Triangular partnerships blur North-South divide in international development

By Swati Prabhu and Malancha Chakrabarty - 13 September 2023

Swati Prabhu and Malancha Chakrabarty explore increasing enthusiasm for triangular development partnerships to counter China.

For a long time, the international development architecture was divided into two neat categories – the North (also referred as western or traditional or OECD-DAC) and the South. Northern or western aid was typically directed towards social sectors and was criticised for its hierarchical and prescriptive nature and tough conditionalities. Whereas southern aid (from countries like India, China, Brazil etc.), though much smaller in magnitude, was generally directed towards the productive sectors of the economy or capacity building and emphasized mutual development rather than unequal relationships between donor and recipient countries. Two important international developments challenged this neat categorization between northern and southern donors and led to the rise of triangular partnerships (explained later).

Firstly, by the early 2000s, the northern donors started facing severe criticism because their aid was not leading to either higher growth or poverty alleviation in recipient Asian and African countries. Secondly, the southern donors, notably China, significantly expanded the scale of their operations on the back of high domestic growth rates. One of its attempts to gain the international spotlight during this time was Beijing hosting the first Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, leveraging its presence in Africa. In the following two decades, China became the main source of development finance for the Global South, especially Africa. This was particularly true in the infrastructure sector where Chinese projects under the BRI had the maximum reach and impressions.

China’s increasing footprint, especially in Africa and the Indo-Pacific is alarming both for India and the West. This has resulted in a heightened interest in triangular cooperation as a viable instrument to counter Beijing. The term triangular cooperation broadly refers to projects and initiatives that combine the comparative advantages of traditional donors and southern countries, to share knowledge and address development concerns in developing countries.

There are three main partners in triangular partnerships: a) Recipient country: the developing country which seeks support to address a particular development problem, b) Pivotal country: the developing country which has proven experience in the concerned area and shares its knowledge, expertise and resources to address the problem, c) Facilitating partner: the developed country which provides technical and financial support to the collaboration between beneficiary and pivotal partners. Many international relations experts believe that triangular partnerships are crucial to offset China.  Many countries also recognize that they cannot do this alone, hence it becomes imperative for them to join hands with a strategic intent.

With China’s growing influence in Africa and the Indo-Pacific, India’s development cooperation model is now gradually appealing to the West. Over the years, traditional donors have continued to push aside the efforts of non-DAC (development assistance committee) donors like India. In fact, some experts like Emma Mawdsley often criticise the West for ignoring the positive contributions made by India’s development partnerships in sectors like energy, microfinance, health etc.  But in recent years, several countries like the UK, US, Japan, and Germany and groupings like the EU are keen to partner with India. Similarly, India was also quite reticent towards the triangular format and has warmed up to the idea of partnering with western countries recently. According to scholars like Sebastian Paulo, New Delhi’s hesitancy to partner with Western donors is now being superseded by its negative perceptions of growing Chinese global engagements.

India’s engagement in triangular partnerships increased from 2014 onwards. The US and India signed the Statement of Guiding Principles on Triangular Cooperation for Global Development in 2014. India and the UK signed the “Statement of Intent on Partnership for Cooperation in Third Countries,” which reaffirmed their commitment to jointly support other countries in development initiatives. In 2017, Germany and India agreed to work together to assist other developing countries and encourage their businesses to enter into collaborative projects in Africa. Japan and India announced the Asia Africa Growth Corridor Programme (now the Project for Free and Open Indo-Pacific) to facilitate African development. 

In addition to being a strategic tool to balance China in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, triangular partnerships offer many advantages by combining the best features of North-South and South-South cooperation. However, significant challenges remain owing to high administrative costs, delays in implementation, and low success rate. One of the greatest barriers to successful triangular partnerships is the reluctance of recipient countries. Most recipient countries find it cumbersome to engage with two partners and fear losing their agency while negotiating with two partners. While countering China may provide the incentive for the West and India to work together, triangular partnerships will not be successful without the support of the recipient nations. Significant efforts need to be directed towards gaining the trust of recipient countries, prioritising their development needs, and focusing on timely and efficient delivery.




Dr Swati Prabhu works as Associate Fellow at the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, Observer Research Foundation.

Dr Malancha Chakrabarty works as Senior Fellow and Deputy Director – Research, Centre for New Economic Diplomacy, Observer Research Foundation.

Photo by cottonbro studio


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