Global Cooperation for Development: Current Failures and the Case for Collaboration

The increasingly global nature of development challenges—including climate change, security, and pandemic response—is laying bare the reality that global solutions are needed, and that the traditional model of development as resources flowing from “North” to “South” is not only insufficient for meeting the challenges ahead, but also fails to reflect the reality of the changing development landscape. Instead, there is a need for a new model of cooperation, where all countries act as partners in achieving global outcomes.

In September, the Korean International Cooperation Agency and Ministry of Foreign Affairs convened the 15th Seoul ODA International Conference, which brought together academics, policymakers, and civil society organisations to discuss ways to “Expand Horizons for Global Development Partnership”—this year’s conference theme. The conversation reflected on the need for greater collaboration for development—particularly with “dual” cooperation actors that both receive and provide development cooperation—to address global challenges and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog, we summarize key themes and takeaways from this year’s conference, particularly on questions around the challenges and opportunities for deepening cooperation for development. These themes are also explored in a new CGD paper on the need for a global development paradigm.

Why do we need partnerships for development?

This year’s conference occurred against a backdrop of a “perfect long storm” of intersecting crises that have put the achievement of the SDGs at risk. The dual health and economic impact of COVID-19 has not only led to an increase in extreme poverty and widening inequality, but also caused severe disruptions to global health and education. Ongoing pressures from the existential climate crisis is increasing the frequency and severity of climate-related events, which will have a disproportionate impact on poor and vulnerable communities. The 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia has created a refugee crisis and is contributing to global food and energy insecurity, accelerating humanitarian needs.

In response to this confluence of global development challenges, which greatly exceed the capacities or resources of any country working alone, global cooperation for development—if not more ambitious collaboration—is urgently needed to meet growing needs and get the SDGs back on track. Notably, the imperative for global cooperation for development is itself formalized as part of the SDG agenda, with SDG 17 highlighting the importance of cooperation and partnership to making progress towards our shared development vision. Partnership has also emerged as an important theme for development agencies, with a recent survey of development leaders showing that being equipped to actively engage in partnerships for development was a key priority for leaders seeking to ensure that their agencies remained fit for purpose in the years ahead. Yet despite the urgency and acknowledgement of the need for cooperation, there are some doubts about whether, and to what degree, such cooperation is materializing.

The cooperation “paradox”: Mixed global responses to COVID-19

Questions about the realities of cooperation were addressed by some speakers, who noted that the growing need for cooperation had been met with a paradoxical weakening of the willingness of countries to act collectively as a result of tense geopolitical contexts and concern over the functioning and “thinning” of multilateralism. These findings are echoed in a new paper, which analyzes the scope of global cooperation that materialized in response to COVID-19 and finds that even during the acute and shared experience of the COVID pandemic, evidence of global cooperation was mixed at best. On one hand, the analysis showed that international responses to COVID-19 were global in nature, with a range of countries from across income levels contributing financial and knowledge-based resources to development response to the pandemic. On the other hand, collaboration between different types of actors, namely members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and Southern development cooperation providers has been thin, especially beyond examples of “South” to “North” cooperation that occurred during the early pandemic phases. Taken together, the discrepancy between the need for cooperation and the relatively siloed (and often bilateral) actions that were taken raises important questions about the challenges facing deeper cooperation for development, and how these challenges can be overcome.  

What are the barriers to deeper collaboration for development and how can they be overcome?

Questions concerning the barriers to deeper cooperation between DAC and Southern development cooperation providers were explored in depth during this year’s Seoul ODA Conference, with representatives from Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Thailand, and Turkey providing useful insight from their experience working with other partners. In particular, speakers pointed to a range of barriers to cooperation including the potential incongruence between national interests and those of partnership; challenges related to trust and reliability of partners, differences in the legal and regulatory frameworks of partners; and crucially, limited resources or capacity to invest in building partnerships. Early findings from forthcoming research suggest that similar barriers to cooperation were identified by leaders from DAC development agencies.

The practical and political challenges to deeper cooperation noted by speakers raised questions about the changes needed to overcome barriers and create more opportunities for meaningful partnership. The discussion revealed some potential solutions—including reframing development narratives to focus on shared challenges (i.e., highlighting the links between global and national interests); working to identify deeper synergies between the projects and interests of DAC and Southern development cooperation providers; and critically, creating more spaces for meaningful dialogue on issues of shared interest. While there is little clarity on what such spaces should look like—they could take the form of more inclusive multilateral dialogues, regional or subregional forums, or smaller “mini-lateral” networks or groups of like-minded partners—there was general agreement that creating opportunities for dialogue on global development cooperation that includes a wide array of partners was a first and necessary step towards deeper collaboration.

A more collaborative future?

The good news is that conversations during the Seoul ODA Conference highlighted that there was an appetite for deeper cooperation for global development amongst those in the room. The question, however, is how to make it happen in practice. Conversations like those held during the conference, which bring together DAC and Southern development cooperation providers, are undoubtedly an important step to facilitating the types of conversations that need to happen to identify potential synergies and opportunities for collaboration. But meaningful collaboration for development is also about what happens when those conversations end, and how the networks and partnerships developed are translated into cooperative action.

In the months ahead, CGD and KOICA will continue to explore and research the challenges and opportunities for deepening partnership and collaboration for global development. While there remains significant work to be done to understand the array of challenges impeding cooperation and to think through actionable strategies for fostering collaboration, there is a need to dig deeper into these issues to ensure that the path to 2030 is built together.



CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.