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How coronavirus is accelerating a new approach to international cooperation

Written by Annalisa Prizzon

Despite these turbulent times, there is potentially a positive outcome for the future of development assistance. The unprecedented systemic challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis, and the responses we have already seen, will fast-track the transformation of an old paradigm of donor–recipient aid relations towards a model of international cooperation between all countries.

This transformation, which has been advocated by many commentators, was already underway pre-virus. Our research on Exit from aid and Moving away from aid shows that many economies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific have seen their dependency on aid falling as their socio-economic indicators improved. Countries are moving away from grants and borrowing at below-market rates from bilateral, and especially multilateral donors, towards more expensive loan financing at market rates. Development partners are also increasingly reflecting on how they should forge new relations with partner countries.

So how is the crisis accelerating this trend? And what are the potential consequences?

A challenge to the traditional roles of donor and recipient

As an Italian expatriate stuck in London with immediate family in Northern Italy, the images of and articles about Chinese aid (article in Italian) to my old local health district in Veneto (and elsewhere) are extremely touching, as are those describing the welcome of Cuban doctors at the airport in Milan (subscription required). We will certainly see more such examples as the crisis sweeps through countries usually labelled as ‘donors’.

Countries like China are often called ‘emerging donors’ and their assistance described as ‘non-traditional’. These descriptions derive from such countries often being perceived as having different modalities and priorities around aid compared to their Western counterparts; or simply because they are recipients of assistance.

Many drivers, including geo-strategic ones (subscription required), motivate support from China and others to coronavirus-stricken countries. Yet, in this crisis, a key catalyst for support is the spirit of mutual solidarity, linked to a common challenge and lesson sharing, when seeing a country struggling and under emergency.

Greater emphasis on knowledge-sharing and peer learning

During our interviews for the Moving away from aid project, government officials repeatedly demanded other modalities of cooperation beyond financial transfers, such as knowledge-sharing and peer learning. Countries want to learn how others have dealt with challenges and which solutions have worked.

As the crisis unfolds and deepens, the value of lesson learning among countries will become increasingly evident. Countries in the Global North might not always be the ‘experts’. The way China has shared lessons with Italy to mitigate the impact of the outbreak is, again, a timely and visible example that will certainly be replicated in the coming months. As my colleague Sorcha O'Callaghan pointed out in her latest blog, several lessons could also be learned from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and DRC too.

A reminder that global challenges need international cooperation

This worldwide crisis is providing a painful reminder that many critical development challenges cannot be solved by individual countries working in isolation. There is a clear need for focus and investment on how to achieve common goals across all countries and challenges, including pandemics, climate change and security.  

These global challenges will not be addressed by development agencies on their own, but will need cooperation for example with health or environmental ministries, as Professor Inge Kaul has argued in a previous ODI report.

Our actions are intertwined now more than ever. The above examples demonstrate how global challenges require knowledge-sharing and collaboration between all countries. This crisis offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to finally move away from an old paradigm of traditional donor–recipient aid towards a model of international cooperation, independent from income per capita. We should not miss this opportunity.