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The BRICS Countries: An Emerging Actor in Development Cooperation?

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The BRICS countries are becoming a very important player in a rather unlikely arena: development cooperation. Here’s why they are better off working together as a bloc, rather than as individual countries.

In the last decade, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries have increased their presence in a rather different field. Instead ofthe usual investment and trade arenas, they increased their participation in development cooperation.

The (re)emergence[1] of these countries as ‘development partners’ has become even more visible in places like Africa, where they have significantly expanded their presence through foreign direct investment (FDI), trade and knowledge transfer. Brazil, for example, is now present in 22 countries through mining, construction, hydrocarbon production, energy generation, knowledge transfer on tropical agriculture, tropical health, vocational training and skills development. China is present in 36 countries mainly through mining, oil extraction, construction, energy and agricultural development. India is in 25 mainly through knowledge transfer in telemedicine, information and communication technology (ICT), mechanical engineering, metallurgy, hydrocarbon production, agricultural development and energy generation. Russia is also in 25 countries through hydrocarbon production, mining and construction; and South Africa in 30 through banking, finance, retail and telecommunications

Despite this greater engagement, these countries have been mostly acting alone, designing and implementing bilateral initiatives without any systematic and coherent coordination on development cooperation initiatives. We feel that BRICS countries could be better off showing a degree of coordination and coherence when transferring knowledge and partnering for development.

Leveraging Past Experience

The BRICS countries’ own experiences and growing interest in development cooperation could hence open the door for coherent and collaborative action-oriented approaches. As practitioners, they are well positioned to share their success stories on several areas, like agricultural development, health, social protection and poverty eradication, technology and innovation, community development, oil and gas exploration, among others.

From this perspective, the African continent presents a unique opportunity for them to act as a bloc and reinforce their role in development cooperation. The BRICS’ achievements in addressing their own development challenges through innovative approaches on social protection, agricultural development, science and technology for example, have become a source of attention to other developing countries, including African peers.

As they are still developing countries, these “emergent partners” claim they are also better placed to understand the challenges faced by other developing nations. Tapping into the expertise, techniques and know-how they used at the national level, they were able to transfer (policy) solutions–and often also funding–they believe more adapted to the reality and (institutional) capacity of developing partners. By doing so, they have been disrupting the North-South relations that have traditionally marked the geography and politics of global international relations and development cooperation.

A New Approach to Development Cooperation

The BRICS countries have been indeed quite vocal about the hierarchical ties that have also marked the traditional North-South, “donor-recipient” relation. They have been not only rejected the “donor” label, but also eliminated the traditional  conditionalities (or “strings attached”) from their cooperation initiatives, thus contributing to a shift from a “top-down” and “prescriptive” to a more “horizontal” and “collaborative” approach to development cooperation.

Although questions have been raised regarding the efficiency, pertinence and other normative (ethical) aspects of emerging South-South arrangements, analysts agree that these “new partners” have been introducing some positive changes to the way development cooperation was structured, financed and implemented in the past. Again, the BRICS’ capacity to produce effective results in development cooperation, in particular in the African continent, could be considerably strengthened if its members were able to set up a common policy framework, based on shared goals and institutional arrangements.

The BRICS’ engagement in development cooperation lays on the very origins of the bloc as a political group. Indeed, development cooperation has been on the BRICS agenda since their meeting held in Russia in 2009. In the group’s first political jointdeclaration, in addition to pleas for achieving greater voice and participation in international institutions, social and economic development was recognized as a major common challenge that  required common (global) responses.[2] Since then, global development issues have been included in other summits and informal meetings, even if no concrete joint (policy) outcomes have clearly emerged.

In 2010, South Africa officially became a member of the now BRICS bloc. This strategic addition carried important geopolitical implications, established an anchor in Africa and partially responded to the increasing demand from African countries for BRICS investments, knowledge and technology transfer.

However, efforts to boost joint cooperation and move it up to another level (i.e. beyond grand summits and jointdeclarations) have had meagre results so far. There are different reasons for that, from domestic and political economic difficulties, to a more basic lack of (shared) understanding of how to pursue a common policy and political action.

