At BRICS meeting in Moscow, focus lies on engaging Africa

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At a debate today on the future of the BRICS at the Russian Ministry of Economic Development in Moscow (International Expert Seminar: "BRICS and Africa: New Opportunities for Cooperation", co-organized by UNDP), participants agreed that the Africa’s economic rise provided immense opportunities and challenges for the BRICS. Russia’s deputy trade minister Alexey Likhachev pointed out that the BRICS’ interest in Africa goes far beyond merely extracting resources: Africa cannot sustain its economic rise unless it can deal with food security issues, which leave a quarter of its people at risk. Countries like Brazil, which have made tremendous progress on many of the issues that matter to Africa today – agricultural productivity, poverty reduction, health care and food security – are increasingly engaged in helping Africa deal with these issues, for example through large-scale projects of knowledge transfer.

The perhaps most interesting panel today dealt with infrastructure and mining investment projects of BRICS countries in Africa – as a “tool of development assistance”, how the title of the debate suggested. While the Chinese speaker proudly listed China's massive investments, the debate soon turned towards the political backlash this has caused in several African countries. The South African speaker advised Chinese, Indian and Brazilian investors to respect environmental standards, involve local communities in decision-making processes and assure that the local populations perceives that they, too, benefit from such projects. He sounded as if he had memorized the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness or Accra Accords, which several emerging powers reject.

Yet several speakers told exciting stories about how emerging donors plan to make (or already made) an impact in the developing world. One example is “telemedicine”, which seeks to provide rural populations with basic medical care, where doctors provide medical advice via video-conference. Successfully tried in several BRICS countries, such approaches are far more pragmatic in Africa than building a dense network of hospitals, which would take decades. Mikhail Natenzon, Chairman of the board of directors at National Telemedecine Agency, gave a fascinating presentation which envisaged a virtual network between doctors among BRICS countries that could dramatically increase the number of Africans with access to medical care. According to Natenzon, BRICS countries thus have a strategic advantage since things like tele-medicine have been tried and tested at home before being applied in Africa.

Kshitiz Sharma of Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS), an Indian policy think tank and NGO, presented several case studies that showed how triangular aid projects (involving one African recipient country and two donors) have been successfully implemented. CUTS, for example, is running projects across East Africa. He also pointed out the term ‘emerging donors’ was largely misleading, given that countries like China have provided large amounts of aid to poor nations since the 1950s.

Ideas such as tele-medicine seem fanciful, but it would be premature to reject them outright – rather than subjecting them to existing rules systems that have developed in the context of Western development aid, ‘emerging donors’ are insist on developing their own ideas prior to being boxed in my Western standards. Against this, Oxfam's Gregory Adams argued that rules like the Paris Declaration were actually developed based on recipient countries' preferences, not based on donor's wishes.

In any case, such aid projects, possibly financed under the BRICS banner, would provide a powerful reply to those who argue that the BRICS are too different to cooperate – in particular Western policy makers frequently point to differing political systems that will make intra-BRICS cooperation difficult. While that may indeed make some types of cooperation and policy coordination difficult – one may think of human rights or democracy promotion – they do not keep the BRICS from working together on issues such as development and humanitarian aid.

Yet fundamental questions remain: How sustainable is the BRICS’ freewheeling and rather uncoordinated approach to promoting socio-economic development in Africa? When will they need to develop frameworks and paradigms, just like the West has done? Or should they attempt to work within the network of rules and development norms established by the West? Will they be able to avoid the fundamental mistakes the West made in Africa, causing lasting damage and economic distortions? It can only be hoped that such issues will be approached constructively at the 5th BRICS Summit in Africa, going beyond mere affirmations that the BRICS are committed to helping Africa advance.

Read also:

Can the BRICS Co-operate in the G-20? A View from Brazil

Creation of BRICS Development Bank looks almost certain

What is Brazil doing in Africa?

Photo credit: http://www.broers.info/photos/russia/winter20052006/moscow/