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.


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


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 ?? PICTURE: JACQUES NAUDE/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA) ?? 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...
PICTURE: JACQUES NAUDE/AFRICAN NEWS AGENCY (ANA) 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
William Gumede

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