by Ian Taylor


by Ian Taylor


So, what is the point of IBSA?

Already, IBSA’s very visibility has collapsed relative to that of BRICS and in a very short time, the initiative itself has become an irrelevancy in comparison to the more ambitious BRICS agenda. Simply comparing international attention to the annual BRICS Summits, where the deliberations and closing statements are of relative global significance, to that given to IBSA reveals a somewhat stark reality.
IBSA’s foundational document, the Brasilia Declaration, which was released in June 2003, sought to be a comprehensive agenda intended to bring about change within the global political economy. In particular, it was a concentrated effort by key states in the South to move forward an agenda which acknowledged that the expansion of economic growth, employment, and social development, and the accompanying rise in standards of living, in several developing countries, had been facilitated by a liberal global trade regime, with greater freedom of movement in trade, capital, and technology. Fairly standard stuff.

What IBSA however sought to emphasise was the uneven nature of globalisation and the concomitant marginalisation that came with this. IBSA did not question neo-liberal globalization per se, just that it had to become a positive force for change for all peoples. In this context, IBSA’s goal then has been a reformist, problem-solving approach that sought to advance policies and initiatives within the broader global governance agenda that would somehow bring about a more “humane” form of globalisation.

However, cynics might reinterpret the above as a call for a spreading of the material benefits of closer global integration to the outward-oriented elites of the three IBSA economies. It is the incomplete integration of these three economies into the global economic and political structures that is considered unjust and in need of urgent reform, as this militates against elite accumulation and political ambition. The miserable conditions of the impoverished majorities of the IBSA nations are left for another day.

That is why within IBSA there is a total absence of any strategy that might promote greater exports and market access for agro-business and protect the peasantry and small farmers in IBSA: the whole enterprise (like the BRICS) is an elitist project.

Indeed, one needs to focus on the core functional ambitions of IBSA and the BRICS to truly understand their roles and why IBSA is now an irrelevant sideshow. Whilst there may be talk of how IBSA are democracies and that this thus makes them somehow different, this is a somewhat superficial reading of the situation. The quality of democracy in the three countries is questionable, to say the least.
Setting this aside, whilst citizens may have the formal right to vote once every few years, the socio-economic status of the bulk of the population in all three states is dire, as is any measurement of inequality one cares to use. In Brazil, the top 10% of the population own over 40% of the country’s wealth; in South Africa it is well over 50%. Indeed, the latest figures suggest that South Africa is the second most unequal society in the world, with Brazil sixteenth most unequal (out of 136 countries measured).

Of the three proud IBSA democracies, only India is less unequal than the autocracies of China and Russia-and we all know the myriad social problems India faces. So yes, IBSA is a collective of formalised democracies, but one clearly represents the interests of the top percentile elites. Of course, one might say the same about most states, but the issue here is advocates of IBSA’s relevance base much of their claims on the member states’ stellar democratic credentials-a claim that simple economic justice destabilises.

Additionally, IBSA’s boosters argue that the three countries enjoy an intimacy that is lost within BRICS. Is this true? Actually, behind the rhetoric of togetherness are hard objective facts that cause difficulties. Although India, Brazil, and South Africa share bilateral trade agreements amongst themselves, binding trilateral free trade arrangements between the IBSA countries are complicated because of prior multilateral trade agreement commitments involving their respective neighbours e.g. SACU, Mercosur etc. These bodies do not permit members to set up free trade agreements with outsiders without extending the benefits to members of the broader multilateral group.

This then connects to the problematic nature of the positions that Brazil, India and South Africa finds themselves as de facto (though not universally recognised) leaders within their respective regions. Such realities serve to hamper the potentiality of the three states to “speak” for the global South.

How might this be resolved?

Each are easily the largest and most diversified economies countries in their respective regions, but there has been constant concern expressed that the IBSA three sought to throw their weight around with little or no consent from their neighbours. This state of affairs may spring from broader regionalising tendencies whereby small areas of relative hegemony develop in which major economies enjoy progressively more power. For the trilateral grouping, electing themselves as representatives of Africa, Asia and Latin America respectively poses problems which are alleviated-albeit not entirely dissipated-with the wider BRICS grouping.

One may put forward the argument that it is precisely the absence of the other two BRICS states that makes IBSA relevant, but this is a weak position based on what IBSA isn’t rather than what it is. Of course, it entirely suits India that China is not in IBSA as Indian concerns over the obvious rise of their next-door neighbour has stimulated all sorts of debates and strategic planning in New Delhi on how to deal with Beijing.

But this is India’s problem, not that of Brazil’s and certainly not that of South Africa’s, which actively seeks closer engagement with China. Indian fears of China (unfounded or otherwise) should not influence either Brazilian or South African foreign policy. After all, if the rise of China is a topic of concern for any of the IBSA members, this is a matter that is firstly, better suited dealt with at a bilateral level and secondly, incorrectly makes the assumption that all three IBSA states share the same concerns about Beijing. They don’t.

Furthermore, and this is probably much more relevant, it surely makes a nonsense of IBSA’s own goal to debate common challenges and advance strategies for greater inclusion of key emerging powers in global governance structures without either China or Russia, particularly given the weight that their permanent membership of the UN Security Council brings.

It is of course evident that in recent years a number of leading countries from the South have come forward as campaigners of reform on issues related to global trade. Both IBSA and BRICS reflect this. However, such initiatives cannot be regarded as some sort of a revival of Third Worldism or a New International Economic Order for the Twenty-first Century. None of their declarations interrogate the foundational underpinnings of liberal economic globalisation.

If this is the case, then why bother with IBSA when the BRICS do exactly the same thing? In the final analysis, advocating the intensification of international competition for markets in which states have relatively limited control over their own economies is somewhat problematic, if not contradictory. It goes without saying that there is a total absence of any strategy that might promote greater exports and market access for agro-business and protect the peasantry and small farmers, reflecting the elitist nature of both IBSA and the BRICS.

Equally absent from their statements are concrete policies to protect markets or stabilise commodity prices. Neither groups are particularly concerned to safeguard non-elite domestic interests and are instead reflections of externally-oriented domestic class fractions. That is why the trade agendas of both IBSA and the BRICS are dominated by the interests of exporters, with a concomitant disproportional stress on access to Northern markets.

Ultimately, both IBSA and the BRIC’s attitude towards global trade are based upon a hard-headed position of seeking to make their economies as attractive as possible to foreign capitalist investors, whilst at the same time drawing attention to the inequities engendered by the very system that the elites buy into. Whilst some features of the globalisation process are rhetorically tackled, this is offset by a broader acquiescence to extant economic orthodoxy.

This being the case, the claimed value-added of IBSA’s democratic credentials is hardly a convincing arguments for its survival. And at the pragmatic level, the rapid moves towards creating a BRICS Development Bank and garnering greater cooperation at global governance venues such as the G-20 and the IMF, makes IBSA’s largely rhetoric-focussed, results-absent record look problematic.
If the BRICS have not yet killed IBSA, it is but surely a matter of time.

Ian Taylor is attached to the School of International Relations, University of St. Andrews

The article was first published on 16 August 2012 by SAFPI

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