Coalition building

Joyeeta Gupta and Angela Churie Kallhauge examine the dynamics of coalitions and suggest new definitions and strategies to benefit developing countries.

Joyeeta Gupta is a Programme Manager and also Interim Head of Environmental Policy Analysis at the Free University in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Angela Churie Kallhauge is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden.

Political scientists argue that, once countries enter into the process of negotiations, it becomes very difficult for them to withdraw from the process as it becomes more complex and more controlling.

In the past ten years, developing countries have participated in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiating process. Their participation is an indication that addressing the climate change problem is clearly in their current interest. It is vital for them to realize and remain aware that the outcomes of the negotiations must be beneficial for them in the long-term. In order to achieve positive outcomes from such a process, it is necessary to know and understand the negotiating opponent and who the negotiating partners are. This article examines the potential dynamics within coalitions and the possible advantages and disadvantages for developing countries.

The North-South division

There are 186 parties participating in the UNFCCC process. Of these, around 40 are classified as developed countries which includes those with economies in transition,  the rest falling into the category of developing countries. The Group of 77 (G-77) consists of around 130 developing countries. This group does not comprise of all the developing countries but throughout the climate negotiations the developing countries generally come up with one negotiating position.

This is what is termed as the first order North-South division. Initially, this North-South division implies a rich-poor division. This should mean that the two groups, North and South, would use ideal-typical argument and discourse characteristic of their societal context that would be useful for articulating their positions in the negotiations.

However, de facto, the division between North and South is very blurred. There are, for example, southern countries that are very rich and could easily fall into the category of the very richest of countries, such as Singapore, Cyprus, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, the Bahamas and United Arab Emirates. There are, however, less affluent northern countries such as the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, the Russian Federation, Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania. This means that when the negotiations take place, the South is not just representing the views of, in general, poor countries and the North is not just representing the views of, in general, rich countries. Instead, there are countries within the South who would take a less polar stand, because of their own fear of being subject to obligations if they were to be ‘pushed’ out of the G-77 or ‘pulled’ into the group of developed countries. This is known as graduation. Similarly, there are countries in the North, such as those with economies in transition, that compete with the developing countries in seeking for financial assistance and technology transfer.

Both these critical points of variation make it more difficult to achieve the goals that the South would like to achieve. The first factor not only reduces the credibility of the Southern position when it is strong, but also serves to weaken the South’s general position. The second factor reduces the possible effectiveness of Southern negotiating tactics. This results in the implication that there is no tenable and justifiable negotiating position that can be negotiated by the two groups over a medium- and long-term period.

The South: G-77 and non G-77 countries

The countries of the South, primarily the G-77 countries, have a common history that goes back to 1964 when the group was established. This coalition is based on common historical experiences that date to colonial times. In the past decade, when the eastern bloc collapsed, some 14 countries from that bloc were invited to join the northern coalition as ‘countries with economies in transition’ to a market economy. The rest, which comprised of 11 countries, became by default, developing countries.

This group of 11 countries from the former eastern bloc do not share the historical experiences of the South and are not fully acquainted with the context of North-South negotiation within the UNFCCC. It is possible that they feel they have more in common with the developed countries than with the developing countries. They would like to be the first to graduate into the category of developed countries.

Kazakhstan has already applied to be treated as an Annex I (developed) country under the Convention. The remaining countries have formed an umbrella group referring to itself as the Central Asia and the Caucasus, Albania and Moldova, known more simply as CACAM. This group, CACAM, has questioned the definition of ‘developing countries,’ citing that it is not representative of all countries that are not considered ‘developed.’ They proposed the alternative definition which would refer to ‘countries not included in Annex I.’ We would argue that this too weakens the negotiating position of the G-77.

Curiously, the South, which also represents the Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) countries, also represents the Netherlands Antilles by virtue of the latter’s membership in AOSIS!

Coalitions within the South

The coalitions within the G-77 itself are curious and varied creatures. There are, for example, AOSIS and the oil producing countries that are OPEC, both of which are issue-based coalitions. There is the group of Latin America and Caribbean countries known as GRULAC. Then there is the group of Africa and the group of Asia and Pacific countries, both of which are region-based coalitions. Then the group of least developed countries known as the LDCs and the small island developing states known as the SIDS, both of which are income-based groups.

In general, the income-based groups are not active coalitions within the climate change negotiations. However, the least developed country group was effective during a period in the process in negotiating a decision that led to the establishment of the Least Developed Countries Expert Group that is mandated to look into the group’s interests (as discussed by Saleemul Huq elsewhere in this issue).

A study of some of the characteristics of the coalitions of the South reveals the following issues. First, it appears that the regional coalitions are essentially coalitions of convenience, and not necessarily coalitions of countries with common interests and positions in the climate change regime. This affects the ability of the group to develop a strongly articulated and fine-tuned negotiating position.

Second, one may be tempted to argue that there are also calculating coalitions or blocking coalitions, in that some countries hide behind the general position of the group and thereby undermine the legitimate concerns of the bulk of the countries in the coalition.

For example, although the OPEC countries are a strong cohesive group within the context of trade in oil, their common interest in exporting oil is arguably only part of the story of their interest in climate change. For some of the OPEC countries who are highly dependent on oil exports, the group position is an important defensive position. There are others, however, in this group who are likely to be severely affected by potential climate impacts and are so poor on a per capita basis that adaptation will not be easy. One wonders if the general OPEC position takes their situation into account.

On the other hand, while the Alliance of Small Island States coalition appears to be remarkably homogenous, the participation of some very rich countries in the coalition, such as Singapore and Palau, may undermine the character of the group which is generally perceived to be islands that are poor and potential victims of climate change.

The net effect of having such coalitions as those outlined above is that opportunities for reducing transaction costs, for reducing the free-rider problems, for increasing the negotiating power and for reducing the bargaining space for other countries in relation to the climate change problem are lost.

At the same time, there are also some coalitions sans criteria. These are coalitions based on geographical or historical reasons, but are not necessarily based on common interests. Then there are non-coalitions. The Asian countries appear not to have had an active coalition within the negotiating process. The reason, according to interviewees, is that these countries are so diverse that there is no point in trying to come to any common position.

The lack of any coalition forming, though, is, in itself, a bottleneck to the sharing of ideas and the development of a common position that would strengthen national negotiating positions. The countries of the Asia-Pacific region which includes Japan have, in fact, begun to show a possible group position. They have shown an increasing and particular interest in the constitution of the various boards and committees that have been formed to oversee different aspects of the UNFCCC implementation.


From the brief analysis given above one can conclude that the currently defined North-South categorization is not accurate. An analysis of the developments in the climate change negotiations show that the ‘South’ in the North, is a major competitor to the South and that the North is more likely to support its own ‘South’ than the South outside. As a result, East-West cooperation, in the form of joint implementation for example, is not likely to be taxed. North-South cooperation, though, in the form of the Clean Development Mechanism for example, is being taxed to raise resources for adaptation.

There is, furthermore, a ‘South’ in the North just as there is an ‘East Bloc’ in the South. Both of these share the common aspiration of membership in the North group. This aspiration makes them more open to suggestions and requests from the North, and in the case of the ones in the South, less likely to take strong positions on most issues. Then there is the hard-core southern group. Openly suspicious of everything northern, this group, more often than not, takes a defensive position in the negotiations.

Because the boundaries are so fuzzy, many are tempted to argue that the currently defined North-South framework is outdated and irrelevant. Others, though, particularly from the South, have been tempted to quote Shridath S Ramphal who, in 1983, voiced the opinion that there are “...forces at work to dismantle the very concept of North and South – of developed and developing – as if by statistical permutations you can dispel the world’s disparities. Concepts like ‘graduation’, ‘differentiation’, even ‘reciprocity’ are being invented or reinvented to blur the fundamental divide of wealth and poverty, between the industrialized elite of our one world and the rest of us relegated to third class status or worse.”

In consideration of the fact that the South wants to construct strong negotiating positions, we believe that it should focus on a two-pronged coalition strategy. The first is to revisit the membership criteria of the South negotiating coalition in terms of financial resources and structure of the economy and to ensure that there is a clear definition of the group, one that does not undermine the legitimacy of the group as a whole.

The second part of such a two-pronged strategy is to ensure that the Annex I countries that are not included in the Annex II group, that is, the poorer of the developed countries, should also be treated differently in the negotiating process. Though this strategy may not find favour with all members of the South, nor enjoy universal support of the North, it could in the long-term lead to a clearer allocation of responsibility and a more just distribution of resources.

A couple of final points. First, coalition building is a useful theoretical and practical approach to international diplomacy. But coalitions that were formed for the sake of convenience can mature into coalitions of inconvenience over time, particularly if they do not continually serve to distil and crystallize the common negotiating positions. Secondly, quasi- states in inconvenient coalitions are unlikely to be able to effectively negotiate their national interests. Nor are these quasi-states likely to contribute to any effective negotiation of the broader interests of the group they belong to.

In conclusion, we propose that it is crucial that the South seeks, and obviously needs, more effective means of preparing as a group. It is well-known that many of these countries too often arrive at the negotiation table unprepared. This situation allows the stronger members to lead and dominate the process of formulating the group positions. The result of this unsatisfactory situation is that the group positions which are subsequently defined are reflections of the interests of the strong, dominant countries. They are not a true and equitable reflection of the group as a whole.

Further information
Joyeeta Gupta, Institute for Environmental Studies, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, De Boelelaan 1087, 1081 HV Amsterdam, The Netherlands. Fax: +31-20-4449553. Email:
Angela Churie Kallhauge, Department of Urban Studies, Royal Institute of Technology, Drottning Kristinas vag 30, 10044 Stockholm, Sweden. Email:

On the Web
Comment on the climate negotiations and news of ongoing developments can be accessed via the Tiempo Climate Cyberlibrary Newswatch service. On the Web: The climate negotiations lists further links.