore not always welcome in Africa.

A number of incentives for doing things together and improving efficiency can nonetheless be identified. For example, sharing of lessons and practices in order to avoid past mistakes (e.g. quick aid disbursements without real absorption capacity put in place, technical assistance that does not build capacity and management skills, etc.), or better reporting and monitoring cooperation inputs and results (which will also be increasingly demanded of non-traditional donors, both by their own citizens and African stakeholders). Mixing traditional donors' substantial resources with emerging economies' increasing support, drawing on their own experiences, may generate substantial positive spillovers.  Furthermore, there is a need to act more in line with developing countries citizens' values, expectations and needs (e.g. supporting regional integration in Africa through both policy frameworks support by the EU and rapid upgrading of regional infrastructure by China). Finally, jointly working with a partner which is already perceived in Africa as credible and having a positive impact in a specific sector can bring benefits to the new partner (e.g. China in mining) in terms of image and trust building.

Given current trends, and in particular the interests of emerging economies and Africa, a realistic objective of triangular dialogue could be to identify possible collaborations at country level, starting from specific sectors, to then draw preliminary conclusions on ‘what works and what does not'. Only then would the parties be in a position to move (if possible) towards triangular policy discussions.

Hence, in the new global landscape Africa could utilize triangular dialogue to:

1.            Strengthen its ability to influence global decision-making, as the positions of and possible alliances with traditional donors and China, India and Brazil will determine the global frameworks that will affect Africa in terms of climate change, trade, international tax and financial regulations, etc;

2.            Improve the effectiveness of one partner's approach by sharing lessons learnt as part of other partnerships.

3.            Identify possible synergies and complementarities among partners towards a more comprehensive and coherent development effectiveness agenda.

In any case, Africa should take the lead in any such dialogue, building on the existing fora and processes. (2)

Better alignment to Africa's objectives and more coherent strategies by Africa and its partners could positively affect the overall international development debate, with a shift of focus from aid effectiveness to development effectiveness. Given the emerging focus on non-ODA flows, non-state actors and development effectiveness, it is possible to conceive a development effectiveness framework to gradually replace, or rather absorb the existing aid effectiveness framework premised on the Paris/Accra Agenda and Declarations, the DAC guidelines for aid management and the DAC peer review system for donors. In this context, a particularly relevant aspect of development effectiveness will indeed be policy coherence for development.


Dr. Sanoussi Bilal is the Head of the Economic and Trade Cooperation Programme at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM). Francesco Rampa is Programme Associate for ECDPM. This article is based on a longer paper entitled  "Emerging economies in Africa and the development effectiveness debate", 2011 available at: http://www.ecdpm.org/dp107 (the preliminary outcome of a study conducted by ECDPM and SAIIA).


1 Triangular co-operation is a partnership between DAC Donors (North) and providers of South-South cooperation to implement development cooperation programmes/projects in beneficiary countries (OECD 2009), e.g. support from traditional donors for the transfer of knowledge and experience between developing countries.

2 Possible triangular dialogue could take place for instance at the Africa Partnership Forum, the UN Development Cooperation Forum, the G20 and the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (November 2011).

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