How to break through the donor-recipient divide

November 9, 2023
Photo: UNDP Moldova

Jonathan Glennie is the co-founder of Global Nation and the author of “The future of aid: Global Public Investment”. In advance of his Kapuscinski Development Lecture, he spoke on shifting the narrative from a 20th century concept and approach to development to one for the 21st century and beyond.

The 20th century divided countries into developed and developing. There's still an importance in recognizing that some countries have many more resources and money, and therefore a responsibility to transfer wealth. But the idea that knowledge and experience reside somehow in the “Global North”, and not in the “Global South”, and that projects should be created to transfer such knowledge and experience in a vertical way is old fashioned.

We need a new, circular approach to cooperation that recognizes the value of wisdom and experience and knowledge in the Global South that could also help the Global North, as well as the rest of the world.

Could you speak to the evolution of these different models?

In international cooperation, you have money coming from one country to another in vertical cooperation (north-south or rich-poor) and horizontal cooperation, where countries at a similar level of development are sharing and mutually cooperating. And then triangular cooperation emerged,  with a “contributor” country working with a “pivotal country” in the Global South to help a third country poorer than both of them. These are important evolutions, but they still cling to a 20th century approach, which is unhelpful, both in terms of finance and in terms of experience and knowledge.

The concept of circular cooperation respects that there are huge amounts of ideas and solutions in Latin America and Africa and Asia that can be applied in the Global North, as they can all over the world. And  global public investment, all countries would contribute small amounts of money according to their levels of wealth and development.That's how you break through the donor-recipient divide. We can all be co-contributors, and we can all be co-beneficiaries. That's a 21st century approach to solving our global problems and reducing poverty and inequality.

It's fantastic to acknowledge this, but how can we actually make that happen?

Take the experience of the European Union. In the last 50-60 years, the European Union, a small club of members, has effectively developed circular cooperation. All countries put in a significant amount of money every five years to the budget. Every country contributes and every country receives. Some put in a lot more than they receive and some are net recipients. But they've broken down this donor-recipient barrier. And crucially, when it comes to governance and management and prioritizing and spending, every country sits at the table in Brussels every month to decide how this money gets spent.

At the international level this is of course much, much harder. It's 200 countries, much different contexts. It’s not going to be exactly the same, and I'm not suggesting a single global budget. But there are analogies and learnings from that experience that can be applied to international cooperation that we haven't done yet.

All you have to do is ask, “Are all countries benefiting directly from this project?” We're saying to change the terms of reference: encourage all countries to consider how they might directly benefit from a project and encourage all countries, including the poorer ones, to consider how they are directly contributing. Because that's a recognition of the dignity of all countries in the 21st century.

It's crazy to think that all the solutions reside in 50 countries that happen to have had a different development path over the last 100-200 years. Sustainable solutions exist all over the world. We need institutions and systems to bring those out and share them in an effective way.

We see a lot of projects and initiatives moving towards this idea of putting power in the hands of the former beneficiaries and having them design what the plan is going to be, but the financial part is still a challenge.

First, the sharing side. I'd still be surprised to see projects where the beneficiaries were countries in Europe and America, as well as countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Take a women's or child rights project or or a sustainable cities project. The UN doesn’t help richer countries do that, and you don’t get poor countries sharing with richer countries, ‘Look, this is how we do child rights.'

On the money side, it’s sensible and strategic for low- and middle-income countries to move to the stage of co-contributor. When you become a co contributor, you're demanding a seat at the table, and you're shifting the narrative and the way that things are done.

There’s the idea that as countries graduate over a very stingy, arbitrary line in the sand, they therefore “no longer need aid” and will no longer receive International Public Finance. But I argue we will never get to that stage, that it's false to think that aid is a temporary blip. International public finance will always be necessary, as our world remains unequal, possibly increasingly unequal.

"As we continue to face common threats, and common opportunities, we need to put money into them as a world."

The irony is that so-called developed countries actually have a lot of their own problems.

The idea that some countries are developed is such an unhelpful way to think about the world. The SDGs have been a really useful step forward in our understanding of things. The MDGs said the problem in our world is poverty, but the SDGs say the problem in our world is unsustainability, of which inequality and poverty is an important part. And the problem of unsustainability is not geographically located in the south, it's located everywhere. All countries need to respond to this problem, and we have work together.

Once you've set out a vision for where we need to get to in the world, we need tons more international public money, and it has to be managed in a fairer way. 

I'm not a utopian, it's actually reflecting on the reality of geopolitics. There's always going to be uneven power and wealth, but it's setting up institutions that mitigate that for the 21st century. We have to persuade, ultimately, governments and decision makers that it's in their interest, and the general publics of all these countries that it's the right way to go.

People are attracted to shorter term solutions, becausewe live in urgent moments. But I don't think that needs to draw us away from the possibility of medium- to longer-term governance change. When we've had it, it came out of crisis. The United Nations didn't always exist. The World Bank and the IMF didn't always exist, the EU didn't always exist. These were massive visionary changes to the way that we do things. And they've come about because a bunch of politicians decided they were going to happen. I think we're in that moment, in 2023, and I think it's almost inevitable.


Be part of the discussion and join his Kapuscinski Development Lecture at Mykolas Romeris University in Vilnius live or online. For more info: and register here.