What can the BRICS Academic Forum achieve?

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The second BRIC Summit, held in Brazil in April 2010, is often rated by observers as rather uneventful. And yet, when studying the hidden world of intra-BRICS cooperation, the meeting in Brasília turns out to be strikingly innovative. It was at the second BRIC Summit that South Africa was informally present, thanks to the Brazilian government which had scheduled the IBSA Summit on the day before the BRICS Summit. In addition, it was in Brasília where many of the initiatives were born that since then have turned into the backbone of institutionalizing South-South cooperation in the context of the BRICS grouping – ranging from public health and finance to tax collection and subnational government.

An additional example of intra-BRICS cooperation that was institutionalized at the Brasília summit is a gathering of academics and policy observers - a “track II” Summit called “Academic Forum” or “Think Tank Forum”.  The Academic Forum takes place two weeks prior to the Leaders Summit, and at the end of the meeting a final document which policy recommendations is developed by designated 'country team leaders'.

Establishing a dialogue between academics and policy observers serves a dual purpose. First of all, it provides a platform for thinkers to develop new ideas and, ideally free from political pressure, test concepts which may then be taken up by policy makers. In addition, the Academic Forum creates ties between civil society, possibly serving as a stepping stone towards much wider cooperation between institutions, involving exchange programs and joint publications.

India hosted the first BRIC Academic Forum in May 2009 as a preparatory event to feed into the first BRICS Summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia in June 2009. Since the Brasília Summit, the Academic Fora take place in the same country that hosts the Leaders Summit. Each foreign ministry designates an institution which puts together a team of thinkers to represent their country at the meeting.

Has the Academic Forum delivered so far? Regarding the establishment of closer ties between BRICS research institutions, there is no doubt that the answer is yes. Thanks to the BRICS Academic Forum, intra-BRICS ties on the civil society level are now stronger than ever before. Regarding the development of new ideas, however, the meetings have been disappointing. The recommendations from the think tank and academic community are paradoxically far more conservative and generic than what we can expect from the actual Leaders' Summit Declaration. Not a single great idea has emerged from the many BRICS Academic Fora that have been organized so far.

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. Great ideas about the future of BRICS cooperation may indeed appear in individual papers, but bold ideas are unlikely to make it into the final declaration for lack of consensus - and are then never noticed by policy makers.

This raises the question about whether such a meeting should contain a "final" -and inevitably bland - declaration at all, and whether it would not be preferable to merely publish a series of papers to strengthen the public and academic debate. As the Brazilian government is preparing the 6th BRICS Academic Forum, it should probably refrain from asking participating academics to write a 'final declarations'. Otherwise, a precious opportunity to hear scholars' ideas on the future of the BRICS will continue to be wasted.

Photo Credit: Ricardo Stuckert/PR

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