BRICS needs civil so­ci­ety for grass­roots agenda

Civic groups can be ve­hi­cles for par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy

The Sunday Independent - - Dispatches -

IN­DE­PEN­DENT civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions in BRICS (Brazil, Rus­sia, In­dia, China and South Africa) coun­tries must push for be­ing in­cluded in the group­ing’ s of­fi­cial pol­icy de­ci­sio­n­and ideas- mak­ing pro­cesses, struc­tures and fo­rums.

South Africa holds the BRICS pres­i­dency this year and next month will host the 10th BRICS Sum­mit. The BRICS group­ing is a state-led ini­tia­tive, with lit­tle di­rect par­tic­i­pa­tion by NGOs, com­mu­ni­ties and cit­i­zens.

Only busi­ness and se­lect aca­demics have so far been in­cluded in for­mal BRICS pro­cesses, struc­tures and fo­rums. A BRICS Busi­ness Coun­cil was es­tab­lished in 2013 to pro­mote busi­ness, trade and in­vest­ment among the busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties of the coun­tries.

It will be im­por­tant that the BRICS Busi­ness Coun­cil is pop­u­lated by gen­uine en­trepreneur­s, to pro­vide the dy­namic growth, busi­ness and in­no­va­tive ideas, and not “po­lit­i­cal” cap­i­tal­ists or to­ken cronies, who par­a­sit­i­cally live off the state.

It is also cru­cial to have BRICS aca­demics, an­a­lysts and ex­perts in­volved in the gen­er­a­tion of ideas, poli­cies and cre­at­ing in­sti­tu­tions, as no coun­try post-World War II has de­vel­oped from poverty to de­vel­oped sta­tus when ex­clud­ing its best home­grown thinkers.

Most of the de­vel­op­ment ideas re­pro­duced in for­mal aca­demic texts are from in­dus­trial coun­tries and be­cause of this, it is not sur­pris­ing that in­dus­trial coun­try orig­i­nated texts are bi­ased to­wards de­vel­op­ment mod­els gen­er­ated in in­dus­trial coun­tries.

It is thus cru­cial that BRICS coun­tries pro­duce a canon of al­ter­na­tive ideas, think­ing and plat­forms to tackle press­ing, com­plex and di­verse global chal­lenges.

BRICS cre­ated the BRICS Aca­demic Fo­rum in 2009, bring­ing to­gether re­searchers from the BRICS coun­tries, to pro­vide ideas on BRICS ap­proaches to in­di­vid­ual coun­try de­vel­op­men­tal chal­lenges, how to build ef­fec­tive BRICS in­sti­tu­tions and counter the dom­i­na­tion by in­dus­trial coun­tries of global trade, eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal ar­chi­tec­ture.

A BRICS Civil So­ci­ety Fo­rum was cre­ated by Rus­sia at the BRICS Sum­mit in 2015 in Rus­sia. Civil so­ci­ety rep­re­sen­ta­tives there were hand-picked by the Rus­sian government. South Africa will or­gan­ise a BRICS Civil So­ci­ety Fo­rum at this year’s sum­mit.

Trade unions from BRICS coun­tries ini­ti­ated a BRICS Trade Union Fo­rum fol­low­ing a meet­ing held on the side­lines of the In­ter­na­tional Labour Or­gan­i­sa­tion con­fer­ence in Geneva in 2012. Trade unions are not part of the of­fi­cial BRICS struc­tures, pro­cesses and de­ci­sion-mak­ing. The chal­lenge for any BRICS trade union fo­rum is that, given the fact that Rus­sia and China are non-democ­ra­cies, the real dan­ger is that only government en­dorsed trade unions would be del­e­gated to par­tic­i­pate in BRICS fo­rums.

In­dus­trial coun­try-dom­i­nated global group­ings such as the G8 and G20 have civil so­ci­ety fo­rums which are dom­i­nated mostly by in­dus­trial coun­try civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, an­a­lysts and aca­demics. Of the BRICS coun­tries which are mem­bers of the G20, only South Africa has a mech­a­nism for civil so­ci­ety to par­tic­i­pate in its en­gage­ment with G20. How­ever, un­der the (for­mer pres­i­dent Ja­cob) Zuma pres­i­dency, even this chan­nel has been sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced.

Un­der IBSA (In­dia-BrazilSout­h Africa), the group­ing of the world’s largest de­vel­op­ing coun­try democ­ra­cies, which pre­ceded BRICS, there were for­mal chan­nels for civil so­ci­ety. IBSA also had a de­vel­op­ment fund from which civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions could draw. Such par­tic­i­pa­tory in­sti­tu­tions for civil so­ci­ety are ab­sent in BRICS.

