BRICS Academic Forum supports Development Bank, stays silent on Syria

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At this year's BRICS think tank gathering, which traditionally occurs two weeks prior to the BRICS Leaders' Summit, academics and anlysts from Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa agreed on a list of recommendations for the 5th BRICS Summit on March 26. The document contains ideas that can be distinguished between cooperation “towards the inside” (e.g., strengthening intra-BRICS trade ties or learning from each other’s common domestic challenges) and cooperation “towards the outside”, such as seeking to change the international system.

Cooperation towards the inside has seen a lot of progress over the past years, and it is here where the gathering agreed on a set of innovative ideas to strenghten intra-BRICS cooperation. For example, the authors argue that

"BRICS should consider the establishment of an independent BRICS rating agency for educational institutions as well as a BRICS university. The Forum proposes the establishment of a data bank with primary data on the five countries, as a well as a digital platform with detailed information on researchers and institutions dealing with BRICS issues."

More importantly, they argue that

"BRICS should strengthen financial and development cooperation through the establishment of the BRICS Development Bank, and create mechanisms to deal with volatility in global currency markets."

This is considerable progress from last year's meeting in New Delhi, when the think tankers merely agreed to "study the possibility of creating a BRICS Development Bank".

Regarding "growth towards the outside", the text is decidedly more generic.

The argument that "BRICS should strive to enhance the voice and representation of emerging economies and developing countries in multilateral forums" is laudable, yet far less than what Brazilians, Indians and South Africans would hope for - such as a call for UN Security Council Reform. 

Perhaps most importantly, the document disappoints in the security realm, blandly arguing that the BRICS should be

"more active in the peaceful resolution of conflict, dealing with issues of international terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and drug- and human trafficking. Mutual security concerns, such as water, food, environment, health, and disaster preparedness, should continue to be a focus."

This does not only fail to address the most urgent security issues of the day - Syria and North Korea - but also avoids dealing with the most pressing questions that the BRICS will have to deal with in the long term - such as how to reconcile their respect for sovereignty with the growing pressure to deal with failed states that may pose severe risks to emerging powers' ever more global geopolitical interests.

In this sense, the recommendations from the think tank community are paradoxically far more conservative and generic than what we can expect from the actual Leaders' Summit Declaration.

Yet such criticism fails to recognize that hammering out a more detailed and potent declaration within one day is quite impossible. This is particularly so because policy analysts do not function according to the hierarchical principles that apply to diplomats - for example, there is no reason to believe that India's free-wheeling and independent analysts all agree on what the BRICS grouping should look like in the future. The South African group could very well be made up of thinkers you do not agree with their own government's BRICS policy. While supporting government policy in Russia and China may be quite common (and perhaps expected), this is clearly not the case in Brazil, South Africa and India.

This raises the question about whether such a meeting should contain a "final declaration" at all, and whether it would not be preferable to merely publish a series of papers to strengthen the public and academic debate - just like any other academic gathering around the world.

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