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As the heat picks up around BRICS 2018, chaired by South Africa, debate from the BRICS Think Tank and from the left is coming to the boil as to the value of BRICS participatory processes. Patrick Bond’s critique of the BRICS Think Tank and Academic Forum meetings held at the Sandton Convention Centre between the 28th and 31st of May is that the lack of critical commentary on BRICS state corruption, amongst many other factors, “reflect(s) servility to local power” (Pambazuka, 31 May). 

If BRICS Summit rhetoric is to be taken at face value, BRICS pose an alternative, counter-hegemonic, South-South bloc in the global political economy. The radical critique of BRICS argues that this is simply rhetorical window dressing to further socio-economic exploitation.

Ari Sitas (BRICS Think Tank leader) argues in return that Bond’s argument amounts to an argument by contamination, “you know so and so smells bad, therefore this must stink” (Radio Islam News, 31 May).

The pragmatic view held by Sitas and most academics and activists participating in the BRICS Academic Forum and Civil BRICS, is that progressive critique and policy strategies will help effect transformation at Summit level. This is toeing the diplomatic line, as oft intoned by the South African BRICS Sherpa, Anil Sooklal who stated at a recent public seminar held at the University of the Western Cape, “we have no choice, we are part of BRICS”.

Much of what has been written by academics within the BRICS Think Tanks, as well as those who buy into the idea of BRICS as an incremental “balancer” of the post-Cold War unipolar system, emphasise the norm setting and ideational potential of the BRICS in the global system.

The sticking point between radicals outside and progressive civil society forces within these spaces is on the question of knowledge control and co-optation of academics and activists.

Are we alibis to the bad smells emanating from BRICS poor governance and exploitative socio-economic practices, making resistance from outside (what we might term “tree shaking”) more viable to effect change? Or, through a Gramscian inspired war of manoeuvre, are gains (“jam making”) achievable through constructive engagement?

Also referred to as people-to-people engagement, Civil BRICS have been grafted onto the state-led processes in order to deal with BRICS Summit many promises to ensure inclusive collective development. Navigating between the rhetoric and reality, this year Civil BRICS has included a process of grassroots consultations to scale up community priorities to help guide Civil BRICS recommendations to Summit from South Africa. Ironically, this form of “bottom up” direct representation was funded by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and not the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO).

The culmination of people to people engagement, the Civil BRICS event, is being organised by Oxfam and the Economic Justice Network (EJN). While the new Minister of DIRCO, Lindiwe Sisulu emphasises the BRICS critical role in multilateralism and inclusive development and [Ajay] Sooklal waxes lyrical as to BRICS prioritisation of people to people engagement, the 4th Industrial Revolution and the developmental impact of BRICS, DIRCO has made no funding available to Civil BRICS in 2018. This despite Lindiwe Sisulu bragging to an Independent interviewer about drawing in community activists.

The Academic and Civil BRICS inputs have been divided into categories such as Gender Equality and Inequality; the New Development Bank; Peace and Security; Inclusive Economic Development; Environment, Land and Energy; and Youth. In each of these areas, vague and often unrealisable recommendations nestle alongside with a few policy recommendations that could make a difference in social justice terms to massive socio-economic inequalities and forms of discrimination that characterise BRICS governance, despite a varying degree of commitment to democratic development practices.

William Gumede’s op-ed article on the importance of Civil BRICS in monitoring and evaluation overemphasises the positive role of Civil BRICS and the potential of this form of co-opted participation in a state invited space (oddly, controlled by an absent DIRCO).

The “Pre-Civil BRICS” meeting, held in late April, was well attended by a wide spectrum of grassroots activists and movements, and BRICS international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (including African delegates). Tellingly, it was not attended by DIRCO or the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences (NIHSS) officials (despite their names being on the programme). Activists were left with an impression of tokenistic, box-ticking participation, followed by an even more confident bureaucratic dismissal of their grievances around their role in agenda setting.

As a result, the 2018 Civil BRICS process has been criticised by the activists and social movements involved. The grassroots activists on the South Africa Civil BRICS steering committee have experienced the space as primarily managed by the NGOs on behalf of DIRCO, leaving them unable to influence the process of agenda setting.

Until recently, the grassroots activists and movements coordinated by the steering committee have adopted a “wait and see” approach to the outcome of Civil BRICS even though they have found it hard to represent their communities in ways that scale up their concerns.

Activist criticisms of the recommendation formulation process have included the technical language used to make recommendations across sectors, with one participant stating “… we need to use language which is understood by communities and not misinterpreted by them”.

The “wait and see” approach from academics and NGOs involved in Academic and Civil BRICS process, as well as the BRICS Trade Union Forum and Youth BRICS, may not deliver results, and may instead just legitimate the BRICS governments and corporations. The question is what visible gains by insiders (jam making) will occur at the Heads of State Summit in Sandton from 25-27 July?

Precedents over the last decade aren’t encouraging. Aside from the New Development Bank (and a Contingent Reserve Arrangement that is merely an International Monetary Fund-related bailout fund), BRICS has no other multilateral institutions with which to implement policy.

The Civil BRICS steering committee members represent a broad constituency of social forces, but the low-income members are experiencing the economic downside of formal participation, first-hand. Like the communities they represent, they themselves lack resources. Their commitments to the BRICS consultative processes, including those at provincial level, are offered voluntarily as part of their commitment to social justice – while many other academics and NGO staff are salaried staff.

It’s an old problem: whether assimilation of social movements into Civil and Youth BRICS yields anything in terms of social justice, or whether the agenda-setting Oxfam and EJN will simply help activists “polish the chains” of BRICS inequality and social injustice, rather than break them. The Civil BRICS steering committee members from the grassroots have voiced real concerns about such co-optation and even about their freedom of expression, for their voices are often explicitly managed and controlled by “diplomatic protocol”.

