Connecting the Global South: Why the BRICS Academic Forum matters

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In May 2009, the Indian government hosted the first BRIC Academic Forum as a preparatory event to produce ideas that would feed into the first BRICS Leaders Summit in Yekaterinburg (Russia) a month later. Since the BRIC's Brasília Summit in 2010, the yearly Academic Forum takes place in the same country that hosts the Leaders Summit. Each foreign ministry designated an institution which puts together a team of thinkers who then 'represent' their respective countries at the conference.

When it comes to fulfilling its primary purpose, i.e. to generate fresh ideas for diplomats who prepare the final declaration of the Leaders Summits, the Academic Forum seems to have largely failed so far. Most new ideas about the grouping are born within Foreign Ministries, Finance Ministries, Central Banks, or, in some cases, by state leaders themselves. While many of the papers submitted by scholars are interesting, the 'final declarations' written up by the delegation leaders tend to be bland and less innovative than the actual declarations produced at the Leaders Summit a few weeks later.

Yet such criticism fails to recognize that hammering out a more detailed and potent declaration within a few 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 who 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 they are unlikely to make it into the final declaration for lack of consensus. Judging the Academic Forum's success by the final document would thus be a mistake. For example, this year's discussions in Moscow included numerous interesting insights about the BRICS' role in international finance, energy, the enrivonment, security and education.

In fact, a far more important result of the yearly encounter is the establishment of ties between research institutions that previously barely knew about each other's existence. As a result of the meetings, a growing number of scholars has begun traveling to other BRICS countries, where they are usually hosted by institutions that were represented at the BRICS Forum. This is particularly the case for Russia and Brazil, whose academic communities are not yet as internationalized as those of South Africa and India.

This also matters greatly as international relations as a discipline remains remarkably Western-centric, reproducing ideas generated in the United States and the United Kingdom on a global scale. When going abroad, both students and scholars from developing countries are far more likely to conduct research in Europe or North America, rather than Latin America, Africa or Asia. Tellingly, when learning about each other, professors in BRICS countries are far more likely to use Western literature than texts produced in the Global South. An average Brazilian international relations scholar would certainly be unable to name a single South African or Russian academic, or vice versa. When it comes to the capacity to produce and disseminate academic ideas and knowledge, global order remains as unipolar and Western-centric as ever. As the real world is becoming more multipolar, this risks reducing even further academics' capacity to make useful contributions to discussions about how to address global challenges

The reasons for this situation are manifold and yearly BRICS meetings are no panacea, yet they represent a step in the right direction. Scholars are more likely to conduct research in countries where they have personal contacts. In the case of the BRICS grouping, the quality of research may benefit from cooperation as member countries face many similar challenges, both domestically (ranging from issues related to public health, education, the environmental degradation) and internationally (such as regional integration, security, etc.). Finally, personal connections are an essential prerequisite to institutional cooperation between universities, which remains extremely limited in the BRICS realm. One speaker from South Africa aptly described the dismal situation: There is currently not a single double-degree program between universities in BRICS countries.

Many of the obstacles that separate researchers and universities in BRICS countries need to be addressed by Ministers of Education, not scholars themselves. Facilitating the process of recognizing each other's diplomas, obtaining student and research visas, and allowing foreigners to apply for positions at public universities (still impossible in India, for example) are urgently needed steps to facilitate the flow of ideas between BRICS countries. Furthermore, initiatives such as Brazil's Science without Borders program need to expand to developing countries such as South Africa, where education is much cheaper than in the United States or Australia.

Alas, most such proposals are unlikely to be implemented any time soon, and China is the only BRICS country that is seriously attempting to strengthen its role in global higher education. Until governments in other developing countries follow suit, events like the BRICS Academic Forum remain crucial, even if far too small, platforms to strengthen ties between scholars from the Global South.

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Photo credit: Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters