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Where is the ‘A’ in ‘BRICS’?

African Engagement with Emerging Global Powers

03-10-2014

Ramsamy, R; "Where is the ‘A’ in ‘BRICS’? African Engagement with Emerging Global Powers" European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM); 2014

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The BRICS certainly want to engage with Africa yet the consensus is that it is up to the continent to determine how it wants to use its platform to navigate the international system – and many questions remain unanswered. Rebecca Ramsamy, our Young International Professional, reports on discussions at a recent Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung conference.

African representatives emphasised how they would rather define their own agenda when engaging with the BRICS group. The only way to prevent the “Africa versus superpower” syndrome in summits and negotiations would be to support regional integration, allowing Africa to present a common stance.

But what is Africa’s stake in the BRICS? How has the relationship between Africa and BRICS been developing and how do they both engage the international system?  

At ‘BRICS in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities’ a large visual backdrop hung behind panelists, depicting the African continent as a chessboard, with the BRICS and the European Union as chess pieces positioned on the continent.

This image was later analysed amongst the panelists, who agreed it was a misrepresentation of Africa’s engagement with the BRICS, and that the image suggested that individual BRICs would dictate their engagement with Africa.

An Agenda-Check on Bottom-Up Development?

A trade union representative from Africa remarked that strategic coherence between the BRICS in trade and development issues is needed, as well as with Africa.

Calls for the BRICS to support participatory social development and ensure fair trade with Africa were abundant, as well as with the BRICs other partners. European participants noted the dominance of China in African trade, and the broader discussion that ensued suggested that China’s engagement in Africa might not have always yielded fairer trade that helps sustainable and long-term development in Africa. China needs to work on providing more equal terms of trade and social development in all African countries, Europeans argued.

Perhaps this is where partnership with Europe shows some advantage? Fairer trade deals and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives for EU companies that operate in African countries represent a qualitative difference absent from BRICS-Africa engagement, as some argued.

From the African perspective, the BRICS formed as a bloc for the Global South in the international system to represent developing countries on an equal platform. Representatives from all sides welcomed the challenge for Europe in engaging with Africa ‘beyond aid’. Resonating with the African principle of ‘Ubuntu’, BRICS may yet host an African civil society platform, supporting a bottom-up form of engagement in Africa.

Banking on the BRICS?

The BRICS Bank, with equal ownership among its founding members, while not solely for Africa, could coordinate projects of the African Development Bank and the Development Bank of South Africa.

The question of conditionalities and responsibility for security loan and bond disbursement has yet to be fully addressed. A real assessment of the BRICS bank can only be made in more detail after its programmes and initiatives have been put into practice.

The possibility of the new BRICS Development bank energising New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) or other financing instruments was suggested, but it was reasoned by both African and European discussants that more network institutional-building would be needed to facilitate this.  

A Foreign Policy Rainbow

Can South Africa adequately represent the diverse opinions of the African continent? Although South Africa would naturally pursue its own foreign policy objectives, an integral part of its foreign policy is to support and promote African continental initiatives and South-South Cooperation. From the African perspective, there are many “gateways” to the continent.

The BRICS certainly want to engage a continent with so much potential economic opportunity. However, it is up to Africa to determine how it wants to engage with the BRICS and use it as a platform to navigate the international system.

Many important questions remain, and this symposium highlighted African agency, integration, the incorporation of civil society and strategic actions by the BRICS as some of the key factors to consider.

This blog reports on the discussions at  ‘BRICS in Africa: Challenges and Opportunities’, hosted by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin, 10th September 2014, and reflects the views expressed. The views reported here are not necessarily those of ECDPM.

Photo Courtesy of Ministério das Relações Exteriores 

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