The association of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, popularly known as BRICS, finds itself at an interesting juncture in its existence. After limited success in restructuring international financial institutions, which was the stated intention of the forum, the BRICS governments established the New Development Bank that has been functioning for more than two years. At a time when the international order is becoming more multipolar, the symbolic and functional significance of such an institution and of geopolitical formations such as the BRICS has been amplified. These regional and/or multilateral groupings can provide developing countries the lexicon to negotiate favourable terms in international forums and processes, and also the possibility of responding collectively to challenges such as climate change and poverty.
However, currently each of the BRICS governments is facing multiple political and economic crises at home which have not only raised questions about their legitimacy but also created much social unrest and churning. Further, internal dissonance among the member countries and reorientation of their foreign policy priorities have become more pronounced over the past year which has raised questions of feasibility and sustainability for the BRICS. It is in this context that ActionAid India’s new publication Reclaiming Relevance: BRICS and the New Multipolarity, prepared in collaboration with ActionAid Brazil and ActionAid South Africa, revisits the theoretical underpinning of BRICS, and examines whether the grouping has any purpose for the global South.
The constituent chapters present perspectives from Brazil, India, and South Africa on the developmental model of the BRICS, which in present day largely conforms to market-friendly neoliberalism as opposed to the state-led developmentalism of a few decades past, and its implications for growth, redistribution, and sustainability. Seen through this lens, the BRICS story so far seems to be one of limited progressivism, as the countries’ own integration into international financial markets has greatly restricted their ability to adopt policies that might legitimize the state over the interests of the market, and by extension allow them to truly challenge and transform the international economic and financial architecture. Moreover, the over-reliance on commodity exports which is common to many of these countries and is based on the exploitation of natural resources and labour, is just not tenable and the evidences are in plain sight, be it the spectacular slowdown of their economies or the severe ecological degradation whose consequences they are now dealing with.
Yet, one finds that the BRICS forum still holds the promise of becoming a vehicle for transformative progress for developing countries through enhanced South–South cooperation based on increased trade and investment, as well as increased access to development finance.
At the launch of the publication in ActionAid Brazil, Rio de Janeiro, academics and researchers from Brazil, India and South Africa had the opportunity to reflect on this enduring promise.
Sandeep Chachra, Executive Director, ActionAid India, reflected that one has to be mindful of the historical context when evaluating the progress of the BRICS; the idea of the BRICS remains representative of the idea of the autonomous progress of the South and of the Bandung push towards economic democratization, which is essential to the building of democracies in the world.
Fatima Shabodien, Country Director, ActionAid South Africa, added that it is vital for women of the global South, who carry the burden of the economic injustices meted out to the South, to engage with processes such as Bandung, NAM, and BRICS as they give voice to demands for a more inclusive and just world order. If these Southern-led processes can induce some difference globally in accordance with this progressive vision, it would make lives better for many in the developing world.
Therefore, at this crucial point in history where the BRICS are pushing for greater democratization of global governance and an end to the structural hegemony of Western countries, it becomes imperative for civil societies to engage with the forum and ensure that their policies and institutions work for the betterment of their own people and the peoples of the world.
It is pertinent to recount here what Mr Celso Amorim, the ex-foreign minister of Brazil, had to say about the BRICS at a recent seminar organized by ActionAid Brazil. He stated that since its conception, the BRICS has been a reformist power, if not revolutionist, and for such a force that stands for structural reform, episodic shocks in the form of economic disruptions or political discontinuity can only be temporary. The BRICS manifest a fundamental change in the way global political and economic policies are formulated, an idea whose time has most definitely come.
Divita Shandilya is a researcher with a Masters in International Relations. She is currently working as Programme coordinator at South Solidarity Initiative, a knowledge activist hub of ActionAid India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org