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BRICS: what role for civil society?

BricsroleforcivilsocietyElites and industry specialists, for example government departments, academic institutions, top businesses and other recognised organisations, as well as renowned individuals,  are the most common actors spreading information about BRICS, giving the partnership an allure of exclusivity and at times restriction. While the partnership indeed was created by governments to strengthen their cooperation in international relations, over the years, the growing need to focus on translating economic gains into human development has expanded and evolved the BRICS agenda. The continued expansion into varied areas of cooperation has been accompanied by the institutionalisation of Track II Diplomacy channels that incorporate think tanks and businesses, and the establishment of Track III Diplomacy that focuses on civil society. The growing focus on people to people relations, the inclusion of think tanks, businesses, civil society and now potentially labour, adds more supportive qualities to the partnership while deepening cooperation beyond the traditional state to state relations.  This was particularly evident during China’s chairship of the BRICS in 2017, whereby China included think tanks, academics, civil society, political parties, and combined these groups on several platforms.

Previously, civil society convened on the side lines of BRICS summits in a BRICS from Below counter movement since the 2013 Durban Summit. The movement advocates for critical societal inputs that acknowledge socio-economic, political and civil rights violations, and has argued that the BRICS partnership has overlooked these aspects in a bid to attain most enterprising trade, investment and development cooperation deals. Foreign policy scholars and practitioners have argued that this realm of international relations is still very restrictive in nature and content, and therefore civil society should not necessarily have such an input. However, the increasing interest from civil society to engage with foreign policy and in international relations, shows that there is an awareness and capacity to mobilize and drive foreign policy from a bottom-up approach. While civil society may not be vested in the ultimate international relations political process, their intent is to impact communities and contribute to a stronger country-system, which impacts on the country’s capacity in international relations.

Through their lobbying efforts, civil society was included in the BRICS proceedings through the Civil BRICS forum, which first convened in 2015 at the Ufa Summit. Currently, the Civil BRICS forum is still working towards attaining a formalized or institutionalized status, which would allow them to have a greater input in their programmatic inputs in the various tracks of diplomacy. The agenda of BRICS from Below is still pertinent to the forum discussions. Actors use those points, namely individual rights, welfare, cooperation, sustainability, inclusivity and others, to explore more people- and environment-centred options that promote the development of the partnership through the focus on the development and empowerment of human capital. However, a significant challenge that the Civil BRICS contingent is facing in the partnership is that civil society is interpreted differently among the BRICS members; Russia and China’s civil society is focused on solutions based formalised organisations that implement societal change for improvements, while India, Brazil and South Africa’s civil societies are predominantly grass-roots based that provide critical input and advocate for policy changes that provide unique solutions fitting distinct issues.

Traditionally, elites have been favoured in the decision-making process and often mass public opinion has been taken for granted, thus portraying civil society as a reactive factor, not a partner, to government and business sector decisions. It is important for civil society to contribute to the BRICS forums as it sets a precedent for the mode of cooperation that the world could employ.

BRICS has an ambitious agenda, each year adding innovative items to its agenda. While the actors seem to have a large capacity to achieve their projects, there is a concern that too many new items can shift the attention away from existing issues. The proposed BRICS Labour forum will add a facet of cooperation that reminds the partners to act in favour of workers’ rights, which would be a favourable development in the partnership and an example to other international investors. However, BRICS partners need to be cognizant of their commitments. This would be a good opportunity for South Africa’s contribution to its 2018 presidency and South Africa may use its strong civil society as a reminder for what it has pledged to achieve in terms of sustainability and developing human capital and incorporate forth coming policy recommendations into an active strategy for its geostrategic placing in the BRICS partnership. As the BRICS partnership approaches its second decade, the role of civil society could be a sobering voice for the partnership to balance its geostrategic aspirations while maintaining the inclusive development of societies through consultation and participation.

Ms Arina Muresan holds a Masters in Political Science from the University of Johannesburg and is a researcher at the Institute for Global Dialogue associated with UNISA. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD

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