By Matthew Ayibakuro
When Jim O’Neill coined the term “BRIC” in 2001, many would not have foreseen the word becoming anything beyond a witty-sounding macro economic term destined to be cited in academic papers and make conference speakers sound erudite. However about a decade and a half later, the countries comprised in the acronym – Brazil, Russia, India and China – now referred to as BRICS following the inclusion of South Africa in 2010 have seized the opportunity provided by the coinage of the term to pursue their individual and collective economic and political objectives.
The numbers reveal why the BRICS are important enough to occasion O’Neill’s prediction that they would become the economic powers of the 21st Century. Between them, these countries boast 42 percent of the world’s population, 26 percent of its’s land territory and 27 percent of global GDP. The potential economic benefits of cooperation amongst these countries are enormous, not just for the BRICS, but also for the global economy. In this respect, the agreement by the BRICS to create a New Development Bank following their summit in Brazil in 2014 was of significant note for developing and developed countries alike. There are also political implications of cooperation amongst BRICS. Two out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Russia and China – are BRICS countries and the group has engaged in the discussion of issues like the Libyan crisis and issues relating to the Iran nuclear situation at its summits.
But what about Africa? How should countries on the continent act and react to the emergence and policies of the BRICS? Should they even be concerned at all?
Perhaps, the starting point should be considering the position and role of the only African country in the group. Since joining the group in 2010, South Africa has significantly grown the size of its bilateral trade with other BRICS countries, with China leading the way. This is however attributable to South Africa’s membership of the group and not a result of a particular policy on development cooperation with an African country or countries by the BRICS.
Like I noted in my last blog, it would appear that in this case too, countries in Africa are content playing a passive role, rather than taking proactive steps to seize the opportunity provided by the BRIC countries as an emerging alternative to the established global economic order that has failed perennially to genuinely promote growth on the continent.
Two decades after the formation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and about 15 years after the much-celebrated Doha round of negotiations, it is crystal clear that the WTO has failed woefully to achieve the purposes for its formation, at least on the part of developing countries. The unfair imbalance in world trade that prompted anti-globalisation protests that culminated in the formation of the WTO, amongst other measures remain entrenched and continue to perpetuate a global trade system which completely sidelines developing countries in favour of the economic and political interests of global powers.
In the light of this, it would be expected that countries in Africa would embrace, without prompting, any alternative system, like that provided by the BRICS to further their development goals. It is curious to find that African leaders like President Buhari of Nigeria attended the G7 summit in Germany with a sizeable delegation to ‘solicit the sympathy’ of leaders there, whereas there was hardly even negligible media coverage of the BRICS summit which took place in Russia just a few weeks later.
No matter how much aid is given to African countries or what piecemeal trade incentives are included in bilateral trade deals between countries on the continent and globals powers like EU countries and the US, without fundamental changes to the global economic system, no significant development that has the potential to breach the massive gulf between developing and developed countries can be achieved.
Although, the BRICS are not looking at expanding their membership anytime soon, countries in Africa should be willing and ready to participate in such expansion when it does happen. In the meantime, they should look to take advantage of the BRICS New Development Bank when it becomes fully operational.
Also, in addition to the prospects for trade and development cooperation, countries in Africa can learn valuable lessons and gain insights from the fact that some of the BRICS countries, with China being the most outstanding case, have achieved unprecedented levels of growth by adopting alternative models of development, distinct from the predominant liberal economy model promoted and thrust upon African countries by the west with negligible results over the years.
A central theme of Paul Collier’s book, The Bottom Billion discusses how most countries in Africa were left behind by the boat of development that was responsible for the growth of most erstwhile poor countries especially in Asia decades ago. The fact remains that every couple of decades, major economic events around the globe occur which have the potential of tilting the world economy in favour of certain regions or countries with particular attributes. These may ostentatious events like a recession or subtle like the witty naming of a group of countries as BRICS or MINT by a clairvoyant economist.
Taking advantage of these situations require good use of intellect, foresight and proactive action, and in the current state of global relations, countries in Africa must be ready to take advantage of such situations to stand any chance of achieving development that will lifts it population out of poverty.