South-south cooperation at work: Inside Thailand's aid

The flag of Thailand. Photo by: Tommy Dale / CC BY-NC

Thailand has silently demonstrated over the last decade that countries don't need to be considered “developed” or rich to give back.

Despite being classified as an upper-middle-income nation and an aid recipient, Thailand is also a donor. The rationale, aid officials from the country told Devex, is that “south-south cooperation” works.

“We try to show that countries from the south can help other countries from the south. We don't have to wait to become a developed country,” Paisan Rupanichkij, deputy director general of Thailand's International Cooperation Agency, told Devex at the Mekong Institute's headquarters in Khon Kaen, Thailand. “Even if we are a developing country, we can extend a helping hand to other developing countries.”

Thailand received $351.2 million in net development assistance in 2014. Meanwhile, the country disbursed over $500 million in official development assistance between 2006 and 2014, according to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development figures. This is on top of OECD estimates of up to $24 million of aid disbursed annually from 2002 to 2005, as well as other forms of non-ODA assistance.

The bulk of the country's development assistance has gone towards scholarships, capacity development programs, and training courses in its neighboring countries including Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam (almost 90 percent). Yet footprints of Thailand's aid portfolio can be seen around the world, with about 58 countries tallied as recipients since 2006, according to OECD data.

Most of these development projects focus on agricultural technology, expertise, and training in fellow Southeast Asian nations such as the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as South Asian countries including Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bhutan. Thailand has also been working on community development projects with African countries since 2004 including Kenya and Nigeria, according to Rupanichkij. He said the aid programs will continue to do so and expand to other parts of the world.

“We believe that countries in Africa are in need of ODA and we believe we have the expertise and technology that can be applied to those countries,” Rupanichkij said, adding that more community development projects are also targeted in new countries particularly in the Pacific region.

Instrumental institutions

TICA and the Neighboring Countries Economic Development Cooperation Agency are the two most crucial institutions shaping Thailand's portfolio. The country's export-import bank as well as the finance ministry have also been instrumental in providing loans and assistance to bilateral partners.

TICA, established in 2004 as the successor of Thailand's technical and economic cooperation department, handles the country's international development cooperation projects focused on helping other developing countries through knowledge and expertise-sharing.

Under the auspices of the country's foreign ministry, TICA administers an average of $80 million in development programs that embody the “south-south” cooperation mandate of the agency, according to Rupanichkij.

NEDA, established in 2005 as a nonprofit organization under the supervision of the country's finance ministry, serves as the main platform of the Thai government to facilitate economic cooperation and development with other neighboring countries, particularly Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

The agency's main focus is to provide financial assistance and loans. It works particularly on hard and soft infrastructure projects, regional trade and investment promotion, as well as poverty alleviation, social impact reduction, environment issues and emergency assistance.

“[It's about] leaving no one behind … we see prosperity as about our neighboring countries also,” Newin Sensiri, NEDA president, told Devex on the sidelines of the Mekong Forum last month, explaining that the agency's more than 15 billion baht ($434 million) disbursement since its establishment 11 years ago has been largely focused on technical and financial assistance.

“On technical assistance, we focus on feasibility studies and detail design for the project itself, … [and] capacity building in the areas related to the project,” he said. “In terms of financial assistance, so far 80 percent is in the area of transport infrastructure [such as] road, railways, airports. We're now trying to expand to more social sectors like water supply and ... waste management.”

Given that the agencies have no overseas offices in their recipient countries — yet, projects in their portfolios are either administered through the local Thai consulates or through the on-the-ground presence of more established development partners including the Japan International Cooperation Agency, Korea International Cooperation Agency and the German aid agency GIZ.

Focus on expertise

While the idea of “south-south cooperation” is simple, differentiating it from traditional donor-recipient models can be complex. According to a report from Resource Flows, aid from developing — or non-Development Assistance Committee — countries usually comes in the form of “goods, human resources or technical assistance” as opposed to aid from DAC countries that usually comes in the form of financial assistance.

Thailand, despite the size of its combined aid program, exemplifies this. “We are an emerging donor. We are not comparing our financial resources with other major donors like JICA, KOICA and other [big donors], but we do have a [wealth of] expertise, know-how, and technology that could be applicable to other developing countries,” Rupanichkij said.

The TICA official added that development assistance, particularly from “south” countries, should focus on the expertise they have and can share with the rest of the developing community — for instance, Thailand's agricultural know-how as the “rice bowl of Asia”.

“[It should] not be a very sophisticated technology, but the kind of technology that can be used, and can impact developing countries, and is affordable,” he said.

Sinsiri, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of having a collaborative mindset, with aligned interests, goals, objectives and responsibilities.

“I think by working together as south-south countries, we have more to gain than to lose. The immediate experience that we have been through in terms of economic development will help,” the NEDA chief concluded. “By working together, we ensure that growth are spread over throughout the region.”

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.