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Why south-south co-operation is a myth when it comes to BRICS and Africa

What the increased ties between Russia, India, China and Brazil mean for Africa remains unclear. Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

Brazil, Russia, India and China have shown tremendous determination and co-operation on global issues in recent years. Their alliance epitomises south-south co-operation in the contemporary era. This is the notion of solidarity among developing countries through the exchange of goods, resources, technology and knowledge to meet their development goals.

But what does this all mean for Africa? Is this bloc of countries committed to Africa or simply driven by self-interest? For the purposes of this article I refer to the bloc known as BRICS but I am excluding South Africa. The reason for this is that South Africa was a late addition to the group and was brought in to complete the regional representativity of the group.

New formidable bloc in global affairs

Recent developments in south-south co-operation include increased trade volumes and foreign direct investments among BRICS countries. They also include movements towards regional integration, technology transfers, the sharing of expertise, and other forms of exchanges between developing and less developed economies.

This is particularly true for the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which have increased their co-operation on global economic issues, global governance, geopolitics, development, aid, climate change, terrorism and a host of other issues.

Some observers remain cautious about the grouping and point to the limits of its role in global affairs. Nevertheless, its member countries have become a force to reckon with. For example, the bloc has formalised the New Development Bank and signed a Contingency Reserve Arrangement at this year’s BRICS summit in Russia.

Discussions are also underway to establish their own credit ratings agency, bilateral swaps and settling trade in local currencies. At the summit, the bloc also discussed discarding the US dollar and the euro for their roughly US$500 billion trade with one another.

The bloc constantly raises its voice on the issues of global governance, particularly reforms of the IMF and the UN Security Council. BRICS’s declaration at this year’s summit emphasised principles of openness, solidarity, equality, mutually beneficial co-operation and inclusiveness. These are thought to address emerging global economic, political and social challenges.

The impact on Africa

While this all sounds very good, what is surprising is how little the summit and the declaration had to offer African development. This is despite Africa, with a combined economy of US$2 trillion, having become central to the growth and development of Brazil, Russia, India and China in the 21st century. This is particularly so after the 2008 global financial crisis.

The strategy of these countries towards African development seems to be muddled with selfish national interests. The focus of all of them is on areas critical to the growth of their economies. These include fuel, minerals, biofuels, food and information and communication technology.

It is true that their engagement in Africa is reshaping the nature of globalisation on the continent. It is also affecting the prospects for African development. Trade between China and Africa, for example, has grown dramatically. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner at about US$200 billion in 2013. It is followed by India. Its trade with Africa stood at US$70 billion in 2012 and is projected to rise to US$90 billion by the end of 2015.

Africa’s rapid economic growth in the past decade has led observers to chant “Africa Rising”. But Africa’s over-hyped growth is driven by investments in the extraction of natural resources such as fossil fuels, minerals, biofuels and lately land acquisition. Brazil, Russia, China and India have become important sources of foreign direct investments in these sectors.

There is little evidence that this engagement is helping address issues critical to the continent. Chief among these would be poverty reduction, food security, climate change and medicine.

Developmental or self-interest?

Brazil, Russia, India and China’s engagements in Africa are largely driven by their domestic political economies. These in turn influence the nature of their investments in Africa and development assistance on the continent.

Their leaders are wont to claim that much of their trade and investment projects are “developmental”. Several Indian government officials I spoke to emphasised their engagements with Africa are not about imperialism and colonialism but “market-based” and “developmental”. But most of its investment and trade in Africa resemble the relations Britain had with India during colonial times, which is extractive in nature and is true for other BRIC countries trading with Africa.

Given this, it is hard to see how the emergence of a rhetorically new development model based on south-south co-operation between Brazil, Russia and India and China is going to contribute to Africa’s development.

Shifting the balance of power

There are some aspects of the various engagements, such as India’s lines of credit to some African countries, that have developmental characteristics. These are considered less exploitative in comparison to aid from Western donors.

As “emerging donors”, the countries bring virtues of solidarity, shared experience of colonial exploitation and empathy with developing countries. These are all key components of south-south co-operation.

The most important outcome of the emergence of Brazil, Russia, India and China is the shift they have brought to the balance of power in global affairs. The establishment of the new bank and the contingency reserve arrangement show that the old established US-dominated order is being challenged, and that formidable rivals have emerged.

Yet, the bloc wants to work within the framework of same Western institutions that are largely responsible for under-development in many parts of the world.

In this context, the potential of south-south co-operation for African development remains less clear. There is no coherent strategy from the group for helping develop Africa. A new way has to be found to ground the engagement on mutual benefit. As it stands, the bloc is pushing for a fair deal in global geopolitics for itself to the exclusion of Africa and other developing nations.

The bloc can become a launchpad for a longer-term development strategy that breaks away from the old styled US-led hegemonic system. As emerging powers leading the call for greater democratisation of the global order, Brazil, Russia, India and China need to show greater responsibility on global development issues. But this needs to be more than mere rhetoric that uses the same cliches as UN’s declarations. And it must want to work on the principles of equality.

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