Global civil so­ci­ety is dom­i­nated by in­dus­trial-coun­try ori­gin civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, which get gen­er­ous fund­ing from their gov­ern­ments, busi­ness and mid­dle classes. Such or­gan­i­sa­tions of­ten also dom­i­nate the gen­er­a­tion of de­vel­op­ment ideas, hu­man­i­tar­ian and aid pri­or­i­ties and the is­sues put on the agen­das of mul­ti­lat­eral or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­dus­trial and de­vel­op­ing coun­try gov­ern­ments.

It is there­fore cru­cial that BRICS civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions – whether trade unions, NGOs and think-tanks – as­sume thought, pol­icy and de­bate lead­er­ship within BRICS, and also glob­ally.

Very few of the com­plex prob­lems of so­ci­ety, the globe and the en­vi­ron­ment can be re­solved with­out civil so­ci­ety in­put or by gov­ern­ments alone.

The chal­lenge for the BRICS coun­tries is not to hand-pick pli­ant aca­demics and civil so­ci­ety groups, but the most ca­pa­ble, imag­i­na­tive and in­no­va­tive within their coun­tries or di­as­pora.

Un­der Vladimir Putin, Rus­sia has state cap­i­tal­ism with con­trolled po­lit­i­cal free­dom. China is pur­su­ing state cap­i­tal­ism in a one-party state, with lit­tle po­lit­i­cal free­dom. South Africa, Brazil and In­dia are the lead­ing de­vel­op­ing coun­try democ­ra­cies.

In the BRICS group­ing in re­cent times, it is only in Brazil where the government has ac­tively em­braced civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions. The Zuma pres­i­dency was hos­tile to civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, al­leg­ing they were pup­pets of in­dus­trial pow­ers want­ing to un­seat him.

In­dia has also in­creas­ingly re­stricted the space for civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions.

BRICS civil so­ci­ety groups do not have broad-based plat­forms in BRICS in­sti­tu­tions to in­flu­ence de­ci­sion-mak­ing – a ma­jor short­com­ing, for which BRICS civil so­ci­ety groups will have to ag­i­tate.

It is cru­cial that civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions put grass­roots is­sues on the BRICS agenda. There is of­ten a dis­con­nect be­tween the is­sues that lead­ers and gov­ern­ments – and this is even more per­ti­nent in BRICS coun­tries, where a num­ber of gov­ern­ments of­ten act uni­lat­er­ally – put on the pub­lic agenda, in re­la­tion to the is­sues which or­di­nary cit­i­zens and com­mu­ni­ties deem im­por­tant.

They can con­trib­ute to democratis­ing the dis­course on BRICS. They can be ve­hi­cles for par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy and can cre­ate a “civic” di­a­logue on the ap­pro­pri­ate­ness of pri­or­i­ties and poli­cies.

Civil so­ci­ety can also play a mon­i­tor­ing and eval­u­a­tion role. BRICS civil so­ci­ety should hold their gov­ern­ments ac­count­able for de­vel­op­ment prom­ises made.

Civil so­ci­ety can pro­vide a struc­tured chan­nel for feed­back, crit­i­cism and protest, and can act as an early warn­ing sys­tem when the di­rec­tion of BRICS en­gage­ment ap­pears to be go­ing astray.

BRICS civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions should build strate­gic al­liances be­tween such groups within the dif­fer­ent coun­tries. Such or­gan­i­sa­tions should pur­sue sol­i­dar­ity, launch cam­paigns and lobby their own gov­ern­ments when civil groups and ac­tivists are be­ing pro­scribed in peer BRICS coun­tries.

BRICS civil so­ci­ety groups, me­dia and aca­demics will have to link up to en­sure that the BRICS de­vel­op­ment bank and in­sti­tu­tions pur­sue lend­ing and in­fras­truc­ture projects that are eco­log­i­cally sus­tain­able, pro­mote in­clu­sive eco­nomic growth and de­vel­op­ment, and that the bank bases its op­er­a­tions on good cor­po­rate gov­er­nance.

What BRICS civil so­ci­ety groups will have to do is to mon­i­tor the in­vest­ment ac­tiv­i­ties of the BRICS de­vel­op­ment bank and make such in­for­ma­tion widely avail­able.

But civil so­ci­ety must also mon­i­tor the in­vest­ment de­ci­sions, ac­tiv­i­ties and be­hav­iour of BRICS pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor com­pa­nies in op­er­at­ing coun­tries.


■ Gumede is chair­man of the Democ­racy Works Foun­da­tion and au­thor of South Africa in BRICS



BUSI­NESS: Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, In­dian for­eign min­is­ter Sushma Swaraj, South African min­is­ter of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and co­op­er­a­tion Lindiwe Sisulu, China’s for­eign min­is­ter Wang Yi and Brazil’s deputy min­is­ter of for­eign af­fairs...

Wil­liam Gumede

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