South-South Cooperation: Do the IBSA working groups make a difference?


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It is easy to mock the idea of meetings for the sake of meetings. But they can create webs of mutual trust and even friendship that leaders can draw on in a crisis - and conversations over late-night drinks can do more to draw countries together than all the diplomats in the world.

                                                                                                                       The Economist

In how far has the IBSA grouping helped bring India, Brazil and South Africa together? In how far has it achieved to promote multi-level socialization between actors who two decades ago barely interacted? And have the IBSA working groups produced tangible results that allow the three countries to learn from each other?

Rather than having a secretariat or an organizational structure, IBSA consultations take place among heads of state and/or government (summit), ministers (trilateral joint commission) and senior officials (focal point) . Further down the scale, there are interactions between government officials who are part of the working groups, as well as academics, business leaders and civil society. There are now 16 working groups on issues such as agriculture, defense and public administration, made up of policy makers from each countries' ministries. They are considered to be the centerpiece of the grouping.

In theory, IBSA is an extremely useful vehicle to close the gap that existed and continues to exist between the three countries’governments. As many observers argue, India, Brazil and South Africa face many similar internal challenges – ranging from socioeconomic inequality, low levels of public education and rapid urbanization – hence exchanging views and experiences could be a productive exercise for policy makers. Flemes argues that “sectoral cooperation will form a sound base for trilateral diplomacy in world affairs.” As Folashadé Soule- Kohndou points out, socialization is a key dimension of South-South Cooperation (SSC) as it implies that “the three countries share similar social challenges and could learn more from each other’s social policies and programmes to address these challenges. Socialization then happens through knowledge sharing for capacity building through the different working groups.” Yet what does that mean in practice?

Our research shows that several working groups have produced some results. For example, the IBSA Small, Micro and Medium Enterprises forum in collaboration with the IBSA WG on Trade and Investment which launched an online platform (called “IBSA B2B”) to present investment opportunities, contacts, events, trade statistics, and best practices among the three IBSA countries. While Brazilian and Indian companies have registered, nobody from South Africa bothered to do so.

Yet during extensive interviews over the past two years with public officials who participated in the IBSA working groups, several placed in ministries other than the Foreign Ministry voiced profound frustration with their group’s inefficiency. Several complained that the diplomats responsible for the IBSA grouping usually carried little weight within their respective ministries. An often-mentioned complaint was that there was no overall guidance or strategic incentive to make the working groups function properly. “We received absolutely no institutional support from our Foreign Ministry, which rarely acknowledged the progress reports we used to send” one reported.

Their performance thus entirely depended on the personal disposition of its members. Interest in the topic, naturally, differs from country to country. As a consequence, some working group members complained that their counterparts in the other countries failed to retribute their enthusiasm for making the group work. Members of several groups complained that it at times took months to obtain a response to e-mails or phone calls, and that other countries at times failed to communicate that the person in charge had changed. One said she had “at least five different interlocutors over the course of two years”. In two cases, interviewees accused counterparts of “lack of professionalism” and complained to their respective Foreign Ministries. Another said that over several months, the working group’s work came to a standstill because one country’s lead member was busy fighting off corruption charges. The large time difference, in particular between India and Brazil was mentioned several times as an additional complicating factor. Finally, working group members pointed out that one obstacle over the past years was that counterparts lacked the authority to take any decisions, which severely slowed down cooperation.

In fact, the majority of observers are critical of IBSA’s usefulness when it comes to its capacity to produce mutual learning. Skeptics have argued that national interests diverge too much for the three to agree on what matters, and that the grouping is a largely irrelevant “gathering of friends”. Some policy makers privately concede that the working groups have yet to produce any tangible results, largely because they lack high-level political support. White is emphatic with his criticism, and argues that  outside of the government and even within certain ministries, criticism of IBSA and its working groups is unanimous: these groups have proved more complicated than expected. Results have been slow in coming and there is a need for greater coherence and focus.

With such a broad agenda and overloaded action plan that includes everything from health and tourism to small business development, many point out that IBSA lacks a clear strategic focus and is unlikely to deliver concrete results any time soon. A former Indian diplomat concedes that rather than focusing on many issues at the same time, the grouping should have concentrated on a few to obtain tangible results. In the same way, Daniel Flemes writes that the grouping’s perspectives will depend on its ability to focus on specific areas of cooperation.

This multi-issue focus often generated expectations that the grouping proved unable to fulfill. For example, while some had hoped for a breakthrough on the project to launch a joint space satellite in 2011, the Tshwane Declaration of that year merely noted that India had agreed to host more meetings to debate the matter.
A practical problem is that the IBSA website has been neglected, making it very difficult for outsiders to obtain recent information about the grouping’s activities, and regarding the working groups in particular.

In addition, many analysts had an overly romanticized vision of South-South cooperation that did not seem to take into account that, as is the case with any other group of countries, economic (and often political) relations are primarily marked by competition. Why, a critical observer may ask, should a Brazilian company voluntarily share knowledge with an Indian or a South African company? Interviews with leading business representatives in all three countries made clear that from a private sector perspective, there is no fundamental qualitative difference between North-South and South-South cooperation.

In at times overly simplistic analyses, policy analysts often exaggerated the potential for cooperation over the past years, often due to a lack of knowledge of the three economies. In 2006, Nagesh Kumar argued that “Air India can learn from the great successes of South African Airways and Varig Airways (sic)” - the latter of which had already filed for bankruptcy protection at the time, and was no longer operating independently. In the same text, he also argues that “Goa, a well-known Indian beach resort with large Portuguese population could be of substantial interest to Brazilians”- even though the vast majority of Goans today speak no Portuguese. In addition, given the geographic distance between Brazil and India, tourism between the two countries is unlikely to ever reach significant numbers.

Chris Landsberg concludes that “while IBSA can boast clear positions on a host of strategic issues, these have to date taken the form more of declarations, statements and pronouncements rather than strategies, tactics and plans of action.” Many analyses written about IBSA are therefore of aspirational nature and point to the great potential of the grouping.

Against criticism that IBSA has produced little during its first decade, policy makers usually argue that, due to its nature of a “forum”, IBSA is primarily meant to establish a dialogue rather than concrete results. In the same way, Zelia Campbell writes that IBSA’s main goal is merely to create a platform to “induce a climate whereby three culturally so different countries can get to know each other and, in the process, develop an atmosphere of mutual trust.” If this were the grouping’s sole objective, it would indeed be difficult to assess whether IBSA has been successful or not.

All this seems to suggest that the working groups' record is mixed. As the IBSA grouping celebrates its 10th anniversary, a critical look at the working groups' productivity and objectives would help assure stronger ties between India, Brazil and South Africa in the future.

Read also:

South-South cooperation: Does the IBSA Fund matter?

Missing Political Will? Brazil’s Leadership at the 2014 BRICS Summit

Emerging Powers and Status: The Case of the First BRICs Summit