Opinion: SA must push to make BRICS work for Africa
By Department of Political Sciences
Posted on 14 September 2012
In hosting the BRICS summit next year South Africa should give weighty consideration to pushing hard to make the group matter for the country’s and the continent’s development, writes UP Political Sciences lecturer and Business Day columnist Dr Mzukisi Qobo.
South Africa’s plans for hosting the BRICS summit in Durban in March next year are in full swing. This comes just more than a year ago after SA officially joined this exclusive club of rising powers — comprising Brazil, Russia, India and China. The key question is what tangible benefits the summit can bring.
Two weeks ago, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation commendably convened a stakeholder forum to share its detailed plans. Apart from well crafted logistical planning, the government is yet to develop an agenda for the summit. It still needs to consolidate a clear and bold BRICS strategy.
SA’s situation is not unique. Other BRICS countries are also far from clear what the long-term strategic objective of this grouping should be. What is evident is that they have no plans to overhaul the existing foundations of multilateral institutions or replace the western intellectual template supporting these institutions with something else.
BRICS members have no converging set of ideas, apart from broad statements about reform of global governance. They are yet to develop a cohesive identity, a set of shared norms and clearer objectives on what they aim to achieve.
On the positive side, there is scope for BRICS countries to share best practices on aspects of public policy, in particular on overcoming socioeconomic inequalities; balancing welfare provisions with growth and competitiveness; modernising infrastructure; managing the transition to low-carbon economies; and food security.
An important issue linked to infrastructure development has received a great deal of attention in recent times — the proposed BRICS development bank. Some of the models being studied as possible benchmark for this bank include the Latin American Development Bank( CAF) and the Asian Development Bank, both of which have successfully financed cross-border projects spanning infrastructure, the real economy and the social sector.
In my conversations with officials from the CAF in Washington DC last week, they sounded a note of optimism about the prospects of the BRICS bank.
Its success, however, depends on a range of other factors, including the kind of institutional structure adopted, norms and rules for lending, and proper risk management systems.
For its part, SA is keen to leverage its BRICS membership in order to use the bank for financing Africa’s infrastructure deficit, which will require an injection of about $50bn over the next 10 years.
But promise does not automatically equal actualisation. If the BRICS bank takes off, there are a few challenges SA will need to confront. There will need to be clarity on the relationship between the BRICS bank and other development finance institutions and state-owned enterprises on the one hand, and between the bank and the private sector on the other.
Given the reality of low private-sector activity in Africa, the BRICS bank can potentially play a powerful role in broadening participation in infrastructure projects to crowd in more private-sector investment. This can happen by structuring productive public-private partnerships. Involving the private sector in project finance and execution can enhance the quality of projects and crowd in yet more private-sector investment.
One likely challenge for SA in particular is that it may find its own development finance institutions and state-owned enterprises eclipsed by commercial players from countries such as China and India, which may be better organised, more agile and able to take advantage of projects financed through the BRICS bank. They may find themselves on the margins of Africa’s infrastructure boom.
The South African government can counter this by developing its African commercial strategy with greater urgency and in a co-ordinated fashion involving its own development finance institutions, state-owned enterprises and the private sector. But given the near paralysis of government co-ordination, limited capacity within the state and the ruling party’s antipathy to the private sector, it is doubtful that SA will take full advantage of its BRICS membership to create advantages for its commercial entities and pursue national development priorities.
In order to dilute the influence of more muscular BRICS countries, SA should push for the expansion of the bank’s membership to include non-BRICS countries. This would serve the purpose of pulling more resources and build strong goodwill for the BRICS bank beyond its immediate members.
China’s former premier, Deng Xiaoping, once famously remarked: "It does not matter whether the cat is black or white, as long as it catches the mice it is a good cat." As long as the strategic objectives of addressing infrastructure deficiencies and improving standards of living in poor countries are achieved, it should not matter which other players are participating in the BRICS bank. In hosting the Brics summit next year SA should give weighty consideration to pushing hard to make the BRICS grouping matter for the country’s and the continent’s development.
This article appeared in the Business Day of 14 September 2012