India’s trysts with South-South Cooperation


It’s time for the country to showcase its leadership potential in international arena.


In a world that is just emerging from an unprecedented pandemic (COVID-19) and of fast changing political developments, South-South Cooperation (SSC) has been resurrected as principle and a framework for furthering the national well-being of “developing countries and attaining internationally agreed development goals among (them)”. India is marked as an emerging power and its stand and engagement in various international forums is seen as decisive in shaping international relations. This paper highlights the potential and limitations of India’s current positions to shape new platforms, pressure points, and partnerships that ask the extent to which these engagements can further some of the principles of SSC – including providing greater space for self-determination of Southern countries over their development processes. It ends by how civil society can play a role in offering new narratives of partnerships, solidarity and reclaiming the politics of SSC.

Changing geopolitical landscape

The last week of June 2022 witnessed three influential international bodies – the Group of Seven (G7), North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) – holding their meetings. The topics of discussions as well as the tone and tenor reflected a growing international divide. G7, a club of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world, focused on how to intensify sanctions on Russia and continue to support Ukraine. NATO, which is US-commanded military alliance that really is a vestige of the Cold War days, sought to expand its membership to not only countries in Europe (like Finland and Sweden) but also to Australia, Japan, New Zealand and the Republic of Korea. These countries were invited to the Summit as “Indo-Pacific Partners”. The BRICS Summit, on the other hand, focused on “Strengthening and Reforming Global Governance”. With regard to Ukraine, the tone was, understandably muted with emphasis on “talks between Russia and Ukraine” to end the crisis and concern for “the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine”.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has shown up divides amongst countries, with the UN General Assembly passing a resolution in April 2022 that called for Russia to be suspended from the Human Rights Council. What was telling is that 24 countries voted against the resolution and 58 countries abstained from voting. Many countries have also found ways to work around the sanctions that the US has imposed on Russia.  As James Traub says, “What we have seen since the beginning of the Russian invasion is the coalescence of the West and the fragmentation of the rest. The West is quite right to view Russia’s brazen assault on its neighbour as an unprecedented challenge to the post-World War II order. But nations that see themselves as victims of that order as much as beneficiaries cannot be expected to share that view.” These changing configurations are reminiscent of the Cold War and, therefore, heralded as a call for a Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) 2.0.[i]

The COVID-19 pandemic that upended lives all over the world also exposed the limitations of the current multilateral organisations. It also “exposed the fragile health systems and economic vulnerabilities of the South and has also revealed the lack of a strong vision that unites developing countries, at all levels, around a shared international agenda.”

All this comes at a time when the the arena of international development cooperation has already been undergoing some major shifts. New – or often re-emerging – actors have grown in clout in the international arena during the past two decades. It is these changes in geo-politics with new alignments and political positioning that has made the idea of non-alignment, and the broader one of SSC an attractive one, once again.

History of SSC

SSC at its core embodies a bold political idea that is based on values of mutual support, respect for national sovereignty and a recognition that countries have to chart out a path to progress that is relevant to them. It is also seen as offering the possibility of a multipolar world and will “impel faster and better development in partner countries”.

As an all-encompassing term, SSC covers a broad range of activities. It has been defined by the United Nations as “a broad framework of collaboration among countries of the South in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and technical domains. Involving two or more developing countries, it can take place on a bilateral, regional, intraregional or interregional basis”.

It gained traction as many developing countries have become “sceptical of promises” and conditionalities, and “fatigued by heavy bureaucratic and burdensome delivery systems” associated with Western aid programmes that also perpetuate aid-dependence.

According to Michelle Morais de Sá e Silva, the idea of SSC went through three phases since World War II. The first (1949-1979) was rooted in anti-colonial struggles and a strong sense of national pride and Third World solidarity. The second was the ‘demobilisation’ phase (1980–98) where the idea seems to have retreated. From 1999 onwards there was a (re)emergence of South- South cooperation with players such India and China (along with some of the other Southern countries) exerting considerable influence economically and politically at the international level.

