Author : Swati Prabhu

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on May 06, 2021
Can India’s development cooperation reshape the global arc of sustainable multilateralism?

Multilateralism is currently experiencing a freefall. The efficacy of multilateral institutions and agencies have been increasingly questioned in light of the renewed threats and trust deficits, particularly personified by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Currently, this multipronged attack caused by COVID-19 has resulted in a severe economic slump worldwide along with an overwhelmed and overburdened health infrastructure. Also, the rush for procuring vaccines has yet again laid bare the realist disposition of nation states creating an air of ambiguity and distrust. Moreover, COVID-19 entered the scene when the global (dis)order was rife with misinformation wars and diplomatic battles. Fostering collaboration and confidence-building measures have now become all the more imperative. It is in this context that development cooperation occupies an important position in concretely maximising the positives, thus, avoiding the negative spillover of one nation’s activities on the rest. It also underwrites the advancement of the global public goods (GPGs), thereby, acquiring maximum gains. In fact, the policy issue of development cooperation operates within these multilateral spaces, such as the multilateral organisations, bilateral and multilateral cooperation, multi-stakeholder partnerships or any other development cooperation-related platform.

Nonetheless, the notion of development cooperation is a refined version of traditional aid, as projected by the Global South. The conventional idea of aid facilitates in building bridges of confidence between nation states and instilling a sense of collective action, but is equally popular for its ‘strings attached conditionalities’ and fiercely competitive interests. Here, India as an emerging development partner can play a crucial role by flagging the necessity of steering a cooperation-led model of global welfare rather than one based on competition. Also termed as an older ‘pivotal donor’, New Delhi could potentially change the existing tide of development cooperation, hence, simultaneously pushing for a reformed multilateral agenda at the United Nations (UN) while it kick-starts a two-year tenure as a non-permanent member in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

To begin with, India must strive to align the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with the targets enshrined in the South-South Cooperation (SSC) framework, such as transparency, accountability, flexibility, and openness. The obstacle, though, lies in forging effective partnerships in an increasingly fragmented rules-based global order. India can potentially lead the international development assistance narrative considering how its cooperation is not based on conditionalities but mutual benefit and partnership. As a powerful economic force to be reckoned with, New Delhi must focus on capacity-building and a response-oriented cooperation towards the developing regions.

Given the current context of the raging pandemic, one can observe that most of the countries are visibly lagging behind in their respective commitments towards Agenda 2030 thereby jeopardising the 5Ps (i.e., People, Planet, Prosperity, Peace and Partnership) of the Sustainable Development Agenda. Hence, it becomes imperative to locate the policy arena of development cooperation within this ambit of sustainable multilateralism. While doing so, it brings to forefront the urgent need for refining the existing governance or multilateral structures to race against Agenda 2030. Can India’s Development Partnership Administration (DPA) respond to the international community’s clarion call for a multilateralism that is sustainable and legitimate?  The answer may not be a resounding yes but it isn’t a no either. Since India stands at the crossroads of a spiralling pandemic, it cannot afford to turn a blind eye towards the prospects of constructing a robust development partnership network with other nation states. In fact, development partnership could be viewed as a lynchpin of sustainable multilateralism.

Development partnership administration & sustainable multilateralism

Development contexts and definitions determined by the OECD have been nothing less than politically sensitive, often finding themselves on a sticky wicket. The current discontent and disillusionment with multilateralism has correspondingly raised concerns on how to make it sustainable and acceptable, in a way that will put SDG 17 under the scanner. Moreover, the global dissatisfaction with the current governance structures have thrown in quandary the far-reaching climate action and sustainability targets, making sustainable multilateralism a need of the hour.

Popularising its human-centric element, the Indian DPA, housed under the aegis of the MEA, charts its activities in three streams—grant-in-aid, line of credit (LoC), and capacity-building and technical assistance—depending on the priorities of its partner countries. As an integral element of its foreign policy, development partnership is also instrumental towards understanding its security concerns, whether it is from an energy perspective or concerning economic growth. In fact, seeking to garner support and enhanced visibility for its foreign policy in the neighbourhood and beyond, India’s development cooperation is poised towards capacity-building and economic investments in other developing countries. For 2020–21, almost INR 6,786.65 crores were allocated as grants and loans under its DPA, out of which INR 4,282.96 crores has been disbursed.

Policymakers from the South have consistently asserted that their aid is “different” and demand-driven. Although Indian policymakers remain reluctant in following the OECD-DAC definitions, they have offered no clear alternative for defining their own practices. Nonetheless, a look at the Indian LOCs indicate that its grant element exceeds 25 percent, conveniently qualifying it as development assistance. Moreover, a large number of Indian capacity-building activities fall under the heading of SSC, but this does not exclude a strategic role, particularly for some grant assisted infrastructure projects. Though plagued by bureaucratic delays and poor management, what works in favour of the Indian grant-assistance projects is the comparatively lower costs of implementation. The void left unattended by the traditional aid framework, hence, is something that the Indian DPA can possibly strive to fill up in the coming years, thereby, contributing its bit towards redefining the arc of global aid and sustainable multilateralism.

Coming to the aspect of promoting a sustainability narrative at the multilateral forums, New Delhi must innovatively, vigorously, and smartly make inroads in its neighbourhood and also beyond through the medium of development partnership initiatives. For example, the deleterious effects of climate change are being witnessed in a number of small island developing states (SIDS) located in the geographies of the Caribbean Sea, the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. As a vital strategic neighbour, New Delhi must expand its DPA in consonance with the Sustainable Development Agenda. Considering their heavy reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation and vulnerability to climate disasters, the Indian DPA should give a further push to its renewable energy projects in these islands. Additionally, in 2020, these SIDS have borne the brunt of both the pandemic and the exacerbating effects of climate change, almost demolishing the tourism sector, the mainstay of their economy. Through the India-UN Development Partnership Fund, which is managed by the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC), New Delhi is partnering with the SIDS, thereby, exhibiting its commitment towards sustainable multilateralism. Pooling in USD 47.8 million from a USD 150 million multi-year pledge since 2017, this fund campaigns an ambitious agenda of shared prosperity and reformed multilateralism. In addition, the India, Brazil and South Africa Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation (IBSA) Fund is also oriented towards capacity-building of the other Southern countries to attain the Sustainable Development Agenda.

Given how every policy issue is contemplating on surviving a post-COVID world, the road ahead is, undoubtedly, thorny for the Indian DPA policymakers too. The trick lies in the combining the sustainable development targets in their policies in a time-bound manner to combat the challenges faced by the most vulnerable nations. COVID-19 has certainly turned out be the biggest stress test ever for development cooperation. Hence, India must utilise the current stressful circumstances to its advantage by partnering with the neighbouring regions and also the SIDS to break the traditional aid barriers. This would also warrant its cause of reforming multilateralism in favour of the global commons and supplement the target of ‘leaving no one behind’.

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Swati Prabhu

Swati Prabhu

Dr Swati Prabhu is Associate Fellow with the Centre for New Economic Diplomacy at the Observer Research Foundation. Her research explores the interlinkages between development ...

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