Decentralised Development Cooperation: potential and practices from an international perspective

By Jorge Gutiérrez Goiria

What role should municipal and regional governments play in international cooperation? For some time now, the processes and results of traditional development cooperation have been under scrutiny, and its main parameters are being reconsidered with regard to its own objectives, agents and instruments, which prove to be insufficient to face global challenges.

Decentralised development cooperation (DDC), promoted by local governments, offers a promising approach here. Its practices can promote relations of cooperation and solidarity with greater horizontality and reciprocity, as they naturally involve different actors while responding to problems close to the citizenry.

The limited but growing space of Decentralised Development Cooperation

Since its origin, development cooperation has been guided by state governments, either through bilateral intervention or through representatives in multilateral organisations. More recently, however, as in other international spaces, the interventions of the regional governments, cities and other sub-state spaces have been gaining importance.

This greater relevance is explained by the growing weight of cities in terms of population and economy, the processes of political and administrative decentralisation in different places (which leads to more user-friendly services), and the associative capacity in international networks of some of these agents, i.e.,UCLG: United Cities and Local Governments, Platforma: European coalition of towns and regions)

Hence, the role of DDC, residual until recently, has been gaining importance as a result of its growing recognition by different stakeholders and debate frameworks of the international agenda. Specifically, it has been referred to in forums such as Accra (2008) and Busan (2011), where approaches such as the new Global Partnership allow scope for the inclusion of new agents and dynamics in international cooperation. Within this framework, DDC has been employed to address these activities from a multilevel and multi-stakeholder perspective in a more inclusive manner. This has been greatly supported by the appearance of a growing body of declarations and viewpoints, mainly within the framework of the United Nations, the European Union (EU) and the OECD, where local and regional stakeholders are increasingly being recognised as having a more significant part to play.

Concept and potential of decentralised development cooperation

It is worth noting that no single commonly accepted definition of DDC exists. In some cases, the focus is on the transfer of official development assistance (ODA) funds originating from sub-state entities, to what we could call official decentralised aid. In other cases, the concept is broader, giving importance to activities that include exchanges, associations or twinning between cities and regions.

Other approaches highlight the participation of diverse agents, including those of civil society such as Non-governmental organisations (NGOs). In the case of the EU, for example, this type of cooperation has been contemplated since the IV Lomé Convention (1989-90).

In reality, it seems clear that the interest of these practices does not lie so much in who the financing body is, but rather in highlighting the differential approach that they can provide. From here, many potentialities emerge, for example working with fewer diplomatic, political or geostrategic constraints compared to traditional cooperation. Similarly, a multi-stakeholder and participatory approach, promotes meetings of a more horizontal character between public and private institutions of all kinds. This helps to overcome the traditional donor-recipient vision that is still very much present in development cooperation.

Another notable aspect is its potential for technical cooperation. This is a consequence of the greater knowledge existing at this level on issues closest to the citizenry and linked to local development strategies, such as initiatives related to urban planning and municipal management, or others related to decentralised powers. Starting from here, sub-state entities could share their experience of decentralisation processes, their procedures, mechanisms and problem-solving strategies with destination countries.

However, there are also some limitations to this type of cooperation: apart from its limited scale and powers, issues such as the possible fragmentation or lack of coordination of activities as well as difficulties in their monitoring and evaluation are raised.

As in the case of potentialities, these limitations can occur in different ways, depending on the specific case and practice. In some cases, coordination methods have been established, or appropriate transparency and monitoring of modalities have been developed. In other cases, actions involve a smaller number of agents, which helps to simplify operations.

Decentralised Development Cooperation practices worldwide

Analysis of decentralised cooperation practices worldwide offers examples of key practices and opportunities for progress. These include activities of the French territorial authorities in sectors such as water and sanitation or energy. In the Spanish case, we find a greater commitment to activities related to Global Citizenship Education, promoted to a large extent through collaborations with NGOs. Equally interesting is the bet of some Belgian entities which focuses on health or specific productive sectors, and on a limited number of countries, mainly African.

Although DDC is a reality of a modest dimension, it is becoming increasingly institutionalised and established in countries such as Spain, Germany, Belgium, France and Canada, among others.

However, studying and measuring a phenomenon such as this is not without its problems since its main potential is not quantitative but expressed in the form of more horizontal relationships and logic, with civil society playing a key role. Therefore a mixed approach is needed which broadens the vision to include qualitative aspects.

A wide variety of agents are involved, including the government administration itself (at its different sub-state levels), civil society organisations (mainly NGOs) and universities. In contrast, international organisations, as well as those of the private productive sector, have very little presence. However, there are marked differences between countries. NGOs, for example, are prominent agents in the case of Spain, France and Belgium, being less relevant in Germany or Canada. It would be interesting to explore the possibilities of incorporating agents, based on experiences in various locations. This includes the greater incorporation and visibility of institutions and NGOs from partner countries. These agents carry out the main activities but, in many cases, do not receive the appropriate recognition.

Many of the decentralised cooperation modalities and practices have their origin in twinning relationships, which maintain different degrees of activity. An origin in civil society or religious organisations, which is becoming institutionalised, is also common.

If we look at the actions collected as Official Development Assistance by DAC, it is clear that, quantitatively, activities such as the imputed costs of students or those linked to refugees predominate. These, however, do not reflect the potential of this cooperation, and are openly questioned from various perspectives (they could be classified as “inflated aid”, using the terminology that civil society organisations such as CONCORD propose in their analyses).

Apart from these practices, the most frequent approach is to work by way of projects, with a previously established plan and budget. Despite being an appropriate practice in many cases, other more flexible possibilities have been little explored, such as budgetary support (which is used in Belgium, for example) or the potential of technical assistance. The potential of some practices linked to technical assistance, such as that of French municipalities in the case of water or other services, deserves further study.

Sectors of action, as well as the partner countries they work with, depend on the experiences in each case, and on previous relations between the countries in question. In general, a clear orientation is lacking.

One of the differential characteristics of decentralised development cooperation, linked to its closeness to the citizenry, is its commitment to work in Global citizenship education. DAC data show a very small percentage in this regard, yet significant differences between countries, with Spain being at the forefront. It should be noted that this work is directly linked to NGOs, and that the activities carried out by them are more difficult to measure and follow up .

Coordination efforts at the state level are frequent in the cases studied, normally carried out separately between civil society and institutions, with some interrelationships depending on the case. Accountability efforts are also common, with portals increasingly reporting on these activities.

In summary, and based on a broad review of DDC worldwide, an increase in interest and activities related to DDC is apparent, but there is still some way to go to reach the true potential of this type of cooperation.

Without minimising the financial aspects, and accounting efforts, we ween an approach to DDC that goes beyond the traditional ODA measure. Greater knowledge of practices in other environments, or the exchange of good practices at different levels (legal procedures, modalities used, agents involved, etc.) would be a good place to start for future advancements.

*This post is based on the book Potential and practices of decentralised development cooperation: an international perspective published by Hegoa Institute for International Cooperation and Development Studies (UPV/EHU).

Jorge Gutiérrez Goiria is associate professor at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). Head of the Research Group on Policy Coherence for Development and International Cooperation. Lines of research include the 2030 Agenda and decentralised cooperation policies, as well as issues related to development financing, microfinance and ethical banking.

Image: Cauca, Colombia (Hegoa)