This weekend marked the closing of the latest BRICS summit in Goa, India. While Indian media largely ignored most of the globally relevant discussions, instead focussing on bi-lateral disputes between China and India, some commentators in Europe were suggesting that the BRICS is no longer a relevant institution.
Why the ho-hum? For one thing, the growth rates that precipitated interest in the BRICS grouping have dramatically slowed down. For another, the political situations in the respective BRICS countries look both grim and badly matched with those of other BRICS states. Russia now faces sanctions from countries with which India wants to strengthen its political and economic ties. Brazil is in a state of turmoil and uncertainty since the removal of the democratically-elected government of Dilmah Roussef, putting its plans and intentions in doubt. While not as messy, the change in the Indian government has also opened the way for big changes in government policy. And South Africa is in the midst of a leadership battle heating up in the ruling ANC, which could even abbreviate President Zuma’s term.
The spectacle is mildly amusing. Heads of states of countries that thought they were going to be increasing their presence and power in global platforms or even rebalancing a world order tilted towards the interest of the US and its allies now wondering whether the BRICS is the right place to flex their muscles.
But beyond the schadenfreude lies a deeper truth. The BRICS grouping – as artificial as one can be – still has reasons to work toward goals that could be common to all of them. But so far, they have largely demonstrated only their ability to squander those opportunities.
The summit is taking place in Goa, one of India’s richest states by most measures and often rated India’s best place to live. It’s unlikely that BRICS leaders will have a chance to interact with many local Goans, but if they did they would probably hear a different story.
“This area used to be a beautiful place,”
said Vivian D’Souza, a resident of Socorro in North Goa. “But mining has really taken its toll."
In recent years the demand for iron and other minerals has led to a spate of mines - some illegal or unregistered - tearing away at the hills and mountains that are a part of Goa’s natural beauty. India’s BRICS partner China is a key buyer of those minerals and in recent years the money Indians earn for the trade of raw materials has decreased as global commodity markets have tanked.
“Tourism has always been part of Goa’s economy, but in recent years the nature of tourism has changed,” said Christopher Fonseca, General Secretary of the All India Trade Union Confederation, Goa.
Government has made it easier to access cheap alcohol, the gambling industry has boomed, and there are constant crackdowns on hawkers and other informal workers. We have nothing against tourism per se, but the rights, safety and living conditions of the workers should be a priority.
These are symptoms of a deeper problem. With the exception of China, BRICS countries all rely on the export of commodities. Some, like India, have also invested in the service sector, for example in the tourism sector in Goa. But as a growing body of research shows, countries develop by investing in an industrial policy that aims to create more and better jobs. In the current context those industries must be geared to meeting or surpassing Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emission targets and those jobs must prioritize those who most need jobs – young women and men from marginalized populations, for example Dalits in India.
The frustrating thing is that the BRICS countries may have missed their opportunity to act on this. Commodity prices are down, and so are GDPs. China is no longer buying up everything in sight meaning that a long-awaited and ill-prepared-for transition is underway.
Despite these setbacks, it is not too late. The government in Goa is taking steps to rein in the mining industry. Industrial policy is ‘in’ at least in places like post-Brexit Britain. Many of the BRICS countries still have large reserves and could invest in sustainable development plans that would lead to more and better jobs for all.
Despite the setbacks, it’s not too late for the BRICS countries to set a better course for their own peoples and the peoples of the world. As always, the question is whether or not they have the political will to do so.