The Sunday Independent
BRICS needs civil society for grassroots agenda
Civic groups can be vehicles for participatory democracy
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.
CIVIL SOCIETY CAN PLAY A MONITORING AND EVALUATION ROLE
■ Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation and author of South Africa in BRICS