Recently, though, there have been signs indicating that this could change. In March 2013, the 5th BRICS Summit, hosted by South Africa, raised development cooperation as a key agenda for action. During the summit, the theme of which was‘Partnerships for Development, Integration and Industrialization’, the eThekwini Declaration and Action Plan was signed. This declaration reinforced the commitment of the BRICS for the creation of a coordination and support mechanism for issues related to world economics and politics. The declaration also confirmed:

(i)       the creation of a Contingent Reserve Arrangement(estimated at $100 billion) to help the BRICS countries strengthen their financial stability

(ii)      a commitment to decrease the infrastructure gap in Africa

(iii)     to promote capacity development and knowledge exchanges, stimulate FDI to the region and diversify African exports to BRICS countries

(iv)     to establish the BRICS Think Tanks Council, a network that will focus on policy issues, such as the evaluation of the upcoming BRICS Bank’s short and long-term strategies

(v)       to establish the BRICS Business Council, which will group business associations from the BRICS to promote engagement with the private sector from each country

During the summit, the creation of the BRICS Bank was also confirmed. It is not yet clear how this bank will operate, where it will be physically located and why this could be the most appropriate approach for institutionalizing the BRICS group as a global actor. There is still skepticism among analysts regarding the creation of such a bank.

Some propose more immediate solutions such as the establishment of a small intergovernmental committee from BRICS countries to address global issues on geopolitics, security and development.[3] Others believe that the group has not been able to overcome its initial status/significance.

When the term BRICs (after South Africa joined the group some years later it came to be known as BRICS) was coined by Goldman Sachs’ economist Jim O’Neill in 2001, it was probably not intended to become more than a new ‘investment’ label, assembling a group of fast-growing, newly industrialized economies. In fact, apart from the economic dynamism displayed at that time, finding overlapping features between Brazil, Russia, India and China has been a tricky task.

On the other hand, development cooperation could represent one of the few policy areas on which most BRICS members can effectively converge. Less controversial and disruptive than other issues, development cooperation could be seen as a sort of a “minimum (political) denominator”, creating spaces for practical collaboration and joint policy action.

A more recent step in this direction was the proposed agreement during the recent BRICS Think Tanks Forum (held in May 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil), of five pillars for common action. These are: cooperation for economic growth, peace and security, political and economic governance and sharing of knowledge and innovation. These five pillars will be presented to the heads of BRICS countries during the upcoming BRICS Summit in July 2014. These pillars are well aligned with the development cooperation agenda from each of the BRICS countries.

Should the BRICS have the (political) will and (economic) capacity to boost their cooperation to this new level, they could make an important contribution to global efforts for improving development cooperation. The emergence of the BRICS as a new actor in this field, with its own principles, goals and institutions, could moreover reinforce the political pertinence and internal cohesion of the group. Showing they are able to act together on an issue of global concern matters not only in terms of the group’s image, but also to their political credibility, influence in global governance and knowledge flows.

What will be required in the future is moving towards a common framework and practical institutional arrangements to facilitate the role of the BRICS as an influential development cooperation actor at a global level.

About the authors:

Susana Carrillo is an international development executive, working on South-South cooperation and partnerships with emerging economies. She has worked extensively in Latin America and Africa. She is currently working as a Senior Specialist with the World Bank.

Any Freitas is a political scientist and policy analyst specialized in Brazilian foreign policy (focus on South-South and Brazil-Africa relations). She has worked for different international organizations and research institutions such as UNESCO, the Council of the European Union, and the European Union Institute for Security Studies. Any is currently Visiting Research Fellow at King’s College (Brazil Institute) and Associate Professor at Sciences Po (France).

[1] Brazil, China and India are not “new” providers of development cooperation. Despite a long period of “standstill” during the 1970s up to the 1990s, they were, in fact, promoting South-South cooperation with other developing countries for at least more than six decades.

[2] See “Joint Statement of the BRIC Countries’ Leaders”, June 16, 2009, available at:  http://archive.kremlin.ru/eng/text/docs/2009/06/217963.shtml

[3] Flores, Renato. BRICS and the Global Governance. Presented at the BRICS Academic Forum 2014. (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil).

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