Since the turn of the century there is increasing evidence of the growing recognition of non-traditional donors and the idea of SSC at the international level. From 2003 onwards donors – mainly the traditional donors – held a series of consultations that were aimed at relooking at the international aid architecture and enhancing aid effectiveness. These meetings and their outcomes, including the ones in Rome (2003), Paris (2005), Accra (2008) and Busan (2011) became the foundation for Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development-Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) to rework their approach to foreign assistance. Several non-DAC donors, including India, have also endorsed the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. The inclusion of non-DAC actors in the deliberations is indicative of a gradual change towards broader and more representative fora of international aid architecture. These had been earlier entirely dominated by DAC/Western donors

For a while now, United Nations (UN) agencies, international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and powerful donor states are actively sponsoring both the “localisation of aid” and more broadly South–South partnerships as a means of promoting sustainable forms of human development. In 2004, the UN undertook a plan for the expansion and reconfiguration of the Special Unit for South–South Cooperation of the United Nations Development Programme. And the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report entitled The Rise of the South called for “new institutions which can facilitate regional integration and South–South cooperation”. It also noted that “[e]merging powers in the developing world are already sources of innovative social and economic policies and are major trade, investment, and increasingly development cooperation partners for other developing countries” before concluding, “The South needs the North, and increasingly the North needs the South”[ii].

The UN Office for SSC also published a landmark document in 2018 that was a collection of more than 100 examples from all regions of the world demonstrating the potential success of SSC such as Cuba’s support in the fight against Ebola in West Africa; Mexico’s experience in diversifying corn products to improve health and nutrition in Kenya; the knowledge of strategies to reduce hunger shared by Colombia to Mesoamerican countries; and the lessons from Chile to the Caribbean countries on product labelling as a measure to end obesity, among many others.

SSC therefore has again gained prominence and many see it as holding the promise of a new world-order. One that is more just and equitable.

SSC beyond states

To understand SSC solely from the viewpoint of relations between states is limiting. At its core it has also been about people-to-people relations. Numerous attempts have been made to formalise this and step up Track 2 diplomacy. One of the most enduring of these is the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) that was set up in 1992-93 to provide “a more structured regional process of a non-governmental nature to contribute to the efforts towards regional confidence building and enhancing regional security through dialogues, consultation and cooperation”. An assessment in 2001 concludes that CSCAP was a ‘fine exemplar’ of Track 2 diplomacy, and that it has been able to contribute to the definition of some terms that made it to the formal discussions as well as shape some of the recommendations. The limitation, though, was “the tendency of Track 2 security specialists to limit the range of their conceptualisations to what they believe is acceptable to governments”. Therefore, often they are hesitant to offer more comprehensive and radical alternatives.

They are also aware that the arena is fraught with politics and that “national differences frequently trump scholarly objectivity”.[iii] In spite of this, CSCAP has been seen as body that achieved noteworthy successes.

The Network of Southern Think Tanks (NeST) is another example of non-state SSC. Set up in 2015, it held a series of “technical working group discussions, stakeholder consultations and political gatherings” for 20 months to develop an analytical framework for SSC. Another coming together of think tanks is the South-South Global Thinkers, which is a space “where think tank networks from the Global South and the North come together to engage in policy dialogues, share knowledge, expertise and most importantly Southern perspectives.”

The Alliance of NGOs and CSOs for South-South Cooperation (ANCSSC) is another formation that came into being at the Ninth Global South-South Development Expo in Antalya, Turkey, in 2017 and “aims to promote South-South cooperation in the work of NGOs and CSOs in developmental, humanitarian and related spheres” as well as to “take stock of SSC practices in NGOs and CSOs since the adoption of BAPA”.

Besides these formal associations and coming together, the idea of partnership across borders is one that many social movements, including the feminist movement, have ardently championed. The feminist movement, for example, has used the NAM space to work towards a South feminist idea of development.[iv] Many other movements, too, have linked across geographical divides based on the “commonalities of experience across the Global South”. The technological advances have also made regional and transnational activism less expensive and easier. Added to this is the role of the diaspora who sometimes facilitate these exchanges. They also promote triangular interactions of North-South-South.

