1 Introduction

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, the architecture of the international system has undergone important changes in different areas. In the development cooperation system, new modalities, new actors, and the new relationship dynamics among them have changed the framework and definition of legitimate practices of this system. These changes are consolidating new institutional arrangements that are guiding stakeholders’ relations in international development cooperation.

Triangular cooperation (TrC) is among those new arrangements. Around 40 years ago, the Plan of Action for Promoting and Implementing Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC), known as the Buenos Aires Plan of Action (BAPA), recommended that traditional donors should act as catalysts for cooperation between developing countries (United Nations [UN] 1978). Currently, there is still no common understandings of TrC. The United Nations (UN) working definition for TrC is “southern-driven partnerships between two or more developing countries, supported by a developed country(ies) or multilateral organization(s), to implement development cooperation programmes and projects” (UN 2016, p. 5). The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) characterises the modality as an arrangement “when countries, international organizations, civil society, private sector, private philanthropy and others work together in groups of three or more, to co-create flexible, cost-effective and innovative solutions for reaching the [Sustainable Development Goals] (SDGs)” (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] 2018a, p. 3).1

There is also no consensus on the term used to define the modality. The most often used term is “triangular cooperation”, present in analyses and negotiations at, for instance, the UN, the OECD, and the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB). Nevertheless, there are also other terminologies, such as trilateral cooperation and tripartite cooperation. Professionals from the international cooperation of Brazil, China, and the United States frequently use the term “trilateral” instead of “triangular” (Milani 2017). Despite the fact that various analyses and studies use these variants as synonyms, there is contestation regarding the indiscriminate use of the term. These contestations are linked to the definition of principles and practices of this modality. The contestation relates, for instance, to questions of coordination and responsibility highlighted by the editors of this handbook (see Introduction in Chapter 1).

When reflecting on this clash, different stakeholders involved in international development cooperation understand it as being a matter related to linguistic lexicon and translation dilemmas, suggesting that “triangular” and “trilateral” are different terms used to characterise the same arrangement (IO#6 2017).2 Building upon the idea that the corners of a triangle would inevitably be seen as hierarchical, professionals involved in Brazilian cooperation, for instance, argue that ignoring the difference between these terminologies would be capturing South-South cooperation (SSC) within the scope of the terms established by the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), reflecting vertical relations of North-South cooperation.

The definition, principles, and practices of this modality have raised great attention in international debates and academia. In the past decade, much research and analysis have been produced around TrC. In the international arena, many multilateral organisations have published reports on this topic, such as the OECD through the DAC, SEGIB, the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation,3 and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (Jones 2016; GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019; Ibero-American General Secretariat [SEGIB] 2017, 2018; OECD 2013a, 2018a; United Nations Development Programme 2016; World Food Programme 2016). The DAC has conducted two broad surveys (2012 and 2015) to collect data specifically on this modality, and the DAC has collected data on TrC through the official development assistance (ODA) reporting system since 2017.4 From this, the OECD developed an online repository covering almost 800 TrC projects.5

In March 2019 the Second High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation took place (known as BAPA+40, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the BAPA), held in Buenos Aires and hosted by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC). The outcome document of the conference broadly covered this modality, highlighting its value added to the efforts towards achieving the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In academia, the transformations of the international cooperation system since the 2000s are a constant subject of analysis. Due to TrC being a dynamic issue that has gained momentum in the development cooperation agenda in the past years, it has been a hot topic for chapters, articles, dissertations, and theses (Bandstein 2007; Langendorf 2012; Milani 2017; Seifert and Renzio 2014; Stahl 2018). These publications commonly present TrC as a tool or modality6 for identifying and making use of comparative advantages and knowledge of DAC donors and emerging providers of the Global South7 to implement development programmes and projects. Besides the project dimension, TrC is also analysed from a political perspective and portrayed as an arrangement that traditional donors make use of to learn from and influence SSC, bridging these two modalities (Abdenur and Fonseca 2013).

To advance the guiding question of this handbook, (“How can different narratives and norms in development cooperation be reconciled to achieving the 2030 Agenda?”), this chapter focusses on TrC and analyses the value added of this modality towards achieving the 2030 Agenda. The guiding question of the chapter is: “How does this cooperation modality strengthen partnerships between different actors in the policy field of development cooperation?” To answer this question, the chapter goes beyond the technical features of development projects. I argue that TrC became an enabler of policy spaces, without directly confronting contested political positions and jeopardising the dialogue and negotiation processes. The modality has allowed both traditional donors and Southern providers to create not only joint development projects, but also common strategies, guidelines, and principles. To advance this argument, the chapter has been divided into three sections following this introduction.

