More South-South cooperation is key

| | in Oped

India’s expertise in many social development sectors is in high demand, making it a sought-after knowledge partner. But these partnerships have to be done right

It may be derided asjugaad but India’s frugal engineering and innovation capabilities have produced some pathbreaking technologies and programmes that can find merit in other developing countries that face similar challenges. In keeping with the challenges of implementing the 16 ambitious yet non-negotiable sustainable development goals, a concerted knowledge-exchange between countries could be a new chapter for the Modi Government’s flagship scheme Make in India as well.

Along with the previous Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs have now focused on the need for partnerships for development. The MDG balance sheet reveals that while progress was made, much more was needed. Hence, the more ambitious SDGs have been crafted.

It must be acknowledged that the existing approaches have not delivered change at the pace and scale required in global development. New and stronger partnerships are required. But the question is: What makes partnerships tick?

Consider South-South learning: It offers an opportunity for cross-learning and development at relatively low costs. India makes for a great knowledge partner for much of the global South. In terms of poverty, anemia in women, under-nutrition and lack of sanitation, the country has some of the largest numbers. Yet it also has some of the largest Government-funded development programmes in the world such as the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan.

Civil society and research institutions have also addressed several challenges. Women’s self-help groups are successfully managing small enterprises, while many villagers are doing immense work in water budgeting and conservation. Notably, three Stockholm Water Awardees are Indian. It is this diversity and complexity that makes India valuable for knowledge exchange.

But the starting point must be the demand for knowledge. The knowledge to be shared must not be shoved down the throats of unwilling countries. That is a sure shot waste of money and effort, not to mention reputation.

The next step is to establish credibility: Identify partners on both sides of the knowledge divide. If the provider is not capable, the effort will result in a loss of face. Similarly, if the partner is not capable of absorbing the knowledge, efforts will come to naught.

Then, establish contact and engage: Establish contact with all stakeholders so that the requisite knowledge is accepted, piloted and absorbed into policy and widespread practice. Engage with the Government for programme and policy formulation, and with the industry that may need to change practices as a result of technology and policy shifts. If the change has financial implications, industry may turn hostile to the technology.

Be realistic: Do not promise the moon. This will damage reputation and the partnership concept. Be focused but flexible. A bumpy ride lies ahead as unexpected challenges may crop up, changes may have to be incorporated at the last moment, and time frames revised.

Have a plan: Be clear about how you want to move forward, what is on offer and how the results will be measured. 

Demonstrate: Bring the folks over to show what you have and then do a pilot project under local conditions. Peer-to-peer interaction is key as it helps build capacity.

Find a local home: The knowledge-exchange effort needs to find an institutional home so that it can be contextualised appropriately and scaled up if required.

Finally, remember the meaning of partnership and base the relationship on principles of equity. Listen carefully and treat partners with respect. Just because you have something to share does not make you any better. Exchange knowledge and support with humility and grace.

These are lessons learnt somewhat the hard way in sectors such as watershed development and water conservation, drinking water and sanitation, renewable energy, green technologies, enterprise and entrepreneurship development and community organisation. India's work in these and other sectors is in demand but must be done right.

(The writer is Policy Lead: Food Security, Resource Scarcity and Climate Change with IPE Global)

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