Other specific instances of civil society organisations attempting to hold the processes of development cooperation accountable include broad platforms, like the CSO’s Platform for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) that has also demanded a people-centred SSC that institutionalises the participation of civil society “through frameworks, official spaces, mechanisms and resources”. There are a host of other bodies like the path breaking Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) that was set up in 1984 by bringing together, “feminists from the South working for gender, economic and ecological justice, and sustainable and democratic development.”

The BRICS Feminist Watch has engaged consistently and strategically with the BRICS Civil Forum and the main BRICS bodies, including the New Development Bank. It works as a pressure group and has simultaneously also sought to build women’s capacities to engage in SSC mechanisms. Another example is Brazil’s Articulaçao Sul that undertook public evaluations of Brazil’s official development cooperation.

These formations and interactions around SSC vary vastly in scale and their approach ideas of accountability, participation, negotiation and politicisation. While some seek to gain a foothold in the official forums and influence discourse and outcomes from within, others choose to play the role of pressure groups from outside of the system.

India’s approach

SSC has been a commitment that has informed India’s international relations from even the pre-independence era. The impulse that fuelled these initial efforts was influenced by the NAM and an anti-colonialism stand that India took. With the end of the Cold War, the programme moved to becoming more apolitical. Later, with the economic liberalisation of the economy in the 1990s, the aid policy has become more pragmatic and is guided by strategic economic interests.

India’s approach to development cooperation embraces the principle of non-interference, and is demand-driven in orientation. It, therefore, lays emphasis on the priority of the recipient country and the recipient country can form any law or policy it desires (keeping in mind its national interests) while implementing cooperation projects. It is disassociated from what is termed as ‘discredited’ conditionalities or policy prescriptions. The emphasis on local ownership and capacity building remains the bedrock of India’s approach to SSC, and the relationship between the countries is not that of a typical donor and recipient but more close to partners with a shared goal of collective self-reliance.

Saroj Kumar Mohanty[v] outlines two largely competing approaches to development cooperation. The first rests on monetarist principles. This approach focuses on macroeconomic targets, conditionality, budgetary support, and so forth is followed by OECD-DAC supported by the Bretton Woods Institution (BWI). The second approach that India, along with most new donors, follows is the structuralist one. “Whereas the monetarists argue that growth requires economically stable conditions, structuralists emphasise that it can occur even in situations of macroeconomic instability; many developing countries operate in a situation resembling ‘underemployment equilibrium’” This in practice translates to structuralists opposing policies such as conditionality, budgetary interventions, macroeconomic targeting, and so forth.

India often deploys the term ‘development assistance’ and though the term SSC is also used in policy and other official documents. There is no consensus on what SSC means and whether it continues to be a useful framework. The motives of India’s external assistance programme are varied and sometimes overlapping. In its neighbourhood (South Asia), it seeks to be the regional leader, and issues around exerting soft power inform its programmes (besides wanting stability in the region). In Africa, for instance, its initial stand was against colonialism and apartheid, and to strengthen NAM movement; in more recent years, it has been for access to African energy resources and to promote India’s strategic interests – especially in the context of the growing footprint of China in Africa.

During the 2015 India-Africa Forum Summit, a series of scandals and complaints erupted due to investigations by journalists and further amplified by activists. The pressure yielded had some impact. The Export-Import (EXIM) Bank, the government agency handling this concessional credit, took note of these charges and made a series of changes including mandating a competitive bidding process on deals rather than the previous practice of agreements being decided behind closed doors between Indian companies and African governments. Another issue that African leaders and diplomats flagged was about delays and problems with the concessional loans. Again the EXIM Bank made efforts to streamline the process.

India’s engagement with SSC has, therefore, been complex and dynamic. Over the years, this narrative of SSC has become more refined, and is seen as complementing the traditional methods of North-South Cooperation

India at international forums

It was evident that multilateralism, in its current form, is seriously flawed including its misuse by strategic rivals. To counter this, countries have always come together in smaller groups to formulate, influence or negotiate in or outside multilateral frameworks. India has been an active member at plurilateral forums like the G20[vi], BRICS[vii] and South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC)[viii], The Group of 77 (G77)[ix], IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa)[x], etc. This is besides the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, United Nations, and World Trade Organisation.

India will hold the G20 Presidency from 1 December 2022 to 30 November 2023, and host the 18th G20 Summit in 2023.This presidency is the first opportunity for India to showcase its leadership potential as it will be the most high profile international event ever hosted by the country. Earlier, India had hosted NAM and Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 1983, India-Africa Forum Summit (IAFS) in 2015 and International Solar Alliance Summit in 2018. However, they did not involve all the five permanent members of the Security Council (P5) and major countries.

India is also set to host the 2023 Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)[xi]. SCO is dominated by Russia and China. India is concerned that Pakistan is also a full member of SCO given the tense relationship between the two countries. The SCO has had an anti-West character to it. Historically India has had close ties with Russia and the Central Asian countries but now has drawn closer to the West (for example, it has actively participated in the Quad along with the US, Japan and Australia). Therefore, as Chair of SCO it has to balance its relations with Russia and the West, especially given the raging Russia-Ukraine war. This is tricky, but the SCO chair offers India a chance to continue its outreach to Central Asia and Eurasia where it has been working on various connectivity projects.

India has, over the years, been able to play a pivotal role in many of these forums. For example, the outcomes of the 12th WTO Ministerial Conference held in June 2022 includes temporary waivers on COVID-19 vaccines, a moratorium on e-commerce trade, food security and setting limits on harmful fishing subsidies. India, along with China and other developing countries, has worked to come together in their demands. For example, the current agreement on intellectual properties “is a watered down version of the original proposal made by India and South Africa in 2020 [where] They had wanted broader intellectual property waivers on vaccines, treatments and tests.” India has also worked with China and other countries to coordinate their response to the reforms within the WTO.[xii]

Within a body like G77 India seems to be less enthusiastic. For example, in 2017 it did have a chance to be the Chair but it failed to take it up as there seemed to be a general “lack of interest” in this forum. Shashi Tharoor attributes this to the growing clout of G20 with the emphasis on “global management of the world's economy”.

India oscillates between dualistic self-identities vis-à-vis the dominant countries – that of the outsider and part of the broad band of South countries, and an insider or an exception, as a rising power. On the one hand, this can be viewed as an ambivalent position vis-a-vis the current landscape where the ability to play a key role in formations like IBSA, BRICS and Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC),which are positioned as South organisations, is an expression of its politics. On the other, India is also part of exclusive clubs, which embrace only the growing economies or those that have grown in strategic significance (unlike the earlier formations like NAM).

India and other emerging countries having a space at the ‘high table’ of global governance such as at G20 or as invitees to some of the G7 meetings is seen as a paradigm shift in international relations. However, they continued to be treated as unequal participants with the more powerful countries setting the tone of these proceedings. The legitimacy and efficacy of these bodies are also under question and cracks within G20 are showing up.

In the arena of global climate change and climate negotiations, India’s position has evolved over time. According to Sengupta, these can be marked as three distinct periods.  “The first period of international regime creation in the 1980s and 1990s saw India play an important role in building coalitions with developing countries to draw clear commitments from developed countries on emission reduction, finance, and technology transfers.”In the second period from 2005 to 2010, India showed more flexibility and “put forth voluntary commitments, while opposing moves to dilute the concept of differentiated responsibility”. The third period from 2011 onwards “was marked by Indian compromise with changing negotiation contours that pushed for symmetrical treatment of developing and developed countries in matters of differentiation”.

At the Cop26 meeting in Glasgow in 2021, India faced considerable flak when its announcement that it would achieve net-zero emissions by 2070 was criticised as being “out of step with Western countries’ that had agreed to 2050 as the date and there was an uproar on the statement India read that watered down the language regarding coal from “phase out” to “phase down”. However, others have pointed out that this overemphasis on coal avoided mention of other fossil fuels, which are used in abundance by the US and European countries. It was considered a significant breakthrough as this was “the first time that any explicit commitment to phasing out any fossil fuel had been included in an international climate pact signed by India.”[xiii]

India has also made efforts to revive the IBSA and BIMSTEC (members Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Thailand). The addition of Bangladesh, Uruguay, and the United Arab Emirates as New Development Bank members under the 2021 Indian BRICS Presidency is another example of India’s effort to enhance SSC.

