Sebastian Haug is a Senior Researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) and the lead editor of The ‘Global South’ in the Study of World Politics. Following assignments with the United Nations in Beijing and Mexico City, he has spent the last eight years researching international organisations, South–South cooperation and global power shifts.
Silke Weinlich is a Senior Researcher at the German Institute of Development and Sustainability (IDOS) where she leads a research and policy advice project on the United Nations development system and its reform needs. Over the last 20 years, she has followed UN reform processes in fields ranging from peacekeeping to sustainable development.
At the United Nations, South–South cooperation provides a broad discursive umbrella for collaboration among developing countries, while triangular cooperation refers to partnerships where ‘developed country(ies)/or multilateral organisation(s)’ support South–South schemes.1 Although its actual extent and significance is often hard to grasp in quantitative terms, South–South and triangular cooperation (SSTC) has become an increasingly prominent modality for the imple-men tation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).2
Member States have repeatedly highlighted that the UN system can play an important role in supporting and implementing system-wide SSTC goals and strategies. They have also asked UN entities to enhance their support as part of dedicated South–South processes and in the context of UN development system reform.3 Despite heightened interest in the topic, however, there is currently no systematic overview of SSTC funding at the UN. While acknowledging that financial flows only show one facet of SSTC arrangements, this article offers a first mapping and appraisal of SSTC funding patterns at the UN. We suggest that increasing the availability of systematic data would represent a key step towards understanding the contours of UN engagement with SSTC and raising the visibility of SSTC funding in debates about UN finance.
The limits of data on SSTC funding
There has been no systematic, system-wide reporting on SSTC funding at the UN, and data provided by individual UN entities tends to be sketchy.4 As with UN finances more generally, Member State funding for SSTC comes through two main channels: assessed and voluntary contributions.
Illustrative evidence suggests that those UN entities that receive assessed contributions tend to use those to fund their basic institutional SSTC structures, such as staff costs.5 While most UN entities have rather small SSTC teams, sometimes consisting of only one part-time staff position, a notable exception is the UN Office for South–South Cooperation (UNOSSC), which has a system-wide mandate to support the mainstreaming and coordination of SSTC. However, UNOSSC fully depends on voluntary contributions – it received US$ 5.7 million for its operations in 2021, all funded through voluntary resources (US$ 2.3 million from the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP) institutional budget and US$ 3.4 million from other core resources).6
It is therefore plausible to assume that only minimal amounts of UN regular budgets are spent – directly or indirectly – on SSTC support. Instead, voluntary contributions form the main potential funding source for SSTC projects and programmes, either as core or earmarked resources. While Western donors may provide funding for triangular projects, they usually do not fund South–South schemes per se.
Overall, therefore, voluntary contributions from Southern Member States are the key funding source for the bulk of South–South cooperation support across the UN. So far, though, and despite increases, Southern voluntary funding has remained limited, with Northern donors dominating voluntary resource flows. Using Development Assistance Committee (DAC) membership as a rough proxy for ‘developed countries’ in UN funding data, the distinction between DAC and non-DAC funding patterns among all government contributions to the UN in 2021 shows that non-DAC countries provided only 14% of earmarked voluntary contributions and 6% of voluntary core contributions.
China leads the list of Southern contributors, followed by Saudi Arabia and Brazil. When it comes to the provision of development-related earmarked resources for UN operational activities more narrowly (discounting core and local contributions, as well as contributions for humanitarian purposes), China and Russia top the list of non-DAC countries, both contributing around US$ 45 million in 2022. They are followed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which contributed around US$ 27 million each, while Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Brazil and India each provided US$ 6–15 million. For most Southern countries, however, the majority of their voluntary contributions are local resources to be spent within their own borders. This means that only a fraction of these contributions – differences among contributors notwithstanding – is spent on SSTC.
Mapping SSTC funding mechanisms and flows
In the absence of systematic SSTC funding figures, the limited weight of Southern Member States in system-wide voluntary funding data suggests that overall funding levels for SSTC remain limited across the UN system. At the same time, however, there is a growing number of dedicated South–South funding mechanisms that seem to make use of – compared to overall UN funding figures – rather limited amounts in a targeted manner. Concurrently, there is growing, if patchy, evidence on UN engagement with triangular cooperation initiatives.
Dedicated SSTC funding mechanisms
UNOSSC is a key entity when it comes to system-wide funding mechanisms explicitly dedicated to South–South cooperation. Funding flows to and through UNOSSC totalled roughly US$ 22 million in 2021. In addition to receiving regular institutional support funding (see above), UNOSSC administers four major (sub-)funds dedicated to South–South cooperation (Figure 1).
First, the Pérez-Guerrero Trust Fund for South–South Cooperation (PGTF) is the most longstanding UN mechanism dedicated to funding South–South schemes. Established by the UN in 1983 and administered on behalf of the Group of 77 (G77), it provides ‘catalytic financial support for cooperative projects carried out by three or more developing-country members of the G77’.7 As of 2023, PGTF supports individual projects to a level of no more than US$ 35,000 each.
Second, the India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation was set up in 2006 by the IBSA governments. So far, the IBSA Fund has channelled around US$ 47 million to finance 42 projects in 35 countries, with almost half of all funds going to projects on the African continent.8
Third, the UN Fund for South–South Cooperation (UNFSSC) was created by the General Assembly in 1996 and is the UN’s system-wide mechanism for funding South–South schemes. Contributors are usually either G77 Member States or multilateral bodies. From 2012 to 2021, UNFSSC had a combined pooled funding revenue of US$ 31.7 million14, with China (US$ 15.8 million) and the Republic of Korea (US$ 6.4 million) being the most important Member State providers, as shown in Figure 2. In the 2020–2021 cycle, the only other DAC member to contribute to UNFSSC in addition to the Republic of Korea (US$ 1.1 million) was Norway, with US$ 60,000.15
Fourth, the India–UN Development Partnership Fund was set up in 2017 as a sub-fund of UNFSSC with ‘its own governance structure, programme guidelines, sub-fund code for financial accounting purposes and reporting system’.16 In terms of overall amounts, this sub-fund is presently the foremost funding source among the UNOSSC-administered funding arrangements, making India the most important contributor to UNOSSC’s trust funds.
Beyond these UNOSSC-managed funds, individual UN entities have established different SSTC funding mechanisms with Member States. The Rome-based UN entities – the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) (Box 1) – seem to have been on the forefront of SSTC funding in the UN system, due in part to the close link between their food/agriculture-related mandates and Southern development concerns.17
In the case of FAO, institutionalised mechanisms include the Africa Solidarity Trust Fund and the China–FAO South–South Cooperation Programme, the latter established in 2009 and financed through a Chinese trust fund of US$ 80 million. WFP reports that US$ 7.5 million was mobilised in 2021 to fund SSTC projects in 62 developing countries, and that China has stepped up its annual support for the organi-sation’s SSTC work (US$ 2.1 million in 2023, compared to US$ 1.7 million or less in previous years). China has also estab lished a number of funding mechanisms with other UN entities that are at least partially dedicated to SSTC, includ ing a funding facility with IFAD (Box 1) and the UN Peace and Development Trust Fund administered by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Other Southern Member States, such as Mexico, have also set up SSTC schemes with the UN, but at a more limited scale.
Triangular cooperation initiatives with UN involvement
Most UN-related SSTC funding mechanisms primarily focus on South–South cooperation, with triangular cooperation historically playing a less visible role. Recently, however, interest in triangular cooperation arrangements has been expanding. Similar to South–South cooperation, there is no systematic global or UN-wide reporting mechanism for triangular cooperation. However, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has set up a regularly updated repository where stakeholders can self-report their triangular cooperation initiatives. There have been 921 triangular cooperation initiatives implemented since 2002 and registered in the OECD repository, of which 231 include the participation of at least one UN entity. This means that 25% of all triangular cooperation initiatives mapped by the OECD include UN involvement, suggesting that UN entities – including UNDP, FAO and WFP (Figure 3) – have been rather prominent triangular cooperation actors.
The challenge with this self-reported data is that it only reflects a partial picture, and that details presented for individual initiatives are not necessarily comparable.18 This also applies to funding information. Of the repository’s 231 triangular cooperation initiatives with UN involvement, only 133 come with information on broad budgetary ranges. Based on a conservative estimation of individual project budgets19, these 133 initiatives implemented over the past two decades had a combined budget of US$ 295.3 million (Figure 4). With regard to initiatives where funding information is available, the average triangular cooperation initiative with UN involvement had a budget of slightly more than US$ 1 million. However, these numbers may hide more than they reveal. For almost half of all initiatives registered, no budgetary ranges are available, and the OECD repository does not systematically include external sources to corroborate budget range details. More generally, it remains unclear whether the registered initiatives provide an exhaustive overview or are only a (small) proportion of all triangular cooperation schemes with UN involvement. The repository is also mute on the roles UN entities play in registered initiatives.
SSTC funding patterns at the UN: A first appraisal
Based on available data, SSTC funding at the UN remains limited when compared to overall financial flows in the UN system. At the same time, SSTC funding is a visible if fragmented phenomenon that unfolds through an expanding number of mechanisms. In addition to trust funds administered by UNOSSC, illustrative evidence suggests that there is a growing number of SSTC funding mechanisms across the UN system. The Rome-based UN entities, in particular, provide exemplary insights into the diversity of SSTC funding flows. However, a central limiting factor in the analysis of SSTC finance at the UN is the absence of an explicit, shared operationalisation of SSTC and a central SSTC reporting mechanism. A number of Southern Member States – including China and India – remain opposed to more narrow indicators, arguing that their South–South cooperation efforts should not be bound to external frameworks. With regard to triangular cooperation, the OECD repository offers an important first step for mapping initiatives with UN involvement but highlights the need for more systematic and detailed reporting in order to appreciate the relevance and weight of these initiatives.
Overall, the absence or fragmentary nature of data is deplorable, as it leads to an overall lack of transparency regarding SSTC flows at the UN. This makes it hard to appreciate both the contributions that SSTC initiatives make in implementing the SDGs, and to better understand the role the UN can play in fostering exchange, policy learning and cooperation beyond traditional North–South schemes. Building on discussions around SDG monitoring, the UN system should capture SSTC-related expenditure in its financial reporting. This would provide evidence that could be used for tracking the impact of SSTC funding, acknowledging the contributions of Southern Member States, and highlighting the (potential for) diversification of UN finances. More systematic data would also enable Member States across the North–South divide to make informed decisions about whether, why and how UN work on SSTC should be strengthened.
United Nations Office for South–South Cooperation (UNOSSC), ‘Framework of operational guidelines on United Nations support to South–South and triangular cooperation’, SSC/19/3, 14 March 2016, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/826679.
See Sachin Chaturvedi et al., The Palgrave Handbook of Development Cooperation for Achieving the 22030 Agenda (Cham: Springer Nature, 2021), https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-030-57938-8.
Sebastian Haug, ‘Beyond mainstreaming? Past, present and future of UN support for South–South and triangular cooperation’, Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 10/1 (2022), pp. 15–44, https://doi. org/10.18588/202205.00a259.
On UN entities that receive assessed contributions, see Sebastian Haug, Nilima Gulrajani and Silke Weinlich, ‘International organisations and differentiated universality: Reinvigorating assessed contributions in United Nations funding’, Global Perspectives 3/1 (2022), https://doi.org/10.1525/ gp.2022.39780.
Executive Board of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Population Fund and the UN Office for Project Services, ‘Structured dialogue on financing the results of the UNDP strategic Plans, 2018–2021 and 2022–2025’, DP/2022/28, 12 July 2022, www.undp.org/sites/g/files/zskgke326/files/2019/Structured%20Funding%20….
Core capital of US$ 5 million in 1983 was increased to US$ 7 million through contributions in 2004 and 2015; see Group of 77 (G77), ‘Perez-Guerrero Trust Fund for South–South Cooperation (PGTF)’, January 2023, www.g77.org/pgtf/B_and_W_Presentation _on_PGTF_updated_January_2023.pdf .
For an example of an OECD-led analysis of repository data, see OECD, ‘Triangular Cooperation with Africa’, 2022, p. 21, https://triangular-cooperation.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/10/OECD_ Triangular-co-operation-with-Africa.pdf.