Bilateral vs. Multilateral Cooperation Wikipedia
World map showing the modern definition of the North-South divide

Bilateral cooperation refers to cooperation activities supported directly by one developed country in a developing country such as the case of the Portuguese aid to East Timor. The bilateral cooperation is connected to foreign policy of a country that uses cooperation to perpetuate its external influence in the recipient country.

Multilateral cooperation requires that cooperation activities be developed using an intermediate, for example the Swedish financial contribution sent to the European Union or to the United Nations. This way such international organizations will have the essential resources to help the developing countries. This type of cooperation has less influence by the donor countries’ foreign policy, because it’s the international organizations that decide how and where to use their funds, despite the fact that the countries are the main contributors to these organizations.

In the multilateral cooperation, international organizations are working as intermediates, between donors and recipient countries. Among them the UN and its agencies, the European Union, and the different world banks for development stand out. These organizations are using funds from donor countries to help developing countries, by different ways; it can be a direct aid to the national budget or through ICD projects, or even loans with low interest rates.

The official development assistance (ODA) recipients are developing countries, countries that for several factors (political, natural, economic, etc) cannot develop on their own and provide welfare to their population. For this reason they need external aid to improve their infrastructure, as well as to improve the knowledge and the qualification levels of their populations, providing improvements in technical skills and productive capacities, thus improving the prosperity of their populations.

The donor countries of ODA were seen as developed countries, however the current international situation, with economic crisis affecting a big part of developed countries, as well the rise of countries with emerging economies has changed this old paradigm.

The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) or the MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia) are now also ODA donors. However they are still be seen as developing countries, but their current financial situation and their economic growing brought the possibility for them to participate in the international cooperation for development (ICD) as donors. In the BRICS case they were able to create the New Development Bank who is now helping the developing of least developed countries (LDC), putting their cooperation into a new level, they now do not act only as bilateral actors, but also in a multilateral level, making them an important actor in the ICD.

The bilateral cooperation that was characterized by a North-South cooperation, where the North is the developed countries (Australia and New Zealand included, despite the fact that they are from South), and where the South is the developing countries, with the appearance these group of emerging countries the cooperation moved to a South-South cooperation, where the emerging countries support ICD projects in developing countries. This new cooperation brought some advantages; the countries with emerging economies posture to the developing countries generates greater equality between stakeholders. The North-South cooperation it still seen by the developing countries as their old relation between colonizer and colonies.

Other advantage, but also a disadvantage depending from the perspective, is that now it is available a bigger quantity of funds for the ICD. That is good for recipient countries that can choose the most favorable aid for them but for donor countries it can provoke some discomfort between old and new stakeholders because it creates great influence competition. Another disadvantage, in a western perspective, it is that South-South cooperation has no political required conditions; there may be cooperation between states where the rule of law does not exist. During the Cold War in the North-South cooperation this kind of cooperation also existed, in order to impose some “western ideas” to countries where there was not democracy, neither respect for the Human Rights, just to keep then under the western block.

It is impossible to say what type of cooperation is better, it is necessary an analysis case to case in order to realize if bilateral cooperation can be more advantageous or not, than the multilateral cooperation. As referred before, the new South-South cooperation can have more advantages in a bilateral level, since it presupposes that there is more equality between stakeholders. However because of this equality, in the South-South cooperation an attempt to influence the recipient it is less visible, if we compare to the North-South cooperation, but this influence it will be there because it is part of the foreign policy of each country. The ICD is one of the most acceptable ways to prosecute the external influence in the developing countries, so cooperation is an important soft power toll of the donor countries.

As previously mentioned, the competition between North-South and South-South stakeholders in a bilateral sphere brings more advantages for the recipient countries, because beyond the multilateral cooperation provided by international organizations, those countries have now three choices for their development aid, which will permit then, for example, to choose the loan with lower interest rates.

For the donor countries the multilateral cooperation will be more advantageous in the countries where there are a great dispute of external influences. Through this kind of cooperation the donor countries can still help developing countries where if they tried to help in a bilateral cooperation it would be more difficult for their ICD projects to be accepted by local population, for there may be a discomfort in relation to the donor country.

With multilateral cooperation the countries are assigning the cooperation policy to the international organizations, turning the multilateral cooperation less tied to the political self-interest of donor countries. Most of the time international organizations, or even NGO’s in the private sector, due to their specializations are better prepared to respond to the developing countries’ needs, making that their funds are used more efficiently, also because there are organizations to keep control of the spends, turning the multilateral cooperation more transparent. Another advantage for multilateral cooperation is that is up to the organizations to decide where to invest the funds, they do not depend on political decisions from national governments, making it possible to have a long stand project, such were the Millennium Development Goals replaced in 2016 by the Sustainable Development Goals.

In Portugal, for example, bilateral cooperation with the PALOPs (Portuguese-speaking African countries) and East Timor it will be always an essential part of its foreign policy, only by using a bilateral cooperation Portugal can promote what still unites these countries, where the Portuguese language is the most visible part.

As we live in a globalized world it is also important a multilateral cooperation, in the European Union case, the institution acts as an important multilateral actor in the implementation of ICD projects in countries with which EU have close relations. Many funds, which are from the European budget (a member state contribution) are used to improve the welfare of neighbor countries, that one day can become a member-state. EU is also helping to create a region with less asymmetric through the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP).

Despite the fact that multicultural cooperation can be seen as more peaceful and, normally, creates better relations between stakeholders, the bilateral cooperation is necessary to promote some countries’ interests, which keeps the prestige and reputation of the donor country. It is up to each donor country or recipient country to decide what is the best option for them, but since that ICD is a vital part of the soft power of each country it will be difficult to not use it in a bilateral level by the states.