Can BRICS lead a wave of assertion from Global South?

At its historic summit in South Africa, BRICS has an opportunity to give voice to the demands of the Global South. In order to do so, it must realize its potential as a global forum that provides alternatives for development and growth

August 21, 2023 by Marco Fernandes

In recent days, a series of articles in the mainstream Western media have clearly demonstrated the concern of Western powers about the possible growth of the BRICS bloc, which over 20 more countries are interested in joining. Reuters, citing anonymous sources in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry, said that Brasilia would oppose the expansion and that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi would not attend the summit. A couple of days after the Reuters article, Brazilian President Lula da Silva was emphatic in reaffirming his position in favor of expansion, and sources denied rumors that Modi would skip the meeting.

Another Reuters article went even further, arrogantly proposing that Brazil, India, and South Africa abandon BRICS and form another bloc, alleging that the association with a “near pariah country” like Russia, and an aggressive China, would be detrimental to their interests. As much as the BRICS leaders have insisted that the group is not “anti-G7,” it seems that the G7 media is anti-BRICS. Articles in The Economist and Foreign Policy tried to disqualify the group and bet on its failure.

The concern of the Western powers is understandable. After all, they know that the economic weight of BRICS is constantly growing and could begin to threaten their global hegemony, which seemed indestructible after the end of the Cold War. Today, the GDP PPP of BRICS already exceeds that of the G7. According to the IMF, by 2028, this gap should increase to 33.7% vs 27.8%. With the expected expansion of the group, its advantage will be even greater. More significantly, since the beginning of the conflict in Ukraine, the Global South has been active in questioning the privileged position of the “collective West” and the hypocrisy of its “rules-based international order,” in a kind of revival of the “spirit of Bandung.”

Indonesian President Joko Widodo is calling on his citizens to stop using Visa and Mastercard credit cards (“look what they did to Russia!”), while implementing a national development strategy based on the modernization of its state-owned companies, partly inspired by the Chinese experience. Indonesia is a candidate for BRICS membership.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Washington for decades, is signaling the possibility of selling oil in RMBs to its biggest buyer, China, threatening one of the pillars of US financial domination (the petrodollar). The kingdom is also seeking to diversify its economy beyond “black gold,” counting on Beijing’s strategic partnership to guarantee the import of technology and infrastructure based on its “Vision 2030.” Saudi Arabia is also a candidate for BRICS membership.

President Lula da Silva is questioning the hegemony of the dollar in international trade and proposing the creation of a new BRICS reserve currency, while the young president of Burkina Faso, Ibrahim Traoré, is stressing the urgency of a plan to industrialize gold and tomatoes in his country, which no longer just wants to export raw materials to rich countries. He is a young, popular leader in Africa’s Sahel region, where military coups in recent years have enjoyed the support of the people – who burn French flags and wave Russian ones, and who are dissatisfied with their local elite’s complicity in Paris’s neo-colonial schemes.

Throughout the Global South, from east to west, demands are growing for industrialization, de-dollarization, access to technologies, energy transition, environmental preservation, national sovereignty, and the strengthening of multilateral regional platforms. If BRICS  is able to provide concrete solutions to some of these demands, they can lead this global wave and consolidate themselves as an alternative for the new development cycle desired by the “global majority.” There are, however, some challenges the bloc must confront.

  1. How can the group ensure that the necessary expansion maintains its unity and its ability to devise consensual strategies and, just as importantly, does not leave the door open to infiltration by outside interests?
  2. How can the New Development Bank (NDB) be strengthened? The NDB still falls short of its enormous potential. In addition to increasing its fundraising capacity (only 32.8 billion dollars over 8 years), could the NDB become an instrument for drawing up development policies for the South, like, for example, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in the 1950s and 1960s?
  3. How can the $100 billion monetary fund (the Contingent Reserve Arrangement, ARC, still untouched) be used to bail out countries in international reserve crisis (e.g. Argentina, Ghana, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh), serving as an alternative to the IMF’s “debt traps,” which impose austerity measures as a condition for granting loans, devastating national economies for decades?
  4. How can BRICS countries build a strategy to create alternatives to the use of the dollar, linking the encouragement of the use of local currencies in global trade — which has its limits — to the creation of a reserve currency, which is not easy to implement either?
  5. How can cooperation and technology transfer support the re-industrialization of countries like Brazil and South Africa, especially in strategic sectors such as biotechnology, IT, AI, renewable energies, electric vehicles, and local refining of raw materials, such as lithium, cobalt, etc.? At the same time, how can poverty and inequality be combated and other basic demands of the peoples of the South be met?
  6. How can BRICS become a tool for strengthening regional platforms (UNASUR, CELAC, the African Union, ASEAN, and the Eurasian Economic Union), through which they would have sufficient scale for a solid development project and to change their balance of power with the Global North?

Exactly 10 years ago, BRICS met in Durban, also in South Africa, at a historic summit where it was decided to create both the NDB and CRA, the most important institutions ever created by the group. As fate would have it, South Africa is once again the venue for what is the most eagerly awaited summit in the history of BRICS and which could raise the group’s economic and political clout. Will Xi, Putin, Modi, Lula, Ramaphosa, and Dilma be able to respond to the challenges posed by the “changes unseen in a century?” The peoples of the South are anxiously awaiting the answer to that question.

 Marco Fernandes is a researcher at Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and a co-founder of Dongsheng News