Not another BRIC in the wall

Sam Storr

The current leaders of the BRICS nations meet for their sixth summit in Brazil. Photo source: via Wikimedia Commons.

In the ongoing search for a sustainable and successful model of international development, the focus is now on finding new partners to a more holistic, mature approach. Along with the private sector, regional actors and in particular the group of powerful nations known as the BRICS are looked to as the new vehicles of development. But altruism is never unrelated to self-interest and pragmatism, on the part of not only the BRICS but also those who would champion their role. In this case, it seems likely that high hopes will again fall victim to their own naivety.

The idea of a set of nations known as the BRICs was a term first used by Goldman Sachs to describe the emergence of Brazil, Russia, India and China as economic powers. Though the selection seemed arbitrary it struck a chord, coming to symbolise a global power shift towards developing economies. This power-shift has come at a time when the developing world is seeking reduced or less direct forms of engagement with development issues.

In particular, there has been a push to devolve responsibilities to regional actors. This is not merely the result of decades of cumulative idealism, but based on the recognition that past development efforts spent resources while undermining attempts to build local capacity for change. However, it is also linked to the declining relative power of developed nations, who face a crisis of legitimacy and support.

As it was the BRICs themselves that made the collective a reality, South Africa later capitalising the ‘s’ in a formal alliance, there have been high expectations that they will begin to play a greater role in collective responsibilities.

Subscription to the values of the so-called ‘international community’ is being held out as an entry ticket to the elite club of developed nations, and there are sound reasons for doing so. In the rapidly growing and populous BRICS nations, where prosperity seems married to inequality, major strides against poverty could be made simply by entrenching better development practices within these countries themselves. The experience they gain may be also be easier to transfer to others in the region.

Yet the charged circumstances of this historic shift in economic power should not be underestimated. The potential loss of superiority is a cause of great anxiety in the developed world, whereas in developing nations any perceived attempt to co-opt them risks arousing old suspicions. Popular new models of development such as ‘triangular cooperation’ – a partnership between a beneficiary country, a traditional and an emerging donor that has become an increasingly popular new development model – have been received as an attempt to ‘preserve and expand Northern influence’ even while Northern aid flows shrink.

Yet worse than mistrust is outright disinterest. Last April, hopes for the BRICS crystalised in disappointment at the first High Level Meeting of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation held in Mexico, which failed to deliver the signs of progress intended.

Brazil, China, India and the entire G77 group of developing nations chose to boycott, arguing that the independence of south-south cooperation was not being recognised and that the summit would be used to bind them into commitments at the UN. China and India also reject any inclusion of human rights approaches, despite it being conventionally seen as central to any successful development agenda, and a requisite for joining the club of developed nations.

There is one thing that the High Level Meeting made clear: these confident new powers will only engage on their own terms. If the increased activity of BRICS nations in regional fora gave observers reason to hope that the BRICS were finally taking up their mantle, it should be observed that nations act to put their own interests first.

The logic of placing these BRICS nations in one grouping is often questioned, but perhaps what makes the BRICS work is their individualism. Each looks to be a dominant force in their region, and while that explains why they are seen as the vehicles of regional development, it also means that their spheres of influence are yet to seriously overlap. Another common factor in these nations is the weakness of civil society as a counterbalance to state priorities. As a result, they are free to a pursue common self-interest that often finds them resisting the Western agenda.

After the summit in Mexico, the next key development to watch is the new BRICS development bank proposed in March 2013. It is being created for the purpose of ‘mobilising resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging economies and developing countries.’

Before the role of the proposed bank had even been properly described, a UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development)  published a paper looking to advise the forthcoming BRICS bank on its priorities. Even so, the paper acknowledges that increased financial cooperation among the BRICS as a common reaction against a stronger US dollar and as a source of alternatives to IMF emergency financing, which comes with stringent conditions.

International cooperation occurs through the confluence of self-interest; it is often more advantageous to work together. In this process, norms and ideals can begin to have an important influence that even supersedes national self-interest. We may begin to see this process replicated among the BRIC nations as they pursue initiatives such as the BRICS development bank.

As for the already developed nations, they have been caught between an extraordinarily well-developed set of norms and ideals on the one hand, and a resurgence of self-interest on the other. It is understandable why they would look to emerging regional powers to relieve this pressure. But even as they see their own influence fading, it is assumed that the offer of acceptance will persuade these formerly-marginalised nations to buy into their agenda, even while they remain divided on such crucial issues as environmental protection.

The experience of cooperating in the new development bank will change the BRICS’ behaviour in important ways. India has already promised to balance Chinese influence with their experience of closer cooperation with the West. But nobody should be under any illusions: the BRICS will do it their way.

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