Let’s talk about a new agenda for the BRICS | by Carlos Aguilar

by Apr 19, 2013All Articles

bricsleadersIt is significant that the Fifth BRICS summit took place in South Africa. Until relatively recently, South Africa wasn’t considered part of the club of emerging economies.

In the past decade, some countries had begun to show an important role in the global growth economy situation that helped to elaborate the original concept for BRIC postulated by Goldman Sachs in 2001. The underlying rationale then was to build an association of ’emerging economies’ based on factors such as GDP growth, consumption growth, as well as the size and demographics of the countries, so that, as a block, they would increase productivity in the global capitalist market. This wasn’t just a disinterested, optimistic idea; it emerged at the time of the economic and financial crisis in major developed economies.

An element often overlooked by economists is the base of energy and food resources concentrated in these countries and their capacity to influence regional agendas in Latin America and Asia. Now, however, Goldman Sachs no longer talks about emerging economies when referring to BRICS, using instead a new conceptual category called Growth Markets and talking about the operation of these markets within the logic of business opportunities.

This new formulation accounts for South Africa’s inclusion in BRICS: despite the fact that South Africa has neither a significant population, (compared with Nigeria, for example), and nor is it a growth market, it has come to be considered part of the club based on its regional weight and the fact that it opens opportunities for capital inflow to Africa, above all in the trade of commodities.

With the current formulation, the emergence of BRICS countries as economic powers is seen to be a motor for the global economy in the coming decades. But this optimism is unwarranted given that BRICS emerged in an environment of crisis in the developed countries, which seem unable to rethink the international agenda on trade, climate change, global financial institutions and other key issues. The current planetary crisis not bears five emerging markets consolidating patterns of growth and consumption on a larger scale, as demanded the global capitalist system.

If the BRICS summit remains a business forum, it will be virtually impossible to trust that this set of countries will mean something different for global challenges. These countries have huge differences in political systems and positioning in international forums, but the common issue is the weight of social and economic inequality, which is expressed through different criteria from income, land ownership, as well as racial/ethnic, gender, and urban/rural variables.

If one considers the 20 largest economies globally, Brazil and South Africa stand out as the most unequal and if we focus on inequality in terms of income, income disparities increased in all BRICS countries except Brazil over the past 20 years (according to the Oxfam Report: Left Behind the G20) which may be significant for other BRICS countries in relation with their challenges on inequality and sustainable development. Even the Chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management (Jim O’Neill) recognizes that most of the new wealth of the BRICS is going to a small group at the top of the economy.

So the underlying rationale for BRICS needs to be rethought: it has to be seen in light of the contributions it can make to the current challenges we face in the context of global governance. BRICS has to be a different formulation, based on its capacity to rethink the international agenda for cooperation, with common goals to meet the challenges of sustainable development. Most importantly, it cannot evade responsibility for confronting the burden of inequality.

Government policies are key to tackling these inequalities, but are insufficient without the mobilisation of social and political movements. Although inequality has a strong socio-economic expression, it is mostly a political issue that must be addressed by the BRICS block, strengthening the exchange of knowledge and experiences of NGOs and the advancement of structural policy initiatives against inequality. This is impossible without a broad agenda of democratisation and without recognition of the strategic value that the BRICS partnership may have to contribute to solving global challenges.

The BRICS countries have a combined population of nearly three billion people. Significant changes in these countries will impact on almost half of the world population. This block has a real opportunity to fight poverty and misery at a global level. The BRICS Summit in South Africa is significant to the extent that it provides a way to rethink an agenda beyond the capitalist vision of Goldman Sachs. This is an opportunity for various organisations and social movements from these countries to advance ideas for new agendas and ways of addressing the challenges of these countries.

Carlos Aguilar coordinates Oxfam’s Global and Regional Programme in Brazil.

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