Can the BRICS articulate a common vision?


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On March 5 and 6, the Fourth BRICS Academic Forum will take place in New Delhi. Each member country sends a delegation of academics and policy analysts who discuss the future of the grouping. Free of political constraints, the Academic Forum serves as a platform to develop innovative ideas that feed into the BRICS Leaders' Summit, which usually takes place one month later. In 2009, India hosted the 1st BRICs Academic Forum prior to the Summit in Yekaterinburg. Brazil hosted the 2nd Academic Forum before the second Summit in April 2010, and China hosted the 3rd academic meeting in Beijing in 2011. Given that the Leaders' Summits are known to be a formal affair with little room for real debate, the Academic Forum is an important opportunity to provide impulses and frame the discussion prior to the summit. Yet what kind of ideas should the academics seek to articulate this year?

As Samir Saran and Vivan Sharan of the Observer Research Foundation (which coordinates the 4th Academic Forum in Delhi) rightly point out in a recent op-ed in The Hindu, "the challenge for BRICS has always been, and continues to be, the articulation of a common vision." From the very beginning, critics of the BRICS outfit have argued that such a vision was an impossible dream, given that the member countries were simply too different to find any meaningful common denominator. For example, in a 2011 column in the Financial Times, entitled "A Story of Brics without mortar", Philip Stephens writes that it is "time to bid farewell to the BRICs".

Against this, Saran and Sharan write that "the BRICS nations do have a historic opportunity — post the global financial crisis and the recent upheavals in various parts of the world — to create or rebuild a new sustainable and relevant multilateral platform, one that seeks to serve the interests of the emerging world as well as manage the great shift from the west to the east." In order to back up such a bold claim, the BRICS would indeed have to find a common position on a truly complex challenge - such as the conflict in the Middle East, or the dilemma of humanitarian intervention. This argument was initially made by Matias Spektor, as I wrote in a post late two weeks ago. 

Saran and Sharan cite development assistance as a field where the BRICS should disassociate themselves from established institutions such as the World Bank and create their own platforms - an argument that is likely to gain more support as President Obama will appoint yet another US-American to head the World Bank, breaking an old promise to engage emerging powers. In short, the authors propose an OECD-like organization made up of the BRICS:

Just as the OECD has a comprehensive set of guidelines that set benchmarks for various economic activities, from testing standards for agricultural goods to corporate governance of state owned enterprises, the BRICS nations could create their own guidelines on the best practices and standards within the consortium.

In fact, trade and market reforms, urbanisation challenges, regional crises responses, universal healthcare, food security and sustainable development (many topics OECD deals with) are already being discussed this year at the BRICS Academic Forum.

Interestingly enough, the only thing about the article that is likely to make Brazilian policy analysts uneasy is the title, which calls the BRICS's vision "non-western". Despite being a powerful promoter of South-South Cooperation, Brazil does not see itself as "non-western". More than any other BRICS member, it has a strong European cultural legacy. This potential disagreement, however, is hopefully of mere semantic nature - as a country with a long tradition of a mediator, Brazil will prefer to avoid exclusive terms such as "Western" or "non-Western". However, a sound BRICS concept should be able to exist without these parameters.

Saran and Sharan present intriguing ideas about how to give the BRICS a common vision - now its up to the member countries' academic delegations to test them and develop them further.

Read also:

The BRICS and the challenge of maritime security

Can the BRICS speak with a common voice?

BRICS Summit: A Perspective from Brazil

Is it time for a BRICS Development Bank?