In Brazil, civil society and academia remain skeptical of the BRICS concept
At a roundtable discussion on the BRICS, organized by the Center for International Relations at the School of Social Sciences (CPDOC) - Fundação Getulio Vargas in São Paulo, the majority of speakers - from both academia and civil society - professed to be spektical of the future of the BRICS grouping.
The encounter was meant to strengthen the public debate in Brazil as the government is preparing to develop ideas for the 6th BRICS Summit in 2014, the second to be held in Brazil. In six months from now, on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, Brazil's Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota should, ideally, begin lay out the key themes of the 6th BRICS Summit to the other Foreign Ministers. From then on, Brazil's BRICS sherpa, Ambassador Maria Edileuza Fontenele Reis, will visit her counterparts in the BRICS' capitals develop the rough draft of the final summit declaration - eventually to be signed by the BRICS leaders in March 2014.
Since the host has the right to set the agenda of the summit, Brazil has a unique chance to give the 6th BRICS Summit its own imprint - and thus engage the leaders of China, India, Russia and South Africa on one or several topics of its choice. This is a tremendous opportunity for Brazil.
Since the early days of institutionalization, the BRICS grouping's summits were marked by constant innovation. The 2011 Summit in Sanya was marked by the presence of a new member, South Africa. A year later, the Indians assumed thought leadership by launching the idea of a BRICS Development Bank. In 2013, the South African government decided to invite a series of African leaders to promote ties between the BRICS and the entire African continent.
What should be the big idea of the 6th BRICS Summit in 2014, then? Suprisingly, policy makers in Brasília are unlikely to get much help from civil society and academia, for the BRICS concept remains little understood - and often prematurely rejected - by Brazilian analysts. The media remains often disengaged, too: For example, when the BRICS' National Security Advisors (NSAs) met in January in New Delhi, all major Indian newspapers reported on the meeting. In Brazil, on the other hand, not a single newspaper mentioned the encounter.
Academics in Brazil who support the BRICS concept are often accused of being 'pro-government' - a charge not to be taken lightly in a profession that is supposed to speak truth to power - in South Africa, India and China, on the other hand, speaking favorably of the idea is quite commonplace. The skepticism the BRICS idea is confronted with is particularly perplexing because Brazil is - along with Russia - probably the country that has most benefited from the grouping. It is partly thanks to the BRICS grouping that Brazil today enjoys unprecedented global visibility - and that it is often mentioned together with China and India, the two powers that are set to dominate the 21st century.
As I pointed out in an article last year ("BRICS: Visionary policy makers, hesitant academics?"), this points to a necessity for the Brazil's government to convince their respective societies of the BRICS' usefulness - for example, by writing op-eds or having diplomats visit universities and think tanks. At the same time, it also reveals shortcomings among Brazil's academics and policy analysts who have often been unable to accompany the governments' progress on the matter. As Ambassador Valdemar Carneiro Leão put it during last year's debate, "the question is no longer whether the BRICS outfit is useful or not. Member governments have decided long ago that it is useful." Academics should now focus on what can be done to make its summits, working groups and debates more beneficial for all its members.
Photo credit: Sabelo Mngoma/AP