Global Platform of International Public Policies

From Policy Transfer to Mutual Learning?

Jennifer Constantine e Alex Shankland

The economic and geopolitical shifts of recent years have forced the oecd-dac member countries to offer greater recognition to the development cooperation activities of the BRICS and other rising powers, who claim to follow a different logic from the coercive policy transfer models associated with North-South development cooperation. At the same time, there has been rapid growth in international “mutual learning” outside the formal framework of development cooperation. This paper explores the implications of this for international policy diffusion in the age of “universal” development envisaged by the UN’s Agenda 2030.


Until quite recently policy transfer/diffusion processes originating in the Global South received relatively little attention. The political science literature has predominantly focused on “NorthNorth” diffusion within and between North American and European countries, despite the fact that, as Marsh and Sharman put it, “for either confirming existing hypotheses or generating new ones, the answers lie disproportionately in the developing world”. 1 This “NorthNorth” diffusion literature has emphasised the existence of a broad spectrum of processes between the poles of “voluntary” and “coercive” policy transfer;2 by contrast, the literature on “NorthSouth” diffusion (which comes predominantly from the fields of development studies and international relations) has emphasised the frequently “coercive” transfer to the South of development policies originating in the North.

The phenomenon of “voluntary” policy transfer among developing countries under the rubric of SouthSouth Cooperation (ssc) has received far less attention, despite its long history and growing importance.3 In this context the emerging literature on crossborder policy diffusion in Latin America, exemplified by several of the articles in this issue of Novos Estudos as well as by recent edited volumes, such as Faria et al.,4 has an important contribution to make. In this paper, we focus on two aspects of this potential contribution that we consider especially significant: promoting dialogue between studies of policy transfer/diffusion and of international development cooperation; and highlighting the existence of “SouthNorth” as well as “SouthSouth” diffusion of policy ideas and innovations originating in the developing world.

International development cooperation has long been central to the ways in which the Global South has experienced policy transfer, understood in Dolowitz and Marsh’s terms as a process through which “knowledge about policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in one political setting (past or present) is used in the development of policies, administrative arrangements, institutions and ideas in another political setting”.5 However, while research on SouthSouth Cooperation exchanges is beginning to show that international development cooperation has played a significant role as a mechanism in the transfer of policy ideas if not policy models per se,6 there have been relatively few studies of NorthSouth development engagements from a policy transfer perspective.

The development studies literature does include a rich array of analyses of the micropolitics of knowledge transfer at the local or project level,7 and both development studies and international relations have generated extensive analysis of the geopolitics of coercive transfer of policies (particularly neoliberal inspired ones such as privatisation and structural adjustment) to developing countries by institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (imf), as well as the attempts of Northern countries to maintain their hegemony over these institutions.8 Policy diffusion studies have contributed some more nuanced perspectives on such “coercive” forms of transfer, drawing attention to the ways that they are instrumentalised by developing country policy actors to support or oppose particular positions of the government of the day, as acknowledged by Dolowitz and Marsh9 and illustrated by Broome.



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