IBSA could function as a democratic organisation within BRICS itself

Before the rise of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the alliance between India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) promised to align the globe’s largest developing democracies across continents to trade with each other to oppose the dominance by industrial countries of global trade, rules, ideas and institutions, and share development experiences.

IBSA was established in 2003. BRICS was established in 2009 by China, Russia, India and Brazil, with South Africa joining in 2010. IBSA has been, for all purposes, under the shadow of BRICS.

IBSA meetings have in recent times been somewhat low-key affairs, compared to the fanfare that accompanies BRICS meetings. Last month, for example, a meeting of foreign ministers from IBSA countries who converged in South Africa for an IBSA meeting went almost unnoticed.

IBSA was established after India, Brazil and South Africa had been invited at the time as observers to the 2003 G8 summit of industrial countries in France, and left feeling that their own fate and that of the developing world were being decided upon by a small group of unrepresentative developed countries.

Following the meeting, the three countries felt strongly that they must formally club together, to push for a bigger say in global governance for developing countries, to diversify their trade away from industrial countries, and to share their unique lessons of the twin pursuits of development and democracy amidst multicultural societies, with deep poverty and inequalities.

Brazil, India and South Africa are the globe’s leading developing country multi-ethnic democracies. The promise of the IBSA alliance was the idea of the countries not only pushing for fair global trade, institutions and rules, but also for democratic ones.

In their domestic sphere, all three IBSA countries are attempting to pursue both development and democracy. IBSA is a formal alliance of like-minded developing countries facing similar development, inequality and multi-cultural challenges, but wanting to resolve this within building viable democracies.

BRICS is pushing for a bigger say for developing countries in global trade, institutions and rules, but not for global democracy. China is a one-party state, pursuing state capitalism, with little freedom. Russia is a one-party-one-leader dominant state, pursuing state capitalism, with controlled freedom.

Both China and Russia are trying to show that development is possible without democracy.

The mix of non-democracies, and democracies within BRICS has been one of the reasons for the BRICS grouping’s lack of cohesion.

In 2007, leaders from the IBSA countries mooted a plan to connect the three countries’ markets to bring together the world’s largest developing free trade area.

The proposal was for a Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, between the regional customs unions aligned to South Africa and Brazil and between India.

Although that goal was never realised, the new free trade area between South Africa and the Southern African Customs Unions and Mercusor, the Latin American regional grouping with Brazil at its centre, which came into an effect last year, was a partial outcome of that early ambition.

In 2005, the IBSA countries agreed to annually put money into an IBSA fund, which would be used to help developing countries. The fund, operational since 2006, is now managed by the UN Development Programme’s (UNDP’s) office for South-South cooperation.

The fund, called the IBSA Fund for the Alleviation of Poverty and Hunger, has become the most active co-operation mechanism between the countries.

The IBSA Fund has now approved 27 projects in 21 developing countries. Some of the projects funded included the strengthening of rice production in Vietnam, people with disabilities in Cambodia, building a hospital in Palestine and improving solid waste collection in Haiti.

The criteria for development support from the fund include that there is knowledge sharing among developing countries, that developing countries’ experts and institutions are used, that the capacity of the beneficiaries are boosted, and that projects have built-in long-term sustainability.

IBSA, just like the G20 and G8, established formal mechanisms for non-state organisations, such as civil society organisations, including the media, to influence the decision-making of the grouping. Channels for independent civil society organisations to influence BRICS are absent.

In their domestic sphere, China and Russia do not give space for civil society to shape their countries’ foreign policies. In contrast, South Africa and Brazil have formal mechanisms for civil society to participate in shaping its international relations, trade and development policies.

South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Co-operation in 2015 established the South African Council on International Relations, on which civil society, organised labour, business and academia are represented to shape the country’s foreign policy.

Brazil has structured democratic channels for civil society involvement in foreign policy. It has a Committee on Foreign Policy and Human Rights which pushes for transparency in international relations of the government. Public hearings are held in Brazil’s Congress, it reviews the country’s positioning in the Human Rights Council and pushes for information about the government’s foreign policy decisions to be made publicly available.

Although India does not have structured mechanisms for civil society to influence foreign policy, the country’s civil society organisations hold the government robustly accountable for foreign policy decisions, shaping official policies through stances in public debates and protests against malign policies.

The big question now is whether IBSA remains relevant, if so, what should be a new role for the organisation, given the prominence of BRICS. IBSA could continue but as a space to share lessons building democracy and development in multicultural societies, with high levels of poverty and inequality.

There is no regional or global alliance of developing countries which specifically want to promote democracy and development – making IBSA unique. Within BRICS, IBSA could be a formal caucus to push for participatory, ecological sustainability, and for democratic development. This means that IBSA would be a democratic lobby within BRICS itself. IBSA countries should continue to push for global democracy, country equality and ecologically sustainable development in international trade, even within the BRICS alliance.

Furthermore, the three countries must continue at the global level to not only push for developing countries to have a greater say in global governance but to push for increased for democracy within global institutions, rules and country behaviour. IBSA should form pro-democracy strategic alliances within global institutions, such as the UN, World Trade Organisations and World Bank. Not only to reform these institutions but for these institutions to adopt inclusive policies, have participatory decision-making processes and appoint globally diverse personnel.

IBSA countries must deepen their trade as a way to diversify their trade away from industrial countries.

There is also need to be greater people-to-people exchange between these countries, and a greater sharing of democratic, development lessons and nation-building lessons.

Civil society organisations within IBSA countries can influence their country’s foreign policies, which in turn, could influence the BRICS and global agenda also. Civil society organisations across the three countries should join partners more closely, provide solidarity to each other and share resources, ideas and lessons.

Civil society must play a greater role in monitoring the sustainability, inclusivity and community participation in projects of the IBSA Fund. Civil society organisations in IBSA countries must push to make it mandatory that their parliaments approve foreign loans for infrastructure. This is not currently a requirement in any of the IBSA countries.

They must also push for domestic investment protocols that bind their country’s public and private companies to adhere to ecologically sustainable, consultative and honest corporate behaviour when they invest in foreign countries.

*This article was published in Business Report. To view the article on their website click here. 

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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