By Thalif Deen
As the global financial crisis continues to ravage the fragile economies of the world's poorer countries, the United Nations is hosting a high-level international conference next month to boost South-South cooperation.
Scheduled to take place Dec. 1-3 in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, the conference is primarily aimed at strengthening trade, finance and investment flows between and among developing nations.
India, described as one of the major trading partners and investors in the developing world, says it "attaches great importance" to the upcoming conference. "We hope to participate actively in the event," Dr. Shashi Tharoor, India's minister of state for external affairs, told IPS. South-South cooperation has increased manifold through bilateral and Southern multilateral initiatives, he said.
"We hope that a UN conference on the subject would buttress these efforts by using southern technologies, expertise, and approaches in UN development efforts," Tharoor said.
He also said: "While we would not project the conference as a solution to the financial crisis, we do believe that South-South cooperation will provide additional assistance and support to affected developing countries."
In a new report on 'The State of South-South Cooperation' released last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon points out that the overall trend, prior to the current economic crisis, had been "a remarkable rise in South-South trade, finance and investment flows".
Since 1995, South-South merchandised trade had grown on average by 13 percent, reaching 2.4 trillion dollars, or 20 percent of world trade in 2007, while the annual rate of growth in world trade was only 9.0 percent.
But "owing to the current economic crisis, the vast majority of countries are experiencing a sharp reversal of the robust growth that occurred during the period 2002-2007," the report adds.
In Africa alone, one of the most financially vulnerable regions, economic growth is expected to decrease to 4.1 percent in 2009, from 5.1 percent in 2008, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Geneva.
An Asian diplomat told IPS that preparatory work for major international conferences is usually held at least one or two years in advance.
But the 192-member General Assembly, after years of long-drawn-out negotiations, decided on the December conference only last month, providing a short lead time. The Assembly has urged member states to participate in the conference "at the highest possible level". The overarching theme of the conference is: "Promotion of South-South Cooperation for Development."
Iceland and Yemen have been appointed as co-facilitators to prepare a plan of action - officially called an "outcome document" - to be adopted at the conference.
Asked about the significance of the Nairobi meeting, UNCTAD Secretary-General Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi told IPS: "The conference is a very important symbolic achievement for developing countries and a reflection of the growing importance of the south-south agenda."
But he pointed out that the ability to craft and negotiate a fully fledged plan of action in just a few weeks is, however, a little ambitious.
"Still, and as with the UN Conference on the World Financial and Economic Crisis last June, the post-conference follow up will be important, giving countries an opportunity to move beyond affirmations of support to clearer indications of how to move the agenda forward," he added.
As regards the timeframe for preparation, Tharoor told IPS, the South-South Conference has been in the making for quite some time, even if the final resolution was adopted only recently.
"It is unfortunate that the organization of the Conference has got delayed due to the lengthy negotiations in finalizing the modalities of the resolution," he said.
But he pointed out that major differences among the developed countries and developing countries were on issues relating to "aid effectiveness" and on Financing for Development (FfD).
Consequently, he said, the relatively short-time frame may create difficulties for all, and in particular, for the host country, Kenya.
"But we have no doubt that with the required political will and cooperation from all concerned, the South-South Conference would be a success," Tharoor said.
India - which is a major player in the eight-member South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and IBSA (a trilateral development initiative comprising India, Brazil and South Africa) - has traditionally been in the forefront of South-South cooperation initiatives.
Tharoor said: "It is in that positive and constructive spirit and continued commitment to South-South Cooperation that India will be approaching and participating in the forthcoming Conference."
Under its Technical and Economic Co-operation (ITEC) Program, over 5,000 participants from developing partner countries have been offered training in over 200 courses each year, with many of them gravitating towards hi-tech areas such as information technologies (IT), he said.
India also assists other developing countries in development of infrastructure and education and medical facilities through projects and experts.
Since its inception in 1964, ITEC has covered 156 countries with an outlay of 2.56 billion dollars.
Tharoor said North-South cooperation also remains critical to carry forward the development agenda.
"South-South cooperation is neither a substitute to North-South Cooperation nor should it be used to dilute the quantum of North-South Cooperation," he said.
Hence, it cannot be viewed from a traditional donors' perspective or even from a donorship perspective (certainly no percentage of Gross Domestic Product target, no aid harmonization in terms of donor club laying down rules for the recipient countries).
He said South-South cooperation is really a partnership with sharing of expertise, knowledge and provision of assistance based on one's national capacities and voluntary in nature.
India is happy to participate in "triangular cooperation" in furthering the national development priorities of developing countries, he added.