South-North Learning?

South-North learning? The travel, transfer, and diffusion of ideas, models and policies through development cooperation


Jennifer Constantine, King’s College, London (UK)

Alex Shankland, Institute of Development Studies, Sussex (UK)


The (re)emergence of South-North policy transfer/diffusion and learning processes reflects the rapid changes in the political recognition gained by the global South in recent years, particularly in international development cooperation.[1] The internationalisation of social policy experience from the global South over the last 15 years – through state and national/transnational non-state actors in development cooperation – provides an important empirical base from which to start to understand the implications of these new dynamics,[2] arising from deeper geopolitical shifts which over the last decade have led to a reconfiguration in the distribution of power in global policy spaces and institutions such as the UN and the World Bank, eventually leading to the establishment of the universal Sustainable Development Goals in 2015.[3] At the same time, traditional donors have sought to maintain their ‘foothold’ (Abdenur and Da Fonseca 2015) in international development, supporting South-South Cooperation and Triangular Development Cooperation, and promoting learning from the South, in the South. However, there is growing evidence that policy and civil society actors in the global North are also seeking to learn from the global South in order to tackle similar developmental challenges domestically, with the SDGs’ universality used to encourage action on development issues at home as well as through international development. The promotion of learning from the South has been critiqued for ignoring the socio-political roots of rights-based social policies which are often exported as technical fixes (Ganuza and Baiocchi 2012, Porto de Oliveira 2016) or widgets (Joshi and Houtzager 2012). How are policies or practices altered during processes of adoption (Stone 2012: 485), and why are they transferred or diffused in the first place?

This panel seeks to examine the shift in the recognition of the global South’s cognitive authority in social policy – particularly food and nutrition security, social protection, and health – exploring who learns from whom in international development, the processes and mechanisms through which this learning takes place (transfer, diffusion etc.) and what are the implications for how we think about multidirectional learning, transfer and diffusion; as well as for the politics and practice of development cooperation. We seek contributions based on empirical data which can inform ongoing academic and policy debates about south-north policy transfer, diffusion and multidirectional learning through the mechanism of international development cooperation policy and processes, and the role of ‘policy entrepreneurs’ (Kingdon 1984, Mintrom 1997, Stone 2001), multistakeholder fora/partnerships, transnational actors and institutions in this.

We look forward to receiving papers that focus on the following issues:

  • How have social policy ideas and practices from the global South – particularly in food and nutrition security, social protection, and health – been mobilised and transferred, translated or diffused into policies in different contexts in the global North?
  • What is the political, practical, or discursive influence of the global South on social policy debates in the global North? How, and why, are policy actors and networks’ mobilisation of ‘Southern’ policy concepts in the global North changing, both at national and local levels?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the way state and non-state actors shape these policy agendas in countries in the global South and global North?
  • What has been the role of different actors and institutions in South-South and Triangular Development Cooperation in the promotion of southern experiences and how do they compare/contrast? (Governments, international organisations, transnational civil society networks, social movements.) What is the role of southern and northern policy entrepreneurs in mediating and promoting these exchanges?

Contributions which explore related questions are also most welcome.

[1] Eyben and Savage 2013, Costa Leite et al. 2014, Mawdsley, Savage and Kim 2014; Mawdsley 2015, Constantine and Shankland 2017

[2] Cabral and Weinstock 2010, Porto de Oliveira 2015, Suyama et al. 2016

[3] Manning 2006, Woods 2010, Chaturvedi, Fues and Sidiropoulous 2012; Mawdsley 2012, Eyben 2013a, 2013b, Esteves and Assunção 2014, Constantine and Pontual 2015