Although at this early stage the BRICS partnership raises more questions than answers, engaged citizens should help shape its agenda. The bloc may well turn out to be one of the single biggest developments of our era
The claim by the BRICS nations is that despite its 2001 origins in Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill’s prediction, the group represents a potentially radical shift in the prevailing global political economic framework in which a few rich northern nations use their economic muscle to bully the world, and especially poor southern nations into submission.
The growing combined economic power of these five nations presents an alternative centre of power, they claim. Only time will tell if BRICS will bring about a radical restructuring of our prevailing inequitable globalised framework; or it will merely translate into a re-arrangement of this framework in which the powers will now be located in new geographic sites without a substantial change in the ideologies and values that drive that system?
In relative terms, BRICS is still in its infancy and as citizen of the BRICS nations, at this stage we sit with more questions than answers. This is natural during these early days. As BRICS citizens we do however hold tremendous powers – especially in the India-Brazil-South Africa bloc (IBSA) where there is a much more vibrant tradition of citizen engagement – to help shape the BRICS agenda. If BRICS sets out to do what it says it wants to, it can potentially represent one of the single biggest developments of our era and we should take an active interest in, and actively engaged in shaping its potential.
There is a growing consensus that poverty in its current form and scale is not an accident of history or circumstance. Nelson Mandela is often quoted arguing this position: ‘Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.’
Poverty should thus be defined as outcome of human rights violations, and in itself represents a gross violation of human rights of a significant proportion of the world’s population, of which the majority are women and children in the South.
We understand that in our current context of globalisation and a growing interconnected and interdependent world, the decisions and actions of a small group of people in one corner of the world often can and do have far-reaching consequences people on the other side of the earth. It is in this globalised world where sustainable solutions to our multiple developmental challenges can often no longer be realistically generated within the confines of our borders.
This is most devastatingly illustrated by the growing impacts of global warming which shows no respect to the borders drawn through our colonial histories, nor does it respect any north south or political divides. It is in this context that globalisation and political configurations matter profoundly in the lives of those living in poverty.
We know that for the last 35 years, the development discussion was largely governed by the Washington Consensus: a neoliberal economic approach that entailed: liberalisation at all costs, privatisation of natural resources, shrinking of the state and budget austerity measures with direct consequences on social services to the poor. We know that this so called consensus has not worked for the poor as it reinforced and protected prevailing patterns of power and privilege while reproducing and deepening poverty, exclusion and inequality.
The combined policies of the Bretton Woods institutions have had particularly pernicious impact on the lives of poor women on the African continent. Our world is in dire need of alternatives. In our vision of another world without poverty and injustice, another globalised political framework has to be a non-negotiable.
Thankfully today there is (or should be) no more debate about the devastation that these policies have created in the South broadly, and on the African continent specifically. The creation of an alternative can therefore not only be about simply relocating the centres of power from the North to the South, but about fundamentally and radically challenging the ideology that underpins this historical dominance.
It is not enough for BRICS to say it wants to create an alternative to this framework. We need to start hearing what this alternative vision and commitments look like in real terms: In the South African context a relevant example of this would be the market based approach to land reform.
Despite repeated acknowledgement of its failure to give effect to meaningful land reform, it remains the standing policy of government in which the magical invisible hand of the market is expected to affect land redistribution from white to black, rich to poor, men to women. Seventeen years into the post-apartheid era we know this not to be the case. Despite repeated political proclamations to the contrary by President Mbeki at the 2005 National Land Summit, and more recently by sitting president Zuma during the State of the Nation address, we have yet to see tangible changes in land reform policies or their implementation.
In addition to the shared classification as emerging economies and regional hegemons, the BRICS countries share a range of developmental challenges: poverty, unemployment, inequality.
While the BRICS formation came about as a result of a prediction of economic growth prospects, it is important not to get lost in an exclusive focus on macro-economic factors. We know from our experience in South Africa that the growth rate is not a magic bullet. It is important, certainly part of the solution, but not the solution itself. It is possible for a country to continue growing alongside deepening inequality, growing crises in the oppression of women, and in the provision of adequate education and healthcare.
These are also some of the challenges common to BRICS members: the devastation of gender based violence for example is also, sadly, a shared feature of BRICS life. If BRICS is going to be a vehicle for an alternative global paradigm, let it also be a stage where we collectively craft radical solutions to ensure that what happened to Anene Booysen and Jyoti Singh also becomes part of the old paradigm we want to reject. Let these issues (usually defined as the ‘soft issues’) also get their prominent place on this BRICS 5th summit agenda.
We have also heard the proposals for a BRICS Bank, of which the details still remain vague and we’re hoping to hear more about this at the upcoming Durban summit. Our most critical concern would be to caution against the BRICS Bank becoming an ‘emerging economies’ version of the World Bank. We know the policies and the ideology represented by the World Bank has not worked for us, and has been largely inimical to the needs and aspirations of the poor, and of African women in particular.
We have also heard about its intended focus on infrastructure development, which should be a cause for concern to us all because that represents a vintage World Bank approach to development: build dams, harbours, and roads regardless of their social, environmental or actual economic impact.
While we recognize the importance of developing the infrastructure of our continent, the example of South Africa is a case in point: Infrastructure without a defined redistributive mechanism does not do much for the poor. Yes, it may grow businesses, but how does it lift people out of poverty? It is a cold comfort to the South African poor that they live in the African country with the most developed infrastructure on the continent while struggling to access water, electricity, decent housing and quality education for children.
Lastly, while the regions represented by BRICS nations did not choose their representatives, we need to see a mechanism put in place to ensure that the BRICS members develop a programme that goes beyond the interest of only the BRICS members. Herein we have to be protective in the interest of our continent representing the last vestige of untapped reserves in a resource hungry world: African people, forests, water, land, mineral wealth, even the air we breathe, is now up for grabs!
We have to ask what is needed to ensure that South Africa best represents not only the business interest of SA, but that of the continent more broadly in this formation. BRICS members have to ensure that development in their respective regions happens in a manner as inclusive as possible.
If not, it would be a betrayal of the retrospective mandate of the AU and NEPAD given to President Zuma to represent the interest of our continent in BRICS, in such a way that it genuinely reflects the principles of South Africa-south solidarity for the 1955 Bandung conference of which BRICS represents an extension.
Lastly, while the SA government invested more than any of the other BRICS nations in taking BRICS to the people in the form of the BRICS provincial road shows, government must be encouraged to commit to a more formal forum of engagement with the South African public not only on BRICS, but on matters of international policies more broadly.
In South Africa we have a vibrant albeit imperfect process of public engagement on state policy matters; to date, the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) has been the one department for which very little formal processes of transparent, accountable public engagement exist – in which South African citizens often learn alongside the rest of the world, the positions our country is taking regarding matters of global significance. BRICS represents a further opportunity to address this dire democratic deficit.
* Fatima Shabodien is the Country Director of ActionAid South Africa, and remains a feminist political activist.
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