Building with the BRICS

Knowledge brokering13 Apr 2010

Brazil, Russia, India and China – the BRICs – are meeting in Brasilia this week to discuss matters of southern and global concern. This summit will be flanked by two other significant events, namely the IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) summit and a BASIC (that’s Brazil, South Africa, India and China) meeting in Cape Town at the end of the month. Topics that will be covered at these meetings range from safety and security to economics, development and climate change. There’s a rumbling from the South and I wonder what this means for the world of development…

According to consulting company Maplecroft’s recently produced Emerging Powers Integration Index, out of the 150 countries studied, Angola’s economy is the most integrated with those of the BRICS (that’s BRIC plus South Africa). Three other African countries make the top ten: Congo Brazzaville (2nd), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC, 8th) and Liberia (10th). The implications of these new relations for the African countries remain to be explored. For one thing, the BRICS can by no means be considered traditional development partners. I will keep my observations related to issues of development in those countries mentioned above that I have visited, namely Angola and the DRC.

It has been some time since the DRC served as a strategic playground for the big players in the Cold War and even longer since it was considered a personal plaything of King Leopold of Belgium, a country barely a 76th its size. While the remnants of these times remain, there is today a much larger array of players involved. In the sphere of development assistance, traditional partners are joined by new players from the emerging world. So for instance, the DRC was one of the countries that signed a much-debated (and some would argue much-misunderstood) resources-for-infrastructure deal with the Chinese. These deals fit the label of ‘development assistance’ only clumsily. New attempts at labelling have led the World Bank to dub these deals the ‘Angola mode’, naming it after the quintessential deal that the Chinese struck with the DRC’s neighbour.

Speaking of Angola: of those countries that I have visited thus far, it has been the one that has surprised me most. Angola is a country in which things are changing, and changing fast. Interestingly, it is also a country in which many traditional development partners do not feel particularly welcome. This is attested to by the many that have upped and left, and not all because of the way in which Angola is climbing the economic development rankings. Angola seems to be of the opinion that it is business that will develop the country. And despite the many criticisms that have been levelled against the way in which it goes about it, it is not alone in this view. With catch-phrases like ‘growing sustainable business’, ‘doing business at the bottom of the pyramid’, and ‘doing well while doing good’, the role of business in development is being reassessed.

Perhaps my point is this: there are interesting development-y things happening out there. The challenge for those of us involved in this ‘world of development’ is to lose our blinkers and look a little wider. By way of example, I recently came across an interesting research proposal: it aimed for solutions to developmental challenges in the DRC. It suggested that it would start by comparing the DRC with Bangladesh – a country with numerous challenges, but also the one that gave us Grameen Bank and the largest non-governmental development organisation to date (BRAC). It is only half-jokingly that I place a country like Bangladesh (or Indonesia) in the category of CEMENT (Countries in Emerging Markets Excluded by New Terminology).

As one who likes questions, I leave you with this: So, what do you think about these rumblings from the emerging world? Is the explosion of new acronyms (BRICS, IBSA, BASIC, CEMENT…) a reflection of significant change, or is it merely a case of ‘the more things change the more they stay the same’? And what are the implications for the way in which development is approached?