South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

How do conceptualisations of humanitarian ‘emergencies,’ and the expectation that processes of South-South cooperation will be guided by the principle of ‘mutual benefit,’ influence the approaches taken by the UN ‘development’ and ‘refugee’ agencies’ strategic planning and policy implementation? The Southern Responses to Displacement project is exploring and identifying diverse perceptions and models of Southern-led responses to conflict-induced displacement and in this piece, Naohiko Omata (Oxford Department of International Development) examines whether and, if so, how South-South cooperation has been conceptualised and operationalized within UNDP and UNHCR. To do so, Naohiko reviews key literature and policy documents on South-South cooperation among UN agencies, and then draws on his interviews with senior staff members of UNDP and UNHCR and his own experiences of working with both UN agencies. Finally, he discusses some of the implications of South-South cooperation in the context of UN agencies and concludes by tracing potential research agendas for the future.

If you found this piece of interest please visit our recommended reading at the end of the post.     

This post was published on 17th June 2019

South-South Cooperation in International Organizations: Its Conceptualization and Implementation within UNDP and UNHCR

By Naohiko Omata, University of Oxford

There is a paucity of research that systematically investigates the concept and implementation of South-South cooperation within two United Nations agencies: United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Through a comparative study of the UN’s ‘development’ and ‘refugee’ agencies, this piece – which is based on my contribution to the Handbook of South-South Relations edited by Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh and Patricia Daley -, argues that the applicability of South-South cooperation differs among UN organizations depending on their institutional mandates and throws critical light on the extensive promotion of South-South cooperation among international organizations.

South-South cooperation in the UN system: history, concept and modality

The Concept of South-South Cooperation

South-South cooperation within the UN is defined as:

‘a process whereby two or more developing countries pursue their individual and/or shared national capacity development objectives through exchanges of knowledge, skills, resources and technical know-how, and through regional and interregional collective actions…for their mutual benefit within and across regions.’

(High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation 2012a)

This UN definition identifies pursuit of ‘mutual benefit’ as the central element in the formation of South-South cooperation (Task Team on South-South Cooperation 2011). The emphasis on mutual benefit cannot be separated from articulations of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles in post-World War II period (Modi 2011). The promotion of South-South cooperation was then conceptualized as a way of pursuing common economic interests and trade as part of efforts to advance economic independence from former colonial powers, thereby overcoming the exploitative nature of North-South relations (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2015, Mishra 2016). Hence today, South-South cooperation is largely perceived as an instrument for propelling development and economic growth in the UN regime. This is why South-South partnerships are typically characterised by international organisations as an embodiment of solidarity, self-determination, and self-reliance among developing countries (see here).

Modalities of South-South Cooperation

Because of this historical and ideological origin, South-South cooperation is different from official assistance from the North to the South (Modi 2011), and implementation modalities of South-South cooperation also differ from traditional aid between donors and recipients. South-South cooperation is essentially a form of technical cooperation, which is broadly understood as the provision of education or training to recipient countries. Therefore, modalities of South-South cooperation typically involve knowledge sharing, technology transfer, as well as exchange of skills, experiences and best practices (UN System Task Team 2013, UNDP 2016a). In terms of the implementation, documents produced by UN organizations place particular emphasis on respect for national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic issues (UNCTAD 2010; UNDP 2016a).

South-South cooperation in the UN Development Agency 

The Suitability of South-South cooperation for UNDP’s work

While a number of UN agencies aim to promote South-South cooperation, UNDP recognizes itself as a leading organization implementing such forms of cooperation. In 2015 UNDP reported 689 programmes across 132 countries that have utilized South-South cooperation, covering more than 15 percent of the UNDP’s total programmes.

The concept of South-South cooperation is well-suited to UNDP’s mandate. As described above, South-South cooperation is predominantly conceptualized as a ‘development tool’ in the UN system (for critiques of such an instrumentalised approach, see here and the Handbook of South-South Relations). UNDP explicitly situates South-South cooperation as one of its key strategic pillars (UNDP 2013b). Within UNDP, South-South cooperation is mainstreamed in most sectors, including economic growth, knowledge management, private sector development, gender, and energy and environment (UNDP 2011).

Identification of mutual benefit – a key element in the formulation of South-South initiatives – is particularly relevant to some of UNDP’s key thematic areas, such as poverty reduction and private sector development. A senior UNDP employee who consolidated several South-South partnerships commented in our interview:   

The idea of South-South cooperation is quite natural to our organizational activities. Originally, South-South collaboration emanated from pursuit of common economic benefits and trade between developing states. Trading activities and private sector development are both UNDP’s thematic mandates. In these areas, it is relatively straightforward to identify mutual benefits between involved Southern countries.

In line with this approach, in 2016, UNOSSC published a report compilation of ‘good practices’ in South-South cooperation.

Promoting South-South initiatives as a catalyst

The concept of South-South cooperation is operationalized within UNDP through a range of modalities. In line with its organizational mandates, UNDP has positioned itself as a knowledge broker and partnership facilitator when Southern countries work together to find solutions to common development challenges (UN General Assembly 2014).

In the absence of a universal or regional match-making platform, brokering between demand and supply is one of the most important added values that the UN agencies can provide to developing countries engaged in South-South cooperation. However adequate monitoring and evaluation criteria for South-South cooperation is still absent, despite widespread promotion and advocacy by UNDP.

The absence of a systematic and measurable evaluation system, however, does not necessarily diminish the importance of South-South initiatives within UNDP. The values of promoting collaboration among Southern countries go beyond the achievement of tangible and quantifiable outcomes upon which many forms of traditional development aid tend to focus. Referred to as ‘horizontal partnership’, South-South cooperation represents an innovative form of international aid based on equity and aims to unleash the potential of Southern actors from entrenched North-South relationships.

South-South cooperation in the UN Refugee Agency

‘Mutual benefits’ for refugee protection?

The UN refugee agency – UNHCR – was created after World War II to serve two core purposes: 1) to ensure protection of refugees and 2) to find a solution to their plight.  In contrast to UNDP, UNHCR has a low-profile amidst the extensive promotion of South-South cooperation in the UN system. The most recent UNHCR’s Strategic Directions 2017-2021 made literally no references to South-South cooperation or any similar thinking, an indicator that these issues fall conceptually outside of current thinking around South-South collaboration.[i]

As explained above, ‘mutual benefit’ is a key underpinning of South-South cooperation although this is hard to conceptualize in refugee assistance. Instead, as one UNHCR staff said to me, ‘mutual benefit in development is equivalent to burden sharing in refugee protection.’ As widely known, refugee-hosting countries and UNHCR typically conceptualize refugees as a ‘burden’ (Gottwald 2014). Notwithstanding the absence of convincing evidence (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh et al 2011), the prevailing notion is that the arrival of refugees can strain resources in a host state and even create unrest and security threat to their host and region (Colson 2004, Daley 2013, Kagan 2012).

Crucially, the predominant portion of the responsibilities to protect refugees rests with the Global South. At the end of 2016, 84% of world’s 15 million refugees resided in the developing South, with 28% of them being hosted in the least developed countries (UNHCR 2017a).

Given the negative perceptions attached to refugees and the unfair distribution of the protection responsibilities, it has become increasingly difficult for UNHCR to persuade states to host refugees, and efforts to foster cooperation have rarely been successful in the South (Loescher 2014). Instead, Southern states are more likely to attempt to shift responsibility for refugees to other countries and far from matching demand and supply as in trade or commercial transactions, the UN refugee agency has become involved in monitoring states’ border control practices to ensure that refugees are not forced back to their country of origin against their will. In response, states have often attempted to exclude or limit UNHCR’s presence, and have increasingly devised their own responses to refugees in recent years (Loescher 2014)

In the context of refugee assistance, solidarity – an ideological underpinning of South-South cooperation – finds less space than in development aid.

Challenges of implementing South-South initiatives in UNHCR

The modalities of South-South initiatives seem less relevant to UNHCR’s core mandates of providing protection and a solution for refugees. As already described above, in the absence of identifiable common benefits, coupled with negative perceptions attached to refugees, ‘matching demand and supply’ makes little sense for UNHCR. While technical support such as exchange of knowledge and sharing best practices between Southern states can be useful, they do not – from UNHCR’s perspective – directly contribute to refugee protection and search for a solution for refugees.

Furthermore, a UNDP senior employee suspected that the reactive mode of humanitarian agencies makes it hard for the UN refugee agency to employ South-South cooperation in their operations as it ‘requires a long-term vision and strategic planning.’

However, this is not to say that such cooperation and negotiation does not exist in refugee assistance. As the definition indicates, South-South alliances can also be implemented at a regional level. While many Northern states have implemented refugee policies designed to deflect refugees from entering the developed North, Latin American states, for example, have fostered a sense of regional solidarity and responsibility sharing in the area of refugee protection within the developing South (Harley 2014).

While the example of refugee resettlement in Latin American highlights the potential for South-South initiatives to strengthen refugee protection, UNHCR’s promotion of regional ‘solutions’ for refugees in other parts of the Global South should be viewed with caution. While regional integration schemes can be viewed as a form of South-South cooperation, the promotion of such approaches can be used by the North as another technique of keeping ‘the burden’ of refugees in the South.[ii]

Implications and discussion 

The comparative analysis of the cases above indicates that the institutional mandate and nature of the work determine the extent to which South-South cooperation is adoptable and/or relevant among different UN agencies. The most fundamental element of South-South alliances is the pursuit of ‘mutual benefits’. In the areas of private sector development, trade and poverty reduction, UNDP’s thematic topics, benefits are usually visible and concrete for involved states, thereby making it easy to formulate a ‘win-win’ situation. For refugee protection, however, mutual benefits often do not exist (or at least they are invisible). Refugees are seen as a‘burden’ and hosting them is believed to produce negative impacts on a host state.[iii]

Second, modalities matter in operationalizing the idea of South-South cooperation in the activities and programmes of UN agencies. UNDP focuses on building the capacity of developing countries in a wide range of thematic areas using modalities such as exchange or sharing of knowledge, best practices and technology. On the other hand, while capacity building is part of UNHCR’s work, the essential task for UNHCR remains as working with States to provide protection and solutions to millions of refugees worldwide. In addition, the formulation of South-South deals requires long-term planning, which is perceived to be not suited to agencies that operate in emergency contexts that often unfold in unpredictable ways (for a critique of this line of argumentation, see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2018).

Third, the analysis above raises an important question: to what extent is South-South cooperation an effective approach for UNHCR in the current situation of forced displacement. During interviews with UNHCR staff members, most expressed their suspicion about the value of such cooperation in refugee protection and echoed that UNHCR should not pursue it given the lack of responsibility of the North for refugee problems. As discussed above, the international refugee regime has been characterized by a North-South power asymmetry, and Northern countries have increasingly focused on policies aimed at containing refugees in their region of origin (Betts and Loescher 2011). Under such a circumstance, drawing more commitment from the South could potentially exacerbate the already unfair distribution of ‘burden’ (or responsibility) between the South and North.

Fourth, while UNHCR staff members generally see less relevance of South-South cooperation for their work than UNDP officials, that perception should not lead them to under-estimate the potential of South-South alliances. Latin America’s steps toward refugee assistance, aligned with the principles of regional solidarity, represents an important case study for examining the adaptability of South-South concepts in refugee protection.

Also, in terms of modalities, since the average duration of refugees’ exile is now more than two decades, refugee assistance needs to be built on a longer vision and to support programmes, which gives more space to incorporate South-South approaches that are usually formed through long-term negotiation amongst key stakeholders (see Fiddian-Qasmiyeh 2018). UNHCR and other international organizations should rigorously assess the impact of these South-South cooperative models on refugees’ rights and welfare, while simultaneously seeking strategies to increase the degree of commitment and responsibility from Northern actors.

