After remaining in oblivion for a long time, the issue of South-South cooperation seems to have resurfaced. If necessity is the mother of invention, then its resurgence has to be there as 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and 169 targets - highlighting 5Ps such as planet, population, prosperity, peace and partnership - would demand an estimated $5 to $11 trillion dollars a year! The figure may also appear to be whopping in the face of dwindling doses of aid and grants from ODA (official development assistance) countries. Thus, the clarion call for South-South cooperation is well-timed.
Perhaps to that effect, the Knowledge for Development Management (K4DM) Project of the Economic Relations Division of the Ministry of Finance recently organised a seminar titled "South-South and Triangular Cooperation: Bangladesh and Global Perspective". The welcome and opening remarks in that seminar were made by Ms. Shamima Nargis, Additional Secretary and Mohammad Mejbahuddin, Senior Secretary, Economic Relations Division (ERD) respectively. The keynote speech came from Professor Dr A.K. Abdul Momen, former Permanent Representative of Bangladesh to the UN. Robert Watkins, UN Resident Coordinator, Md Asadul Islam, Director General, NGO Affairs Bureau and Monirul Islam, DG, Economic Affairs Wing, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made important contributions to the deliberations of the seminar.
The paper by Abdul Momen warrants attention for more than one count. First, it is an informative paper although a little short of an analytical rigour. Second, it seemingly pertains to a glimmer of hope against the prevailing hills of hypes. We are told that in terms of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) achievements, Bangladesh has happily been crowned as a vanguard but the successes were not even across countries. Statistics used by the author seemingly show that poverty in the world today prevails amidst plenty. Only 85 rich persons have amassed more wealth than half of the total population of the world (3.7 billion), thus, indicating the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi's remark, "God has created enough to meet the needs of people but not enough to meet the greed of a few". A look at the information contained in the paper apparently also tells us what the world has achieved in the name of development so far, could be described as 'distorted development', if not 'development of underdevelopment" as Latin American left intellectuals once thought of. Here is an observation by Abdul Momen: "In spite of so much plentitudes, it is because of misuse and abuse of God-given resources, regrettably, still today nearly 57 million children cannot go to schools, nearly 2.2 billion people live below the poverty level and nearly 850 million people still suffer from chronic hunger mostly in the South. Millions suffer from acute shortage of essential infrastructure mostly in the South while about 1.4 billion people still have no reliable electricity, 900 million lack access to clean water, and 2.6 billion do not have adequate sanitation". The deprivations go on with violence, disasters, 60 million refugees, migration through boats etc. Needless to mention perhaps, all these have been happening in a world dazzled with 'dicey' development.
Bangladesh is a success story in MDG but, as said before, the success was not normally distributed globally. Of 33 LDCs in Africa, only 4 could cut poverty by half, and in Asia and Pacific region, out of 14 only 3 could meet MDG-1. However, the prime question is where would $5-11 trillion dollars flow from to feed SDGs? Drawing on prevailing estimates, Abdul Momen argues that only for infrastructure development, Asia needs nearly $8 trillion per annum, to end poverty and hunger, $66 billion, to have education for all $42 billion and for better health care $337 billion a year. At the moment, the total annual ODA hovers around $135-138 billion a year that has been reduced by 12 per cent in 2014. So, he suggests a few innovative ways to raise resources emanating from experts' ideas: (a) increasing domestic resource mobilisation; (b) reducing cost of remittance transfer and cost of mobility; (c) increasing trade and foreign direct investment, (d) technology transfer, (e) bringing back corrupt money housed in banks of development partners, (f) taking advantage of falling oil prices, (g) increasing public-private partnership and (h) intensifying South-South partnership.
We agree with the proposals but also note that it is easier said than done. In Bangladesh, for example, progress on (a), (b) and (c) has been more or less impressive over time but (e) remains to be an uphill task as influential people of Bangladesh are engaged in this trade. Not much progress could be made as far as (g) is concerned despite good wishes enshrined in successive budgets. Whether South-South partnership could be intensified - although much needed - is a million-dollar question lurking mainly for two reasons: (a) at present, inter-country conflicts grip mostly the Southern ones, and the Southern countries are also afflicted by intra-country conflicts such as tribal or communal strife including the most recent rise of terrorism. The political mistrust or distrust is another serious constraint in building the bridge between South and South. The most typical example in this case is Soiyh Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) - almost non-existent in impacts but ritual existence for decades. The failure could be adduced mainly to rivalry between Pakistan and India. However, leaving the hypes aside, hopes also loom large on the horizon. For example, as Dr Momen notes, the lunching of $100 billion New Development Bank in July 2015, followed by the ongoing establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) presents windows of opportunities for the South to seize upon the sources for investment for sustainable development. "Now it is time to set up the proposed South-South Finance and Development Ministers Forum under the UN".
The good news is that Bangladesh can now offer to its Southern friends a replicable model of socio-economic development. Even it can now lead some of the forums created for strengthening South-South cooperation under the aegis of the UN. In a high-level round table on South-South Cooperation, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's observations imply that Bangladesh is no longer in recipients' rank. She has said, "In Bangladesh, we have a range of good practices on poverty alleviation, social protection, disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, non-formal education, primary health care delivery, food security, sustainable fisheries…. We stand ready to share these experiences with other countries". United South stands, divided it falls.
The writer is a former Professor of Economics at Jahangirnagar University.