Fact Box

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Greater efforts needed to evaluate impacts of projects to improve effectiveness of triangular cooperation

Triangular cooperation, a mode of international cooperation that typically involves partnerships among traditional donors, South-South cooperation providers and beneficiary countries, is gaining more prominence. Important international processes and documents--such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Buenos Aires Outcome Document of the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation and the 2021 High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation, all point to the importance of this modality and its contributions to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Although information regarding triangular cooperation is still limited, data collected by different organizations all point to an increase in the number of actors, projects, budgets and durations.

Triangular cooperation is initiated for different purposes, including as a one-off pilot measure or a means of scaling up good practices, or to foster cooperation relationships to promote mutual understanding among different stakeholders and form synergies.

Triangular cooperation brings added values. These include accessing a broader range of expertise, knowledge, approaches and capabilities; building on and combining the strengths, experiences and resources of different development partners to implement innovative and flexible solutions; and fostering co-responsibility and creating policy spaces to bridge the differences of narratives between North-South cooperation and South-South cooperation through joint practices.

As such, triangular cooperation does not only deliver direct development results such as the development of sector policies, the establishment of new institutions and knowledge networks, and strengthened capacities and development cooperation structures, it also forges mutually beneficial relationships between traditional donor countries and multilateral organizations with emerging economies and enhances the capacity of partners to work together more strategically. By building ownership and trust between all partners from the very beginning, triangular cooperation establishes strong, horizontal partnerships that often reach beyond the specific project, providing an opportunity for all development actors to achieve greater effectiveness, coherence and impact.

Nevertheless, this mode of cooperation still faces significant challenges. Research has shown that triangular cooperation initiatives often fail to realize their full potential, resulting in insufficient effectiveness and sustainability in relation to development impacts. This may be for several reasons.

First, there is no internationally-accepted common understanding of the modality and its usage. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development defines triangular cooperation as an arrangement that involves at least three partners fulfilling three main roles: beneficiary, pivotal and facilitating, and sticks to the OECD norms and standards in the process. In contrast, the United Nations and many countries of the South, such as Brazil, China and India, emphasize the internationally-agreed South-South cooperation principles such as equality and non-conditionality. Depending on the region and other conditions, the focus of triangular cooperation can vary, with differing interests and expectations. Implicit goals of traditional donors are frequently focused on the providers of the South, including strengthening development cooperation structures or using the modality to consolidate political-strategic cooperation relationships.

Second, there is very limited evidence and assessment of the impacts of triangular cooperation across all regions. The lack of official, verified and comparable data makes it hard to provide accurate quantitative evidence. Even if there are monitoring and evaluation efforts, many of the reports are more descriptive than analytical and are not backed up empirically. Case studies are often reviewed on a case-by-case basis, merely providing an overview of the areas of cooperation and the actors and institutions involved. They also hardly reflect the perspectives of receiving countries.

Third, there are institutional, resource and capacity bottlenecks for triangular cooperation. Development cooperation agencies seldom formulate specific strategies and administrative procedures for triangular cooperation and have limited resources dedicated to it. There is also the shortage of human resource capacities to analyze and process the experience gained and feed it back into the development cooperation system. The workload generated from additional coordination and communication among a large number of partners poses a further major challenge.

International organizations can strengthen their roles in triangular cooperation to promote knowledge-sharing and partnership building. UN agencies and international finance institutions usually serve as useful advisers and conveners, have substantial experience in administrating and implementing technical cooperation projects, and often can support resource mobilization efforts. The regional and global offices of the international organizations involved should promote coherence between support on triangular cooperation and other forms and strategies of development cooperation, and ensure sufficient financial, personnel and time resources. They can also help enhance the availability of their data on the results and impacts of triangular cooperation programs and policies, develop repositories of successful relevant practices, and establish a global knowledge management system.

For national governments, it is important to establish and strengthen the national ecosystem for triangular cooperation. This requires developing an overarching narrative and vision shaped by high-political will and related legislation and rules, making appropriate institutional arrangements, forming partnerships with different government and non-state actors, and devoting financial and human resources to the design, implementation and assessment of triangular cooperation interventions. Specifically, the following measures could be considered.

First, to formulate or sharpen the triangular cooperation strategy and decide on the objectives. It is also important to better align and link triangular cooperation with national development strategies, other development programs, as well as regional or global initiatives.

Second, to enhance the strategic steering capacity for triangular cooperation. The actors concerned should develop indicators for the strategic objectives, and track, compile and analyze them. In order to improve effectiveness, sustainability and coherence, and to reduce transaction costs, the content of triangular cooperation measures should be linked to bilateral programs in the receiving countries.

Third, to improve reporting of triangular cooperation projects by collecting data and project information. A methodology should also be developed to improve the collecting of data to better evaluate the results of triangular cooperation projects and understand the diversity and nuances of triangular cooperation in different regions. More analytical and evaluative case studies could be produced and disseminated to track, document and promote successful experiences and best practices.

The author is director of the division of general affairs at the China Center for International Knowledge on Development. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn