COVID-19 has exacerbated several pre-pandemic trends in international development cooperation—among the most obvious, the weakening of the multilateral system and its subdued response to crises. One manifestation of this trend is the noticeable wedge in the relationship between process actors and knowledge actors in development cooperation governance. Process actors drive official and organisational operations and procedures at global, regional, and national levels. Our concern is mostly with government officials with policy engagement—in contrast to political appointees within the government. Knowledge actors are primarily non-state actors in recipient countries like academics, policy activists, and experts at nongovernmental organizations having context-specific expertise important for creating evidence-based policies.
National-level perspectives, gained from consultations conducted by the authors with around 30 global experts for a broader research project, indicate that the gap between process and knowledge actors is widening. This suggests the already-fragmented global development governance arrangements are getting less networked, inclusive, and effective. The response to COVID-19 in poor countries, which was often dictated by international actors and national governments with little input from local knowledge actors who could have helped improve policies, is a striking example. A more inclusive forum for cooperation and knowledge sharing is needed.
How does one know the gap is widening?
Three related trends during the pandemic illustrate the increasing divide.
First, development cooperation experiences at the national level inadequately inform actions taken by global institutions. Knowledge actors from the global South remain disadvantaged by lack of integration with global knowledge ecosystems. This top-down approach intensified during the COVID-19 response. As such, Southern countries adopted externally generated, generalised responses such as social distancing and lock-downs that are more suitable to developed country contexts. While these measures are the most preferred choices to contain the pandemic, they often prove unfit for the specific contexts in developing countries.
In the case of Bangladesh, for example, social distancing has been nearly impossible and lockdowns have brought immense economic hardship—aspects rarely highlighted by the initial global discourse on COVID-19 response. Many national knowledge actors underlined the missing prerequisites that could have made the response more effective: robust social protection programmes, ample fiscal space, and capacity to protect its citizens under lockdowns. Similarly, efforts to move education online as schools closed were impeded by limited ownership of smart devices and internet bandwidth while leaving a whole generation deprived of education for over a year. Yet, global pressures, not only from development partners but also global institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO), compelled the national government to choose strict shutdown measures. It did not help that WHO made confusing statements on health and safety protocols whilst local knowledge actors put stronger emphasis on building awareness, enforcing health and sanitation measures, ramping up health sector capacity, and ensuring mass vaccinations. Even most knowledge actors from the global North, possibly in their enthusiasm to save lives have been less sensitive to local contexts.
Second, the space for knowledge actors to guide processes at the national level has been shrinking in line with the overall decline in democratic and civil rights. National governments designed and implemented COVID-19 responses without pursuing a “whole-of-society approach,” and international development partners engaged mostly at the government level. In Bangladesh, the marginalisation of the knowledge actors was greatly exposed in the national budgetary process (an important policy tool) during the COVID period.
A lack of institutional capacity also hindered implementation of relief efforts. The absence of knowledge actors who could have filled in the capacity gaps resulted in poor outcomes from even good policies. One of the government’s major fiscal responses, emergency cash transfers to needy families, ended up reaching only 70 percent of the targeted beneficiaries. There was a failure to adopt innovative, data-driven approaches to identify and capture the “new poor,” amidst an already incomplete database of the “old poor.” No official exercise was undertaken to account for this newly impoverished group and unofficial but credible estimates made by knowledge actors were ignored. Data gaps, along with a gross lack of disaggregated information in national statistics, left the neediest marginalised groups largely excluded from support. Undermining knowledge actors has not only affected the supply of evidence-based policy but also the credibility of official evidence, particularly because of absences in high-frequency data. The situation has been compared to one of data anarchy at both micro and macro levels.
Third, national responses have not adequately factored in regional and global circumstances. The trend of vaccine nationalism and diplomacy by major countries are among such global phenomena that many developing countries failed to anticipate in their procurement strategies. Despite its advanced paid deals (through private channels) with the Indian Serum Institute for AstraZeneca vaccines, Bangladesh is currently without sufficient doses as India halted overseas supply to inoculate its own citizens amid a deadly second wave. The failure of the Bangladesh government to diversify its procurement sources is largely attributable to the lack of foresight regarding vaccine nationalism that has also led rich countries to overstock and disrupt fair distribution. The government also ignored early warnings and suggestions by local knowledge actors to adopt a more balanced procurement approach with more transparency and diversification of sources, beyond accessing the COVAX facility. Availability of vaccines from alternate sources will now depend on Bangladesh’s ability to leverage vaccine diplomacy by China and Russia to its advantage.
As these examples make clear, the increasing gap between Southern expertise (outside the government) and national and global decision-making processes has led to suboptimal outcomes. The dominant Northern-derived theories of change which usually presuppose a lack of local capacity have also resulted in development efforts that don’t make effective use of local capacity.
The COVID response is the clearest example, but it will not be the only one. Geopolitical rivalries will likely play a stronger role in post-COVID development and economic cooperation. The growing wedge between process and knowledge actors will only aggravate power imbalances that hurt poorer countries. Engagement of local knowledge actors in national and intergovernmental processes is thus critical in the post-COVID world.
How can the gap be closed?
Knowledge actors need to be brought closer to process actors at all levels by improving access to safe spaces for engagement and mutual learning. This will require reimagined platforms for the two groups to interact. A fresh initiative for discourse—devoid of competition or political stances between the participants—is the most promising solution.
For instance, a “4IForum,” standing for individuals, institutions, ideas, and interchanges, could provide such a venue. The vision would be to have a series of meaningful interchanges on fresh and out-of-the-box ideas regarding the future course of development cooperation to “build back better” by bringing together a critical group of individuals and institutions with adequate diversity and representative character. Initially, the discussions could be among a select group of people with intellectual prowess and diverse profiles to help develop an agenda with more nuances and action points. The focus should be on the ideas as change agents, not honed processes. However, once the agenda matures, the 4IForum can evolve into a much larger conclave to attract political traction. Other actors may then be brought in from the process and knowledge sides to work together. Southern entities (e.g., Southern Voice) could spearhead the initiative in partnership with a relevant body with convening power (e.g., the UN Foundation) to broaden ownership.
Most existing similar initiatives have been predictably politically driven, typically process-oriented, and/or overly academic. Attempts at refashioning existing platforms like the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation to expand ownership are illusive at best, and it has not yet emerged as a universal platform. Similarly, democratising Southern platforms like the Delhi Process by involving more countries from the “South of the South” will be challenging. The value of creating a new forum instead of working with an established one would come from greater legitimacy and substance thanks to a focus on inclusivity and a diversity of actors across process and knowledge sides. The envisaged forum, with no exterior motives, internal politics, or power plays, will allow fresh perspectives and innovative ideas to thrive.
The proposed 4IForum will face the challenge of distinguishing itself with original, innovative, and actionable recommendations to reboot the development cooperation discourse. But with a commitment to robust knowledge, evidence-based inclusive process, and shared political ownership, the proposed initiative can enable development cooperation governance in the post-pandemic world to be more networked and inclusive, and—hopefully—more effective.