Bringing south-south cooperation into the 21st Century

Posted on December 15, 2017  /  0 Comments

I wrote this after sitting through two days of a workshop on South-South and Triangular Cooperation in Dhaka. SSC has always interested me (evidence of intellectual formation in the 1970s, perhaps?). The idea that knowledge must fit country conditions and that what has worked in one country in the South is more likely to work in another is built into the LIRNEasia DNA. Listening to UN and government officials droning on with platitudes, I thought we have done things that could contribute and make success more likely now than in the dismal 20th Century.

It is natural to think of state entities as the key actors in south-south cooperation (SSC) for improving public-service delivery. But as the highlighted example of Bangladesh’s Union Digital Centers (UDCs) shows, non-state actors can play important roles in public-service innovation. In fact, few significant public-service innovations are done by government actors alone.

As pointed out by one participant, the overall design of the workshop was light on the role of the private sector. Non-profits were not fully integrated into the analysis either. The conventional story is exemplified by the case of environmental clearance certificates in Bangladesh that I thought was the best of the showcased innovations. The idea had come from within government; the software was written by a free-lance developer.

What about more equal partnerships, where the partner in the driving seat is the non-government actor?

Insights drawn from big data have enormous potential to improve the delivery of public services. In 2015, specific applications that may be of relevance for Bangladesh were identified. LIRNEasia currently analyzes big data (from mobile networks, from electricity distribution networks, from social media companies) for public-policy purposes, such as urban design, epidemiology and measuring progress toward the SDGs. After obtaining funds from the International Development Research Center of Canada and electricity distribution data from Bangladesh distribution companies, LIRNEasia chose to provide funds and technical expertise to a team of young researchers led by Dr Moinul Zaber so that the research could be done within Bangladesh in a way that would result in the accretion of data analytics skills in the country.

The fact that the work has been supported by the International Development Research Center of Canada and the Department for International Development of the UK brings this activity within the scope of triangular cooperation as well.
In the same way the outputs of the research in Sri Lanka were shared with the relevant government agencies in Sri Lanka, the outputs from the Bangladesh research will feed into public-policy processes in Bangladesh. This is a sophisticated form of SSC led by a non-state actor. It’s a pity that the discussion excluded these forms. One may ask, as indeed a UN OSSC official did, why non-state entities want to be in the driver’s seat. Government is government, after all, and should always have the leading position.

This is archaic and counter-productive thinking.

Who should be in the driver’s seat should be decided by the specific conditions. In one country at a particular point of time the government would have to take the lead. The Bangladesh UDC is a case in point. Here, the private service providers have been selected by government, obtain certain free/subsidized services from the government, and are subject to informal regulation. As the LIRNEasia comparative assessment of 2013 showed, Bangladesh UDCs are effective. That means that the particular institutional configuration was appropriate for that time and place. But government in the driver’s seat is not appropriate for all cases.

The big data case is one where government cannot be in the driver’s seat at this time. The critical inputs for data analytics for public good are data and skilled analysts. Most of the datafied data sets useful for public purposes are with private-sector entities at the present time. Government may have an advantage in that it has the power to decree that the data be shared for research purposes. But in many instances persuasion is superior to coercion.

Big data analytics is a frontier field; there is no settled science here. The methods are being improved every day; the techniques are being learned on the job. The short supply of data scientists in developed countries is exacerbated in the developing world. Useful insights will come from multi-disciplinary teams that include domain experts as well as data scientists. At LIRNEasia, we pay higher-than-public-sector salaries, but still serve as a way station for those intending to gain a publication record so that they enter PhD programs in data science. The work, at this point, is the opposite of routine. Even if government is capable of paying above-the-norm salaries, it is unlikely that it can provide the appropriate research environment. The government should encourage nimble organizations focused on data analytics to conduct the necessary research; government organizations cannot deliver results at this formative stage.

If true innovation is the objective, it would behoove the UN Office for South-South Cooperation and other interested parties to cast the net wider to include innovative organizational mechanisms as well as government innovations.

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