Take five: South-south cooperation, a tool for advancing gender equality and inclusive development

Following the Global South-South Development Expo from 31 October – 3 November in Dubai, A.H. Monjurul Kabir, Senior Programme Adviser, Head of the Asia-Pacific and Least Developed Countries Section, and UN Women Global Lead on South-South and Triangular Cooperation, talks about why ensuring that gender issues are a central part of cooperation between countries is an under-utilized but powerful vehicle for more inclusive and sustainable development.


A.H. Monjurul Kabir, Senior Programme Adviser, Head of the Asia-Pacific and Least Developed Countries Section, and UN Women Global Lead on South-South and Triangular Cooperation. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
A.H. Monjurul Kabir, Senior Programme Adviser, Head of the Asia-Pacific and Least Developed Countries Section, and UN Women Global Lead on South-South and Triangular Cooperation. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

What do we mean by south-south and triangular cooperation and why is it important for development?

South-south cooperation is a framework for collaboration among countries of the global south [1] in the political, economic, social, cultural, environmental and technical spheres. It includes sharing of knowledge on what works, innovation and skills, expertise and resources among two or more developing countries to meet development goals. It’s a response to the traditional north-to-south aid or the prescriptive development model that has been vastly critiqued in the recent years. Developing countries have a lot to offer, in terms of good practices, solutions and catalytic innovations that are contextually more relevant, politically sensitive and sustainable to other developing countries, than a solution that is imported from a developed country with very different context and resources.

For example, UN Women fostered cooperation among national actors in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile and Nicaragua on the prevention of, and investigation into, cases of violence against women. This allowed government and non-government actors to exchange information on best practices, challenges and solutions, and ultimately led to the development of revised and new strategies that had more national ownership.  National ownership is critical for the sustainability of initiatives, and that’s what south-south cooperation brings, and at a lower cost. In today’s globalized world, south-south cooperation is an indispensable tool for inclusive and sustainable development.

“Triangular cooperation” is a technical term and refers to a collaboration in which donor countries and multilateral organizations facilitate south-south initiatives through funding, training and other forms of support.

The Global South-South Development Expo just took place in Dubai. What were the main takeaways for gender equality and south-south and triangular cooperation?

The Global South-South Development Expo provided a vibrant platform for discussions and exchanges on a range of issues, such as food security, agricultural development, protection of migrant workers and refugees, social protection, governance and anti-corruption and climate change, between more than 55 countries.

The results and experience of India, Brazil and South Africa Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation (IBSA Fund) presented at the Expo was an outstanding example of south-south cooperation delivering sustainable development for countries in the south. The demand-driven projects supported by the IBSA Fund ranged from promoting food security and addressing HIV and AIDS, to extending access to safe drinking water. In Burundi, through south-south cooperation, 39,000 yearly reproductive health consultations were enabled; 25 villages in Guinea-Bissau got access to solar energy and 1,000 adults, mostly women, attained functional literacy; and in Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic, 7,700 farmers’ agricultural yield improved through better irrigation structures [2].

In 2015, more than 50 UN Women offices engaged in promoting south-south cooperation across the organization’s priority areas, from women’s economic empowerment to ending violence against women.  At the Expo, we focused on the critical question of what it means to leverage south-south and triangular cooperation to advance the gender equality goal and targets of the Sustainable Development Goals.

One of the main takeaways for me was the fact that the UN needs to engage young civil servants and professionals more in the south-south cooperation discourse, as they are much more receptive to critical stock-taking of efforts, innovation and to address inequalities.

How relevant is south-south triangular cooperation in UN Women’s mission to advance gender equality and empowerment of women?

UN Women has considered its facilitator role for south-south cooperation as a key part of its regional architecture from the very beginning. Today, UN Women acts as a global broker of knowledge and experience, including through the fostering of south-south and triangular cooperation and the sharing of lessons learned on aligning practices with normative guidance.

UN Women is also deepening south-south and triangular cooperation in its programming, operational support, including support to Least Developed Countries (LDCs), Small Island Developing States (SIDs) and in related advocacy efforts.

Take gender-responsive budgeting, for example. UN Women is facilitating exchange of knowledge, lessons learned and good practices from Ministries of Finance across LDCs, SIDS and beyond so that countries in the south can benefit from mutual support initiatives and integrate gender equality in national budget planning. This means that women and girls will benefit from inclusive sectoral budgetary allocations that actually meet their specific needs and priorities.  A case in point is Afghanistan, where the national security and defense budget is seen as the biggest priority. Using the south-south cooperation approach, UN Women facilitated the exchange of knowledge and good practices on gender-responsive budgeting (GRB). The discourse on GRB opened doors for Afghan women in the unlikely area of security sector. The conversations led, for the first time, to the idea of building the capacity of women as entrepreneurs and workers, so that instead of outsourcing the uniforms for the Afghan Security personnel including army, they would be made by Afghan women and purchased from Afghan women, paving the way for their economic empowerment.

What are the main challenges in advancing south-south and triangular cooperation in a way that also advances gender equality?

One of the main challenges of accomplishing south-south and triangular cooperation that advances gender equality is the lack of technical capacity, awareness and institutional will among stakeholders who are not working on gender equality, social inclusion and protection issues directly. To address this gap, UN Women is developing a strategy that identifies strategic entry points for integrating gender concerns and goals into south-south cooperation systematically. The strategy will also enable UN Women to globally support any government in specific areas of this work.

What’s next, in this area of work for UN Women?

As an immediate next step, UN women will develop its global strategy for gender-responsive south-south and triangular cooperation. The strategy will shape a menu of services that we will offer to governments, including specific ways that national actors can connect knowledge, capacities and resources to address capacity gaps and promote innovative approaches that advance gender equality and women’s empowerment.

For UN Women, it is clear that to achieve substantive and substantial gender equality, everyone must be involved, and south-south and triangular cooperation is a robust vehicle to make our societies and development agenda more equal and inclusive.

[1] The term “south” or “global south” refers to developing countries, which are located primarily in the Southern Hemisphere.

[2] IBSA Fund (2016). Overview of the IBSA Fund Project Portfolio.