The following Sect. 27.2 covers the conditions that led to the emergence and strengthening of TrC as a modality. The increasing diversity of stakeholders involved in international cooperation for development built up new principles and practices in the field and created tension in the framework that had been established by the 1970s, mainly by DAC donors. Different stakeholders such as civil society organisations and the private sector also became agents of this system. The strengthening of SSC contested the established cooperation framework of the OECD-DAC. To convey some sort of accommodation among the cooperation principles, different formal and informal approaches came into place. TrC emerged as a modality enabling the intersection of established and emerging practices.

The Sect. 27.3 deepens the analysis of TrC and goes beyond the technical features of this modality, understanding it as an enabler of policy spaces for negotiations on practices and principles among stakeholders. Southern providers such as China and Brazil do not follow internationally established OECD norms, for example measuring ODA or reporting their cooperation initiatives to the DAC. Nonetheless, agents from the North and the South find in TrC a space to negotiate their principles and practices in the continually evolving international development cooperation system. This section identifies TrC as a strategic modality to create those negotiation spaces, both for traditional donors and for Southern providers.

The final Sect. 27.4 investigates how—despite the contestation of practices and principles among the different actors in the political spaces—TrC strengthens the collaboration among stakeholders. During the first initiatives of the modality, TrC was foremost conceived as a way for traditional donors to socialise and engage with the Southern providers and catalyse SSC. This perspective has evolved, and stakeholders now aim to go beyond the divisions on cost-sharing. The modality sometimes struggles not to be seen as an end in itself. Nevertheless, alleviating the contestations between traditional donors and Southern providers, through TrC different stakeholders have created room for policy dialogue and created common operation manuals, guidelines, and processes.

2 From the Establishment of ODA to the Emergency of New Modalities

2.1 Development Cooperation: A Revolving Field

The setting of an internationally agreed framework, practices, and categorisation of the stakeholders participating in the system for international development cooperation was mainly based on the definition of ODA, first agreed in 1969 by the DAC members. This was eight years after the establishment of the OECD and the DAC, under its umbrella—both of which were established in September 1961.

ODA defined assistance flows as those between a developed country or multilateral organisation and a developing country, in a vertical relationship of transferring concessional resources and development knowledge. The ODA definition has been under constant negotiation and opens room for interpretation. From 2010 to 2016, there was the implementation of clarified rules, which were related, for instance, to in-donor refugee costs. More recently, in early 2019 (reporting on 2018 data), there was a shift in the methodology for recording ODA data, and “ODA grant equivalent” replaced the “flow basis”. However, in general terms, the ODA concept has remained the same since 1972, currently laid out as

flows to countries and territories on the DAC List of ODA Recipients and to multilateral development institutions that are: i. provided by official agencies, including state and local governments, or by their executive agencies; and ii. each transaction of which: a) is administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as its main objective; and b) is concessional in character. (OECD 2019, p. 6)

The direction of ODA flows defined which agent occupied the position of donor and recipient in this system, establishing a binary dividing North/developed countries/donors and South/developing countries/recipients. However, if initially this binary divided actors engaged in international cooperation, transformations in international politics during the turn of the twenty-first century also implicated changes in the development cooperation system. Currently, a much more diverse group of actors is part of this system, which includes providers from the Global South and non-governmental actors such as civil society organisations and the private sector.

Initiatives of cooperation among countries of the Global South have existed since the 1950s, with the Non-Alignment Movement frequently being identified as its embryo. After the BAPA in 1978, the outcome document agreed on during the 1978 UN Conference on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries, TCDC was recognised as a modality of international development cooperation. Nevertheless, it gained strength mainly after the 1990s, when the South Commission published the report “The Challenge to the South” (South Centre 2015). Since then, emerging powers such as Brazil, China, and India have significantly increased their engagement in international cooperation for development and hence expanded their presence and influence in this system.

In 1978, the BAPA mainly disputed the vertical flows between donors and recipients, as envisaged by ODA, and put forward horizontal flows. Different stakeholders recognised horizontal relations among the agents as being complementary practice in the international development system. However, the donor–recipient binary continued to guide the framework previously established by DAC members.