Tensions and possibilities

Overall, there has been a shift in India’s engagement on the issues of SSC. “The rhetoric and ideological prominence of socialism and non-alignment has somewhat faded” to give way to what is described as “pragmatic lens of delivering programmes that have value for money, and are delivered through effective, transparent and accountable delivery mechanisms”.  This change has meant that in the changed geopolitical context, economic factors such as access to markets and to natural resources became the additional motivation. The struggle then is to knit the two together. The premise of SSC is one of solidarity and support. If this is not central to India’s SSC, it might degenerate to using development cooperation as a window dressing for exploitation of less powerful countries. Mechanisms and systems to ensure transparency and accountability have to be built into the process.

This process is also complicated when as Jain and Marcondes show, “It is difficult to speak about defined contours of accountability and at times even motivations when interfacing in cooperation occurs through actors with mixed identities and purposes”[xiv]

Similarly India (along with China) is accused of funnelling aid to corrupt and undemocratic regimes,  thereby undermining efforts by traditional donors to grant aid according to merit of recipient countries. However, this is a hypocritical stand given that the traditional donors often maintain close economic and political relations with a range of countries whose human rights protections are shockingly inadequate

Overall, India as a Southern leader has to often taken stands that can be interpreted as ambivalent, or can also be construed as merely ambiguous. There have also been serious questions about India’s competence in donning the leadership mantle at these forums. The more stringent criticism posits that India has compromised on the principle of Third World solidarity in order to move ahead even at the cost of other developing countries. Others hold that India’s position is based on pragmatism under the current political situation.

The recent COVID-19 pandemic also prompted contradictory responses. On the one hand, the interconnectedness of economies and people was underlined by the pandemic. It also clearly established that the impact on the South based countries was markedly different.  On the other hand, the pandemic and the associated impact have caused many states to turn inward and focus on domestic challenges, including in the West. In the current post-pandemic scenario, countries worldwide are also exploring ways to reinvigorate their development cooperation efforts – including South-South exchanges. This is an opportunity for India to play a leading role in SSC efforts.



[ii] UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 2013. Human Development Report 2013: The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World. New York.

[iii] ibid

[iv] Jain, Devaki, and Shubha Chacko. “Walking Together: The Journey of the Non-Aligned Movement and the Women’s Movement.” Development in Practice, vol. 19, no. 7, 2009, pp. 895–905. JSTOR, Accessed 17 July 2022.

[v] Shaping Indian development cooperation: India’s mission approach in a theoretical framework in India’s Approach to Development Cooperation, Routledge, 2016

[vi] The Group of Twenty or G20 was formed in 1999 and is composed of the most powerful countries and the European Union (EU). It works to address major issues related to the global economy, such as international financial stability, climate change mitigation, and sustainable development. As of 2022, there are 20 members in the group: Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union. Spain, the United Nations, the World Bank, the African Union, ASEAN, and other organisations are permanent guest invitees.

[vii]BRICS is the acronym coined for the association of five major emerging economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Additionally Argentina has formally applied for membership. Since 2009, the governments of the BRICS states have met annually at formal summits. BRICS host New Development Bank, Contingent Reserve Arrangement, BRICS payment system, and BRICS basket reserve currency officially announced in 2022

[viii]The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formed in 1985 and is the regional intergovernmental organisation and geopolitical union of states in South Asia. Its member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

[ix] The Group of 77 was formed in 1964 as a counter to the more exclusive G7. Currently it is a coalition of 134 developing countries, designed to promote its members' collective economic interests and create an enhanced joint negotiating capacity in the United Nations

[x] IBSA which brings together India, Brazil and South Africa, three large democracies and major economies from three different continents, facing similar challenges.

[xi]The SCO which was established in 2001 by China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to function as an inter-governmental platform for security and economic cooperation among its member states in the Eurasian region


[xiii] ibid

[xiv] Jain, Pooja, and Danilo Marcondes. 2017. ‘Malleable Identities and Blurring Frontiers of Cooperation: Reflections from India’s “Distinct” Engagement with Senegal and Mozambique’. In South-South Cooperation Beyond the Myths: Rising Donors, New Aid Practices?, edited by Isaline Bergamaschi, Phoebe Moore, and Arlene B. Tickner, 31–57. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK