Southern-based Think Tanks Redress Inequalities in Human Development

Shams Banihani • 6 August 2019

18 July 2019

In the lead up to the upcoming 2019 Human Development Report (HDR) on inequality, the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) and the Human Development Report Office (HDRO) recently held a joint meeting in New York with members of the South-South Global Thinkers – a Global Coalition of Think Tank Networks for South-South Cooperation.

The meeting brought together over 13 Southern-based think tanks and many more engaged in an earlier e-discussion on the topic of inequality via the South-South Global Thinkers Platform.

In his opening remarks, Mr. Pedro Conceição, Director of HDRO stressed the importance of this event and how the 2019 HDR will “provide new lenses and an approach that is different from traditional ones of understanding inequality.”

UNOSSC Director and Envoy of the Secretary-General on South-South Cooperation, Mr. Jorge Chediek, and Deputy Director, Ms. Xiaojun Grace Wang, both highlighted how South-South cooperation can develop more effective partnerships to reduce the issue of inequality between and among countries.

H.E Dr. Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies and Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain, made a special intervention to discuss the steps taken in the Kingdom of Bahrain to tackle inequality. He credited three things: political willingness; a comprehensive reform to ensure equality irrespective of gender, religion, race, or other factors; and the existence of solid legislative structures and legal mechanisms.

The South-South Global Thinkers Network members presented their country and regional experiences, especially noting areas in which a reduction in inequality can have significant economic, social and political returns. However, Professor Sachin Chaturvedi, from the Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS) in India, indicated that Southern transformative solutions and efforts to address inequality are not as visible as Northern efforts.

Dr. Bhattacharya a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue in Bangladesh stressed the importance of understanding the relationship between growth, inequality and voice; while Ms. Cai, from Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era, discussed the lack of indicators for measuring things like social norms and cultural values which can have a profound impact on issues such as health, gender equality, gender-based violence and educational attainment.

Dr. André de Mello e Souza, a senior researcher from the Institute for Applied Economic Research in Brazil, noted that “trickle down effects have not been operating in Latin America, preventing growth from leading to poverty reduction. In addition, inequality can hurt the quality of democracy and political stability (…) What is needed is deeper change and structural transformation.”

Participants also reflected on regional experiences. Dr. Racha Ramadan, from the Economic Research Forum, identified four key drivers contributing to the inequality in the Arab States: mismanaged economic reforms; lack of structural transformation; constrained fiscal space for social expenditures; and poor governance.

Dr. Onyekwena, from the Center for the Study of the Economies of Africa in Nigeria, discussed technology, which is likely to widen inequality especially in Africa, given the differential access to technology between countries.

Ms. Ngu Wah Win, from Centre for Economic and Social Development in Myanmar, noted that “Southeast Asian nations have broadened access to schooling and maintained relatively low unemployment, but inclusion in the growth process for a majority of the population increasingly depends on quality of education, skills and jobs”.

The meeting concluded with the sharing of expert insights on the issue of inequality, and recommendations to delve deeper into certain thematic issues such as governance, climate change, technology, gender, health, access to productive resources, social norms, and culture, among others. The issue of data challenges in adequately painting a picture of inequality was also discussed at length; the efforts of the 2019 HDR to go beyond traditional methodological approaches was highly appreciated across the table.

The newly endorsed Outcome Document of the BAPA+40 Conference recognized the contribution of think tanks and research institutions in the improvement of South-South and triangular cooperation (SSC & TrC) practices and called on United Nations entities to continue their engagement and support to these organizations to further strengthen the impact of SSC and TrC to successfully implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In this context, the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation (UNOSSC) and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) co-organized a High-Level Political Forum (HLFP) side-event titled South-South Global Thinker’s Dialogue: Reflections on BAPA+40 Outcome Document, bringing together think tank representatives who are members of the South-South Global Thinkers network to share their reflections on the BAPA+4O Outcome Document; share and propose research ideas and knowledge initiatives for the future that would be important for Southern countries and development partners.

The event was attended by representatives of all major think tank networks, namely Southern Voice; Network of Southern Think Tanks (NeST); Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Investigación para las Políticas Públicas (ILAIPP); the Global Research Consortium on Economic Structural Transformation (GReCEST); Middle East and North Africa Public Administration Research Think Tank Network (MENAPAR TTN); and Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN).

UNOSSC Deputy Director, Ms. Xiaojun Grace Wang opened the session giving participants an overview of UNOSSC and UNDP’s engagement with think tanks in different streams of work ranging from research, knowledge-sharing, capacity-development and peer-to-peer learning. She commended the sincere efforts of the think tank network members in launching nine research papers during the BAPA+40 Conference, with topics ranging from impact assessment, monitoring and evaluation, multi-stakeholder engagement in South-South cooperation (SSC), economic structural transformation, renewable energy, trade and investment and SSC coherence, further informing policy dialogues and agenda-setting in SSC.

Special remarks, during the event, were provided by H.E. Dr. Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (DERASAT) and Undersecretary for International Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Bahrain.  He stressed the important role of Southern think tanks in advancing the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through development of policy-oriented research that could be of great value to both policy makers and government entities.

Think tank network members also discussed the Outcome Document itself. First, there was broad consensus that the BAPA+40 Outcome Document encourages a broad level of ownership, institutionalization and multi-stakeholder partnerships to advance the SSC agenda towards the achievement of Agenda 2030. Dr. Bhattacharya, from the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Bangladesh, emphasized that the call for the incremental institutionalization of SSC is a common thread that should tie together all the research initiatives under the network. He also stressed the importance of going beyond the grassroots level to make substantial advancements in the methodological and empirical issues in SSC. Moreover, he pointed out that the South should consolidate their voice to give a Southern perspective on new and emerging issues such as migration, global financial structures and the global taxation system, noting their political sensitivities.

Other participants identified challenges, such as the definitional questions in SSC and TrC; and the methods of measurement, evaluation, impact assessment and reporting as areas that need immediate clarity moving forward. Network members stressed that think tanks have an active role to play here in moving the debate forward by investing in rigorous academic research.

Dr. Andre de Mello e Souza from the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA)in Brazil stressed that “building on BAPA+40, developing countries should agree on a minimally shared conceptual and methodological framework of SSC, including its definition, distinctiveness, main principles and norms, impact assessment and responsibilities. Think tanks should contribute to this purpose by devising models for calculating concessionality and measuring and standardizing non-monetary flows, so as to capture the full diversity of SSC.”

SSC and TrC practices at national, regional and global levels should be given more attention to facilitate nuanced understanding of SSC and TrC from the “insider’s perspectives”. Dr. Xiuli Xu from the China Institute for South-South Cooperation in Agriculture (CISSCA) stressed the need to narrate more SSC and TrC experiences at national and regional levels for enhanced knowledge-sharing.

Ms. Andrea Villarreal Ojeda and Dr. Manuel Glave from ILAIPPemphasized the importance of evaluating the quality and impact of SSC and TrC programmes, and the incorporation of policy actions and recommendations from South-South evidence-based research. They also discussed the comprehensive vision needed for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the challenges of its implementation in the Global South.

Other areas of research that were identified are issues related to South-South trade. The newly endorsed African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) will benefit from research into the benefits and risks to parties of this agreement. Also, the importance of documenting best practices related to social protection policies, women’s participation in the labor market, gender-segregated data, and women’s financial inclusion in Southern countries were noted.

One of the speakers emphasized that the Outcome Document falls short of addressing the issue of “leave no one behind” but that it must remain the guiding principle of current and future work in the road to achieving the SDGs.

In conclusion, Mr. Jorge Chediek, UNOSSC Director and Envoy of the Secretary-General on South-South Cooperation called on the expertise, knowledge and networks of the think tanks in further advancing the SSC agenda, guided by the BAPA+40 Outcome Document.

For more information, contact Ms. Shams Banihani, Knowledge and Research Specialist, at


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