Three decades later—endorsed during the Third High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2008—the Accra Agenda for Action recognised SSC as an important complement to traditional cooperation. In 2009, in a context of significant economic growth of a few countries in the Global South and the deepening of a Southern identity narrative, the first High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation happened in Nairobi. Southern providers presented SSC as an alternative modality to North-South cooperation, building up dimensions allegedly opposed to traditional donors. The outcome document presented six principles of SSC: (i) respect for national sovereignty; (ii) national ownership and independence; (iii) equality (horizontality); (iv) non-conditionality; (v) non-interference in domestic affairs; and (vi) mutual benefits (UN 2009).

At that moment, the outcome document pointed to a “Northernised” agenda of SSC, which incorporated key terms such as ownership that were established by DAC donors during the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005 (Zoccal 2018). However, in the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness—guided by the DAC-hosted Working Party on Aid Effectiveness and held in 2011 in Busan—the transformations on the international cooperation for development framework were deeper than the ones that had happened since the BAPA of 1978. During the Busan Forum, the imagined geographical cleavage defining which agent is part of the North and which agent is part of the South defined the dynamics among them. It was also clear that, despite the obvious division between these two groups, neither traditional donors nor Southern providers are homogeneous groups (Eyben and Savage 2012).

Most Southern providers do not report to the DAC, and there is a diversity of standards and mechanisms to measure SSC volumes.8 However, a number of reports have been published about the development cooperation initiatives of emerging providers in the past years. In 2015, the estimate of SSC participation in international development cooperation was 15.8 per cent, according to the OECD’s “Development Co-operation Report 2017” (OECD 2017). The “Financing for Sustainable Development Report 2019” of the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs indicates that 74 per cent of developing countries provided some form of development cooperation in 2017 (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs 2019). Despite the lack of official, verified, and comparable data, these figures give an estimate of the current importance of SSC within the development cooperation agenda (Zoccal and Esteves 2018).

The categorisation of Southern providers broke the limits of the donor–recipient binary. Likewise, other groups of stakeholders such as civil society organisations and the private sector became active in the development agenda. In this context, the creation of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC)—a result of the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan in 2011—aimed at building a platform encompassing a more complex constellation of agents than the one of the DAC members. The GPEDC Secretariat is shared between the OECD and UNDP. Even so, important Southern providers such as China, Brazil, and India contest this process, arguing that it was driven by the DAC’s traditional normative framework. Without the support of these countries, the GPEDC did not succeed in fully integrating SSC and lost relevance.9

New approaches and arrangements guiding relations among different stakeholders have been consolidated. Besides platforms such as the GPEDC, new measures such as Total Official Support for Sustainable Development are examples of the complex constellation of the development cooperation system. In this context, TrC has perceptibly grown as a modality capable of bridging different initiatives, for example practices and frameworks of DAC members and Southern providers.

2.2 Triangular Cooperation as a Development Cooperation Modality

The first implicit reference to this modality was made already during the BAPA of 1978, recommending that developed countries and UN organisations should act as catalysts for cooperation between developing countries (UN 1978). The first use of the term “triangular cooperation” came two years later in the report “North-South: A Programme for Survival” of the Brandt Commission (Independent Commission for International Development Issues 1980; OECD 2013a).

On the UN scope, the term “triangular cooperation” was recognised 15 years later in the document “New Directions Strategy on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries” in 1995. TrC arrangements were those “under which donors would agree to fund exchanges among developing countries” (UN 1995, p. 2).

The concept of triangular cooperation, which involves the participation of developed countries in the TCDC process, has the potential to make a significant contribution to the realization of the objectives of TCDC. Under such arrangements, donor countries can utilize the services of developing countries with the requisite capacity to deliver a technical cooperation input to another developing country on a cost-effective basis. (UN 1995, p. 21)

The document identifies countries such as Brazil, China, and India as “pivotal countries”, catalysts of the new modalities presented to the development cooperation system (UN 1995). The perception of key SSC countries as pivotal countries when engaging in TrC increased years later and is present in various publications produced mainly within the OECD scope.

TrC becomes an important modality to foster development cooperation projects based on the comparative advantages of different agents. The GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation developed the typology “facilitating”, “pivotal”, and “beneficiary” partners to categorise the stakeholders involved in TrC (OECD 2018a; TRD#10 2019). Southern providers, mainly typified as the “pivotal” countries, would have a better understanding of beneficiary countries’ local realities and the expertise needed to become adapted to each development project. DAC donors would have greater funding capacity and years of knowledge on international development cooperation, hence acting mostly as “facilitators” of the cooperation between developing countries. Despite not being commonly accepted and used, this typology has been advanced by a number of agents, including the OECD, Canada, and Mexico. However, it makes an implicit assumption of a division of labour based on each agent’s capacities. This categorisation focusses on the comparative advantages for project implementation, and in this way it clouds the political and power relations between high-income countries and emerging economies.