Finally, UNDP’s extensive promotion and advocacy of South-South cooperation deserves careful scrutiny. One of the frequent critiques is the increasing presence of comparatively rich and powerful Southern states such as Brazil, China, and India in the current practice of South-South development cooperation, which is facilitated by UNDP. UNDP has recently made strategic partnership agreements with Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey (UN General Assembly 2014, High-level Committee on South-South Cooperation 2012b). In UNDP-led cooperation initiatives, these middle-income countries are major providers of technical assistance to other developing states. This, in turn, raises a question for UNDP: to what extent is the current practice of South-South cooperation different from traditional North-South aid and in which ways is it meeting the original aim of overcoming the exploitative nature of North-South relations? Some critiques claim that the current South-South cooperation may be leading to creation of ‘South within the South’ (Ladd 2010) and marginalizing the least developed countries in the name of South-South partnerships (Malhatra 2010).

Ways forward

The adaptability of the concept and modality of South-South collaboration is not universal among UN organizations due to different mandates and operational contexts and there are limitations and risks of over-emphasising the value of South-South cooperation in certain domains of the UN agencies, as illustrated with the example of refugee protection by UNHCR.

There is a need to identify potential future research agendas for academics, practitioners and policy-makers to fill empirical and analytical lacunae around this topic. An obvious next step is to complete more case study-based research vis-à-vis different types of international organizations to substantiate the observations and findings presented in this post and in the chapter on which this post is based. In particular, it would be revealing to investigate how South-South alliances have been perceived and employed in other agencies working in the areas of humanitarian support and migration, such as the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, and the International Organization for Migration.

UNDP also has an important responsibility to support further investigation in this field. As mentioned above, the organization needs to develop systematic assessment criteria tailored to the mission of South-South cooperation. In current practice, while many UNDP-led collaborative projects between Southern states are considered ‘achievements’, we really do not know whether these initiatives have produced positive outcomes for promoting development. In particular, given the increasing presence of emerging and non-traditional Southern donors including China, India and Russia, it necessitates scrutiny to understand to what extent the current practice and concept of South-South cooperation are driven by the underlying principles of South-South movements.

For UNHCR, South-South collaboration is largely a foreign concept. However, the current daunting magnitude of forced displacement necessitates more innovative and united approaches for refugee assistance. As discussed above, new approaches are emerging that are based on collaboration between Southern countries aiming to improve the protection and well-being of refugees. These approaches may offer useful insights into the construction of an innovative model of support that is formulated on collaboration among states, both in the South and North, and international organizations for refugee protection.


This blog is an extract from the following chapter: Omata, N. (2018) “South–South cooperation in international organisations: its conceptualisation and implementation within UNDP and UNHCR,” in Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Daley, P. (eds) The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations.

You can read other extracts from the book here:

Carpi, E. (2018) Thinking Power Relations across Humanitarian Geographies: Southism as a Mode of Analysis

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Daley, P.  (2018) Conceptualising the global South and South–South encounters

Ould Mohamedou, M. (2019) The Rise and Fall of Pan-Arabism

Other recommended reading:

Carpi, E. (2018) ‘Southern’ and ‘Northern’ assistance provision beyond the grand narratives: Views from Lebanese and Syrian providers in Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2019) Looking Forward: Disasters at 40

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Thinking through ‘the global South’ and ‘Southern-responses to displacement’: An introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Exploring refugees conceptualisations of Southern-led humanitarianism

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) Southern Responses to Displacement: Background and introduction to our mini blog series.

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2015 and 2017) South-South Educational Migration, Humanitarianism and Development: Views from Cuba, North Africa and the Middle East, Oxford: Routledge. *Paperback published in 2017*

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. & Daley, P.  (Eds) (2018) The Routledge Handbook of South-South Relations


UNDP, 2009. South Report: Perspectives on South-South Cooperation for Development. Special Unit for South-South Cooperation. New York: UNDP.

UN System Task Team on the Post-2015 UN Development Agenda, 2013. A renewed global partnership for development. New York: UN System Task Team.

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