Even more scandalous, then, in view of DIRCO’s prioritisation of civil BRICS, is that for the hosting of Civil BRICS 2018 there is no funding available from DIRCO. Perhaps it was all spent at the Sandton Convention Centre this last week at Academic BRICS, or perhaps people-to-people engagement is important but not that important for DIRCO and state diplomacy in the era of Ramaphoria.

Footing the Civil BRICS bill has fallen to Oxfam, EJN and FES with help of a shoestring budget from the NIHSS. Many of the activists included in the process earlier this year may be excluded at the crunch time later this month due to lack of funds.

Many of the scholars and activists (including INGO activists) involved in both Academic and Civil BRICS recognise the limits to participation and critique offered by these processes. Yet, the ways in which the limitations are assimilated and translated into forms of engagement and participation differ, and pragmatism is found in both optimistic and pessimistic versions.

In both the Academic Forum meetings and to some extent in the meetings held in the lead up to Civil BRICS, the rationale amongst most participating academics and activists is that a pragmatic approach, or “influencing from within” is worth the somewhat stilted and officially managed debates, in order to influence policy outcomes at summit level (jam making).

Others participate to understand the limits and opportunities of the participatory space with a pragmatic pessimism: they are there to participate but do not expect much by way of outcomes because of the state controlled nature of engagement. There is also a certain amount of careerism involved, in that opportunities and perhaps even funding for BRICS research or (state controlled) activist engagement will depend on adhering to the rules of participation.

An example of this pragmatism as reflected by INGOs is evident in the Oxfam 2016 publication entitled Improving Governance through Engaging with Civil Society. The report acknowledges the top down state-centric organisation of Civil BRICS in Ufa, Russia in 2015, yet concludes that, “… despite these problems, the Civil BRICS process was a valuable exercise and provided a platform for civil society to discuss common experiences and formulate some initial policy positions”.

Ironically, or perhaps more likely illustratively, despite this foreknowledge, even while DIRCO was not present at the 2018 pre-Civil BRICS meeting hosted by Oxfam, the types of verbal inputs from civil society speakers were still tightly circumscribed. The majority of presentations and papers were made by professional INGO and NGO academics.

Likewise, the Academic Forum presentations, many of which were published in a glossy coffee table edition (replete with photos and advertising) called BAR (BRICS Academic Review) reflect a similar process of what we refer to as “self-editing”. This process of self-editing is seen as fairly essential to protocol and papers are screened prior to presentation through pre-Academic BRICS meetings.

The forms of academic analysis and input within the Academic Forum, on display in BAR, are perfect examples of self-censorship. Similar forms of self-censorship take place in Civil BRICS in relation to what is edited out from meeting dialogues.

Broadly speaking, what we refer to as academic/activist self-editing or self-censorship takes two forms. Either a deliberate denialism of the types of socio-economic interactions taking place within BRICS states with regard to trade and investment flows, and thus an active “buying into” the narrative that the BRICS states seek to maintain, or a cognitive dissonance within the processes of engagement whereby academics make critical commentary and constructive inputs while not fully believing in, or committing to, the process.

Due to the way Civil BRICS is managed, activist leaders have self-critiqued the legitimacy of their roles in the Civil BRICS invited space because of INGO and NGO control of agenda setting. Activists and social movements who have participated have also had to endure the professionalisation of their concerns into shopping lists of recommendations that raise serious doubt as the impact of Civil BRICS on civil society.

Similarly, with Academic BRICS, 22 recommendations, including the establishment of a BRICS Women’s Forum and Gender Equality Monitor will be put before summit leaders. Both Academic and Civil BRICS Inputs will be presented by the Think Tank leaders of the two processes. Sovereignty before cooperation is also parroted at official academic gatherings by the Think Tanks responsible for presenting the recommendations. In the case of Civil BRICS, these recommendations have yet to make any visible impact on policy in multilateral terms with the possible exception of BRICS bursaries and academic exchanges, which are managed and funded bilaterally.

In the case of Academic BRICS, recommendations are pre-formulated by selected academics who are members of the Think Tanks together with DIRCO before the Academic BRICS Forum takes place. This puts the participatory legitimacy of the Forum at issue, as well as the integrity of those academics who believe their role is to make a difference through critical engagement.

Perhaps activists and academics have already served their purpose for 2018. DIRCO’s box marked BRICS academic and civil society participation has been ticked. Whether or not the Academic BRICS academics and Civil BRICS activists are left feeling powerless supporters of a diplomatic legitimation processes, or of having made genuine change possible through Summit uptake of even two or three recommendations, remains to be seen.

The final test is the Summit. Will it be business as usual, lots of diplomatic fanfare, followed by the recommendations in their entirety finding their way into DIRCO filing cabinets as has happened before?

July 2018 will determine whether Academic and Civil BRICS activists have (again) participated in a state endorsed charade of jam making, where in fact the process is virtually entirely devoid of policy content. As insiders to both processes, we have to face up to the fact that we will be endorsing state fairy tales of alternative development if our critique and input is insufficient in terms of policy gains.

In the absence of these, involvement in these processes should be reconsidered by those who commit to speak truth to power. In this context we have need to be reminded of the value of tree shaking: action outside of the state controlled spaces that disrupts and challenges the BRICS rhetorical overstatements of alternative development.


* Bandile Mdlalose is with the Community Justice Movement in Durban, South Africa and is a Civil BRICS steering committee member. Lisa Thompson is Professor at the University of the Western Cape School of Government, South Africa.