Does intra-BRICS cooperation make sense? The case of public health

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1st BRICS Health Ministers meeting (Beijing, 2011)

There is a hidden world of intra-BRICS cooperation that occurs without attracting much public comment or debate. While commentators in both the Global North and South are quick to blame the yearly BRICS Leaders' Summits for their supposed lack of substance, few make the effort to do research and find out about the multitude of intra-BRICS ties that have been created since the BRICs (then still without South Africa) had their first informal encounter on the sidelines of the 61st UN General Assembly.

The meetings that have occured since the beginning of the year illustrate this point. In 2013 the BRICS countries began as their cycle of cooperation as early as January 7, when the five countries’ national security advisors met in Delhi to discuss issues ranging from cyber security, terrorism, piracy and other threats to international security. Shivshankar Menon, India’s national security advisor, later argued that “there was a high level of congruence in our discussion of these issues. We found it very useful, in fact useful enough that at the end everyone said we must do this again. That gives you an idea of how successful the participants thought it was.” In the same month, BRICS health ministers met in India, followed by the yearly meeting of BRICS competition authorities. Still in January, BRICS heads of revenue departments met and signed a communiqué, identifying seven areas of cooperation, including sharing of anti-tax evasion and non-compliance practices, and a BRICS mechanism to facilitate countering abusive tax avoidance transactions. Soon afterwards, the 3rd BRICS Academic Forum took place in Durban, bringing together academics and policy analysts from the five countries. In their final declaration, they created the BRICS Think Tank Council (BTTC) “for the exchange of ideas among researchers, academia and think tanks.” Little later, at the 5th BRICS Leaders Summit in Durban, national leaders, along with considerable parts of their cabinets, including foreign ministers, ministers of finance, trade, education and science and technology, discussed ways to enhance cooperation.

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2nd BRICS Health Ministers meeting (New Delhi, 2013) 

Yet do all these meetings have a tangible impact? The case of public health may be an interesting case study. A BRICS Health Ministers’ Meeting was held at Beijing on July 11th 2011 following the decision taken by Heads of BRICS countries in the Sanya Declaration of April 14th 2011 - one year after intra-BRICS cooperation was officially included as a theme, during the 2nd BRICs Summit in Brasília in 2010.

The Beijing Declaration of the first BRICS Health Ministers’ Meeting emphasized the
importance and the need of technology transfer as a means to empower developing countries; the importance of generic medicines in the realization of the right to health; and to establish priorities in research and development as well as cooperation
among BRICS countries including support to transfer technologies and innovation in a sustainable way to foster cooperation among BRICS countries to make available and improve technology.

A year later, at the 4th BRICS Summit in New Delhi, leaders decided to institutionalize regular encounters by the BRICS Health Ministers so that the BRICS could jointly address common goals such as promoting innovation and universal access to health technologies including medicines, especially in the context of increasing costs and the growing burden of both communicable diseases and non-communicable diseases, and to encourage the flow of knowledge amongst research institutions through joint projects, workshops and exchange of visits, particularly by young scientists in areas relating to pharmaceuticals and health.

Then, during the sidelines of World Health Assembly held at Geneva, Health Ministers of BRICS countries met again in May 2012 and decided that thematic areas of work under BRICS Health Platform be identified for each country to be carried forward by the Technical Group. The declaration says that

The technical working group will discuss a program of work to advance the health related cooperation among BRICS countries, in particular the establishment of the network of technological cooperation. The deliberations of the working group will serve as a preparation for the next meeting of BRICS Health Ministers as referred in the Delhi Declaration.

Accordingly, as per agreed plan of action, each country had to identify a nodal officer for each area of work, to work with the lead officer of the country piloting the particular area of work and to come out with a program of work to advance the health related cooperation among BRICS countries, in particular the establishment of the network of technological cooperation. It was also decided in Geneva that India would host the next BRICS Health Ministers Meeting - which would take place in January 2013 in New Delhi.

There, the Ministers committed to "strengthening intra-BRICS cooperation for promoting health of the BRICS population. The BRICS Health Ministers resolved to continue cooperation in the sphere of health through the Technical Working Group." Specifically, they discussed the recommendations of the Consultative Expert Working Group on Health on coordination and financing of R & D for medical products and welcomed the proposal to establish a Global Health R&D observatory as well as the move on holding regional consultations to set up R&D demonstration

At the encounter, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé stressed the unique role of the BRICS countries to draw on their positive experience with HIV to serve as an engine for innovation, research and development of health solutions for other developing countries. “Today, the BRICS are demonstrating how health is increasingly a tool of foreign policy and a vehicle for promoting global health and development for the entire world.

The BRICS countries have several unique strengths such as the capacity for manufacturing affordable health products and research in some cutting edge areas. At the same time, the BRICS face a large number of health challenges, and sharing knowledge is likely to be highly useful. Given this powerful combination, there seems to be a strong case for continuing intra-BRICS cooperation in the field of public health to share knowledge and best practices. As they argued in the first declaration in 2011,

Despite our diversity, the BRICS nations face a number of similar public health
challenges, including inequitable access to health services and medicines, growing
health costs, infectious diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis (TB), while also facing
growing rates of non-communicable diseases. The major challenge facing us is how to provide health care to millions of people, in particular among the most vulnerable segments of our populations.

It is particularly here - in the complex challenge of setting up the foundations of health care system for hundreds of millions of people - that sharing experiences will be crucial. The next BRICS Ministerial meeting will be hosted by South Africa in January 2014.

Read also:

BRICS Development Bank: Patience required

What is Russia’s role in the BRICS?

China Development Bank: A model for the BRICS Bank?

Russia lays out its vision for the BRICS – others should, too

Photo credit: 1- AFP Photo

                  2- UNAIDS