At first, TrC would be carried out by combining the cultural, scientific, and technological resources of a developing country with the financial resources of a traditional donor. However, there has been an effort to move away from the idea that TrC is the traditional donor transferring resources and financing SSC (IO#8 2017; SSC#7 2019). Negotiations around this modality, within the scope of the OECD and the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation, sustain that all agents can potentially assume any of these three roles—facilitating, pivotal, and beneficiary. Nevertheless, the data presented by the two broad surveys on TrC applied by the DAC Global Relations Secretariat in 2012 and 2015, and also by the recent GPI report “Triangular Co-operation in the Era of the 2030 Agenda: Sharing Evidence and Stories from the Field”, show that “facilitating” partners are traditional donors (whether they are high-income countries or international organisations), “pivotal” partners are Southern providers, and “beneficiaries” are countries regarded as traditional recipients of cooperation (GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019; OECD 2013b, 2016a).

In the past decade, studies about this modality spread throughout many international organisations (Langendorf et al. 2012; OECD 2016a). Under the OECD umbrella, there were more than 20 publications on this topic—the first of which was published in 2009. Four years after the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness in 2005, “Triangular Co-operation and Aid Effectiveness” (OECD 2009) attempted to submit the new practices presented by SSC to the normative framework followed by the DAC at that time, using principles of the aid effectiveness agenda to systematise TrC.

Also in 2009, the final report of the Heiligendamm Process—a dialogue platform between G8 members and “Outreach 5” (China, Mexico, India, Brazil, and South Africa)—indicated that TrC was a strategic link between North-South and South-South cooperation (Group of 8 2009). Beyond its technical features related to development effectiveness and performance of the various projects, the modality is also understood as a sort of unofficial platform through which DAC donors and providers of SSC interact and negotiate principles and practices of international cooperation for development.

For many DAC donors, TrC is a strategic tool for maintaining cooperative relations with Southern providers that have graduated from the OECD-DAC list of recipient countries and are no longer eligible for receiving ODA (TRD#9 2019). That is the case, for instance, of the TrC projects (i) “Greater Rural Opportunities for Women (GROW) in Ghana”, between Canada, Ghana, and Israel, (ii) “Strengthening of the Secretary of Public Affairs in Paraguay”, between Paraguay, Chile, and Spain, and also (iii) “Mirada Ciudadana—Good Governance in Mercosur Municipalities”, between the European Union, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay10 (GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019).

There are an increasing number of TrC projects being systematised by different initiatives, for example the efforts of the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation and OECD, as well as of other organisations such as SEGIB, in addition to the countries themselves. These reports indicate a growing proportion of TrC in overall ODA and SSC initiatives (GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019; SEGIB 2017, 2018). However, both for traditional donors and for Southern providers, this modality is still small when compared to other initiatives. Additionally, TrC has different levels of importance within strategies followed by different actors.

For instance, the TrC initiatives of Germany—the champion of the modality in terms of the number of projects systematised by the DAC Global Relations Secretariat—account for less than 0.1 per cent of total German net ODA. This comparison is based on the 157 German TrC projects reported to the OECD and on Germany’s net ODA reported to the DAC in the same period. In 2017, bilateral cooperation represented almost 80 per cent of the German portfolio, and multilateral cooperation represented around 20 per cent (German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development [BMZ] 2019). Brazil, also among the champions of the modality, presents a different reality. Between 2014 and 2016, trilateral cooperation represented 4.7 per cent of total federal government expenditures, and multilateral cooperation represented 80.5 per cent, whereas bilateral cooperation represented 9.1 per cent during the referred period (Institute of Applied Economic Research and Brazilian Cooperation Agency 2018). It is important to highlight that TrC is very likely underreported (IO#8 2017; SSC#6 2019; TRD#10 2019). However, this comparison gives a sense of the importance of the modality relative to the totals of development cooperation initiatives (SSC#7 2019; SSC#8 2019).

The next section analyses how TrC arrangements fit into the international development cooperation system and enable policy spaces for collaboration between South-South and North-South cooperation. Beyond the technical dimension, this chapter understands that the modality has grown as a policy instrument between traditional donors and Southern providers—representing a negotiating space of practices and principles—and as a strategy to increase the level of influence on the international development system.

3 Triangular Cooperation: From Development Projects to Enabler of Policy Spaces

TrC was frequently understood as a modality involving at least one traditional donor—either a DAC member or an international organisation—and two other developing countries, with one acting as a Southern provider and one as beneficiary (OECD 2016a). This would shadow other possible arrangements that do not involve a traditional donor, such as the Chile–Mexico Mixed Fund for Triangular Cooperation or other Chilean projects, for instance with Belize and El Salvador or with Brazil and Suriname (Chilean International Cooperation Agency 2014). Although it was at first atypical, TrC only among developing countries is increasingly producing more examples.

Additionally, a contemporary perspective also includes actors beyond national governments—for example civil society, subnational governments, and the private sector—developing a multi-stakeholder approach (GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019). The number of TrC initiatives involving more than three partners is also increasing (IO#9 2019). Despite these numerous arrangements, TrC is mainly perceived and debated as a modality bridging North-South and South-South cooperation. According to the UNOSSC, TrC is a different modality than North-South or South-South cooperation; nevertheless, it has to have at least one component of SSC to be considered TrC. As a reflection of this, many of the projects between two traditional donors and one recipient country—for example the partnership between the United Kingdom and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for promoting climate-smart agriculture in Zimbabwe (FAO 2015)—are not considered TrC.

A number of professionals linked to traditional donor countries indicate that the relationship with emerging countries is among the main motivations of DAC members to engage in TrC, which is considered to be a way of showing the world that there is a strengthening of North and South relations (IO#6 2017; IO#8 2017). Arising from a technical need, TrC has become an important tool that has enabled development cooperation policy spaces between North-South and South-South cooperation, without engaging in political debate and challenging these positions up front. This modality has been used as an instrument for the informal negotiation of practices and principles among agents. According to a high-ranking professional working on this modality,

using the excuse of triangular cooperation to build this political dialogue can be a first step [for North and South] to discuss impact, results and a distinct framework. For example, in the DAC sphere we are discussing whether a project is tied aid or not. In triangular cooperation there is no such discussion. It is also a space for donors, who feel more comfortable to create information and discuss. I think this is easier in a technical partnership, with no political focus, because politics have a lot of history. (IO#6 2017, own translation)

Politically, what is the comparative advantage of triangular cooperation? We are not discussing tied aid, we are not discussing reporting logic. What we are discussing is: How can we find together the solution to that problem? We accept that there are different ways of responding to certain problems. There are different technical tools for reaching that problem. (IO#6 2017, own translation)

An interesting point to think about is how we can encourage developing countries to make more use of this modality. And, by getting developing countries rooting this tool, how this modality can be used to transform mentality and convey change within the political divide. (IO#6 2017, own translation)

During the first TrC initiatives, DAC members called countries such as China, India, and Brazil “anchor countries”, since they were anchors of the regional expansion of cooperation. However, the increasing relevance that Southern providers have on the international cooperation for development system has changed the dynamics between those agents, and these countries are now considered “development partners” by some of those DAC members (TRD#2 2017). According to a professional of the Brazilian Cooperation Agency, during the 5th International Meeting on Triangular Co-operation, held in Lisbon in October 2019, the UK and Brazil were developing a “Partnership for Global Development”, a long-term strategy to go beyond their TrC initiatives.

In 2018, the advocacy working stream of the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation started to elaborate voluntary principles for TrC, accelerating a debate on the different terminologies used by the array of stakeholders involved, for instance “beneficiary country”, which would not reflect the idea of mutual benefits (OECD and Camões 2018), which is a key principle of SSC.

During BAPA+40, the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation presented voluntary guidelines for effective TrC:

(i) Country ownership and demand-driven co-operation; (ii) Shared commitment; (iii) Focus on results-oriented approaches and solutions; (iv) Inclusive partnerships and multi-stakeholder dialogues; (v) Transparency and mutual accountability; (vi) Innovation and co-creation; (vii) Joint-learning and knowledge-sharing for sustainable development; (viii) Advance gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and (ix) Leaving no one behind. (GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation 2019, p. 15; emphasis added)

Ownership, results-oriented approaches, and mutual accountability are principles agreed upon in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. On the other hand, demand-drivenness and joint learning as principles were advanced by SSC. The debate surrounding TrC indicates a mix of otherwise contested principles and practices between Southern providers and traditional donors, strengthening the partnerships between North-South and South-South cooperation.

Even though SSC presents different principles than traditional cooperation, many professionals of North-South cooperation indicate that the practices on the ground are not so different. Hence, besides fostering development projects, the development of TrC as a modality also emphasises the policy space that allows traditional donors and Southern providers to overcome the differences of narratives through joint practices. Stakeholders from both the DAC and Southern providers point to TrC as a mechanism of influence—whether of the OECD-DAC principles on Southern providers or of the SSC principles on traditional donors (IO#6 2017; SSC#5 2017; TRD#1 2017).

In the case of Brazil, the principles guiding its engagement on trilateral cooperation—following the term used by its representatives—are the same as those followed by Brazilian SSC, that is, the ones established during the first High-level United Nations Conference on South-South Cooperation in Nairobi in 2009 (SSC#5 2017). The “Brazilian-German Trilateral Cooperation Program: Operational Handbook” exemplifies the blend of principles among a DAC donor and a Southern provider (Brazilian Cooperation Agency and Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit 2019). After a long period of negotiation, the memorandum of understanding signed in 2010—the basis for the processes described in the manual—points to the operational principles debated during the Heiligendamm Process as a reference for the modality, indicating a commitment to the implementation of the principles of ownership and alignment (IO#8 2017).

Already in 2009, during the Policy Dialogue on Development Co-operation, organised by the OECD in Mexico City, the Brazilian representative emphasised that,

as Brazil does not consider itself as an “emerging donor”, the South-South components present in triangular cooperation schemes with developed partners are based on different standards compared to the North-South cooperation. But such differences should not be a major challenge, because we believe that both modalities are convergent in the promotion of local ownership, alignment with national development policies and coordination and transparency among partners.

For the success of triangular partnerships, it is essential that traditional donor countries and international organizations get familiar with the basic elements of South-South cooperation. It is important to stress that triangular cooperation should not be seen as a different way of doing North-South cooperation. Triangular cooperation is complementary to South-South cooperation. (Corrêa 2009; emphasis added)

Curiously, Brazil did not endorse the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, established at the Second High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in 2005, claiming that the aid effectiveness agenda and its principles—ownership, alignment, harmonisation, management for results, and mutual accountability—represent a vertical view of donor–recipient relations. Consequently, it should be applied only in the logic of North-South cooperation. At the Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness, held in Busan in 2011, the Brazilian delegation pointed out that “triangular cooperation gives the opportunity for donor countries to get in touch with South-South cooperation practices, promoting changes in ‘calcified’ ODA practices” (Brazilian Delegation 2011).

A closer look into the efforts to strengthen TrC as a development cooperation modality indicates two dimensions of this struggle. On the one hand, it is possible to identify an attempt to capture Southern providers into the aid effectiveness agenda. On the other, through TrC it is also possible to identify a Southernisation11 of traditional donors, incorporating principles and practices of SSC. Both Southern providers and DAC donors negotiate and operate their terms through this modality, which earned value as a smoother space of interaction among agents. This policy space, enabled through TrC, does not carry the burden of a political debate with a history of already embedded contestations.

4 Conclusions: Strengthening Partnerships for Development Cooperation

Previous sections present how TrC has become more complex over the years and drawn greater attention in the past decade. There have been increasing efforts towards creating a greater number of studies on this topic as well as numerous international meetings that are completely or partially dedicated to this modality, under the umbrella of, for example, SEGIB, the European Union, the OECD, the GPEDC, and the UN. Nevertheless, in the context of fragmented norms and narratives highlighted by the editors and authors of other chapters in this handbook, the diversity of stakeholders has not agreed on a common perspective, nor on the practices, assessment mechanisms, or even the definition of the term to characterise this modality.

The analysis of not only the broad range of academic work, but also the publications and events dedicated to TrC indicates there is no internationally agreed guiding mechanism. However, this chapter shows that, because the modality is broad, dynamic, and flexible, it enables policy spaces through which the cleavage between the North and South is loosened. According to a professional from a DAC country highly involved in the TrC debate, “the modality is shifting and not doing what [traditional donors] used to do years ago. It is bridging the gap between the North and the South and could be a shift in a way we approach development challenges” (TRD#10 2019).

If we can encourage a model that does not become institutionalised in such a way that it is restrictive, it can be viable. The new world is about partnerships in a more equal level than the previous model. […] DAC members will have to find a way to codify the way triangular cooperation operates. It allows dynamics. We cannot afford to box ourselves too much. (TRD#10 2019)

Various participants of the 5th International Meeting on Triangular Co-operation, held in October 2019 in Lisbon, stressed the recent shift in the way that TrC was understood and being used. This shift is reflected in the BAPA+40 Outcome Document. In the BAPA of 1978, the term did not exist. In the 2009 Nairobi Outcome Document, the modality was mentioned 14 times. The outcome document of the BAPA+40 refers 73 times to TrC, also mentioning the voluntary efforts of the GPI on Effective Triangular Cooperation.

During the meeting, both the UNOSSC director, Jorge Chediek, and the director of the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate, Jorge Moreira da Silva, highlighted BAPA+40 as being a paradigm shift for TrC. For the first time, TrC was broadly discussed in an internationally agreed document. If some years earlier TrC was considered a niche, it has become a mainstream tool for development dialogue.

The remarks of the G77+China on the draft of the BAPA+40 Outcome Document—and also the outcome document itself—indicate that TrC should be “aimed at facilitating, supporting and enhancing South-South initiatives” (Group of 77 2019, p. 1) and “complements and adds value to South-South cooperation” (UN 2019, p. 2), respectively. Efforts of some Northern donors during the negotiations for the BAPA+40 Outcome Document to incorporate TrC as a modality that also adds value to North-South cooperation have not succeeded. Even so, the document reflects TrC as a “blank space for G77 and the UN and even the DAC” (TRD#13 2019). The modality has enabled policy debates not only among North-South and South-South cooperation, but also between the UN and the OECD, for example the joint work of the core group of the GPI on Effective Triangular Cooperation that both the UNOSSC and the OECD are part of. According to a professional of a DAC country involved in TrC, when reflecting on these changes, “five years ago, OECD and UN were not speaking to each other” (TRD#13 2019).

The strengthening of SSC and the consolidation of the Southern providers as stakeholders of the system of international cooperation for development broke the limits of the donor–recipient binary. In a context of contestation between North-South and South-South cooperation, TrC not only bridges these modalities by socialising the different agents, but it also creates spaces for dialogue and sheds light upon the contestation of principles and practices of different stakeholders. However, the policy space created by TrC is protected from the clashes of political debate. Numerous recent reports and guidelines mentioned in this chapter show TrC carrying principles from both the aid effectiveness agenda and SSC.

SDG 17 of the 2030 Agenda, adopted in 2015, aims to “strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development” (United Nations General Assembly 2015). Beyond being a means of implementation of development projects and programmes, TrC is also a means for increasing the policy dialogue between the North and the South. Agents that present contested narratives in institutionalised political platforms—and hence do not agree on sharing principles, practices, or assessment mechanisms—can coordinate action towards achieving the 2030 Agenda through TrC.

Despite involving different stakeholders from the field, TrC is a modality that is fundamentally based on the relations between traditional donors and Southern providers. At first glance, as a technical mechanism that is based on the comparative advantages of the different stakeholders in the system of international cooperation for development, TrC enables policy dialogue but is not advanced as being a space for political confrontation.

The dynamics of this modality make evident the differences between North-South and South-South cooperation. How does TrC strengthen collaboration among traditional donors and newcomers, most specifically with key Southern providers that, as a matter of principle, do not agree with the DAC narrative, for example, the aid effectiveness agenda? Despite the different interests involved, collaboration between the North and the South through this modality alleviates the contestations concerning different principles and practices that are abundantly present in formal political negotiation spaces. Not only is there the joint execution of projects, but also the development of joint operation manuals, guidelines, and processes.

To strengthen TrC as an effective modality, stakeholders are trying to move away from two ideas: (i) that TrC arrangements are those in which the traditional donor transfers resources and finances SSC, and (ii) that TrC is an end in itself. Traditional donors often mention mutual learning as being a motivation for their involvement in TrC. On the one hand, Southern providers have a comparative advantage relating to domestic development experience and, hence, technical knowledge. On the other hand, traditional donors’ experiences are focussed on managing international cooperation for development. Nevertheless, North-South cooperation professionals are often hesitant when questioned about the benefits gained through partnerships with developing partners. Learning is mostly connected to the TrC process itself and how to engage with Southern providers (IO#6 2017; IO#8 2017; TRD#1 2017; TRD#2 2017).

Considering the array of stakeholders involved and the perception that TrC should not be an end in itself, it is key to have a clear comparative advantage to justify the use of TrC as an effective means of implementation. When reflecting on TrC projects, different stakeholders mentioned initiatives emerging not at first from a necessity or demand of the developing country, but from, for example, good relations between ambassadors or professionals of development cooperation serving in the beneficiary country (IO#8 2017; TRD#10 2019).

There has been an effort to clarify statements that doubt the effectiveness of TrC, for example, the understanding that TrC development projects are small-scale in terms of duration, resources, and impacts, and that the modality lacks a particular strategic vision, clear added value, or defined implementation mechanisms. The OECD report “Dispelling the Myths of Triangular Co-operation” argues that there is a wide variety of programmes and projects, both small- and large-scale, and TrC should not be understood as homogeneous. The report also argues that stable partnership arrangements can compensate for high transaction costs, which is often indicated as one of the main challenges to this modality (OECD 2016a, b).

Some actors have developed strategies for this modality and signed agreements with different partners to simplify implementation and reduce transaction costs, concurrently establishing common guidelines. Examples of this are a strategy paper on TrC in German development cooperation (BMZ 2013), the management guidelines for implementing TrC in Ibero-America (Ibero-American Programme for the Strengthening of South-South Cooperation 2015), the toolkit for identifying, monitoring, and evaluating the value added of TrC (OECD 2018b), and the Brazilian general guideline for the design, coordination, and management of trilateral technical cooperation initiatives (Brazilian Cooperation Agency 2019). These new arrangements are constituted by—and also constitute—the current transition period redefining development practices. The broad definition of TrC opens room for the coordination of policy dialogues among different stakeholders towards achieving the 2030 Agenda, without directly confronting contested political positions and jeopardising partnerships.


  1. 1.

    The OECD’s definition of TrC is close to a multi-stakeholder partnership, which is understood as “a type of cooperation when stakeholders from at least three different sectors work together as equals through an organized, and long-term engagement in order to contribute to the common good” (Partnerships 2030 2019). Nevertheless, even if the diversity of stakeholders that might be involved in TrC initiatives is recognised, OECD publications and repositories of projects indicate that TrC is a modality led by governments and international organisations, which is then different from being a multi-stakeholder partnership.

  2. 2.

    This chapter is based not only on analysis of official documents and reports, but also on anonymous interviews with different stakeholders of the international development agenda, such as academics, multilateral organisations, and high-ranking professionals who are linked both to traditional and South-South cooperation, among others. Thirty-six interviews were conducted between 2017 and 2019 and focussed on South-South and triangular cooperation. To retain the anonymity of the interviewees, the references are here categorised as follows: representatives of DAC donors are identified as TRD; representatives of South-South cooperation are identified as SSC; representatives of international organisations are identified as IO.

  3. 3.

    The GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation was created during the Second High-Level Meeting of the GPEDC in 2016, led by Mexico, along with 28 other global partnership initiatives covering different thematic areas of international cooperation for development. Besides Mexico, core group members of the GPI on Effective Triangular Co-operation are Canada, Chile, SEGIB’s Ibero-American Programme for the Strengthening of South-South Co-operation, Japan, UNOSSC, the Islamic Development Bank, and the OECD. So far, 51 other countries and international organisations, civil society organisations, representatives from the private sector, and research institutions have joined this GPI.

  4. 4.

    Which means data since 2016, as countries report ODA data from the previous year to the DAC.

  5. 5.

    The OECD TrC project repository is constantly being updated. This number refers to the total number of projects at the time of this publication, accessed in August 2019.

  6. 6.

    Different stakeholders refer to triangular co-operation as a tool, instrument, mechanism, initiative, or other terms. There is no common systematisation of aid modalities, yet many donors often use this general term to encompass initiatives such as project support, budget support, and sector programme support (Bandstein 2007), usually implemented bilaterally. On the other hand, initiatives such as South-South cooperation and triangular cooperation are also often referred to as modalities and presented as an alternative and complement to traditional North-South cooperation (UN 2019). Accordingly, this chapter recognises North-South cooperation, South-South cooperation, and Triangular cooperation as different basic modalities of development cooperation.

  7. 7.

    The “The Challenge to the South: The Report of the South Commission” indicates a world divided by an imagined geography that is based not on the equatorial line, but on levels of prosperity and development. I consider that the Global South, as indicated by the South Commission, comprises populations and governments of developing countries that are, for the most part, more vulnerable to external factors (South Centre 2015).

  8. 8.

    As of July 2019, 20 countries that are not DAC members reported their aid flows to the OECD. Among them are Israel, Turkey, and Thailand.

  9. 9.

    The UN Development Cooperation Forum (UN DCF) is frequently mentioned as another platform with a universal character that could serve as a global platform of international cooperation for development. For a deeper analysis of this debate on the GPECD and the UN DCF, see Bracho (2017), Esteves and Assunção (2014), and Janus et al. (2014).

  10. 10.

    Israel was removed from the DAC List of ODA Recipients in 1997; Chile and Uruguay were removed in 2018.

  11. 11.

    The term “Southernisation” originated in the mid-1990s (Shaffer 1994) and was recently associated with the system of international development cooperation after analysis by the new statistical measure Total Official Support for Sustainable Development (Chaturvedi et al. 2016).