BRICS in Africa – challenging the old order or consolidating it?

Arriving in Maputo last week I came across what has become a familiar sight in African airports: I don’t mean the big groups of Chinese businesspeople and officials passing through immigration, I mean the smaller groups of Europeans who mope about their own displacement, and whose look of despair grows ever more gaunt as they fail to get any sympathy. Observing the self-pity you’d need a heart of stone not to laugh.

Are the old powers being felled by the new? Has the glass ceiling of Northern domination been cracked by the BRICS – the “emerging” (now emerged) powers of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. If so, then amongst the Southern civil society representatives who met in Maputo last week, this challenge to the old order could not come a moment too soon. Their message was clear: we come not to mourn the G7-led world, but to bury it. There was celebration at the breaking of the monopoly that the old powers held, and excitement at the possibilities of South-South cooperation. But there were also worries at how in too many cases the lived reality of the BRICS in Africa for people had diverged so far from the promise.

BRICS are a work in progress. There is very little institutional solidity to the BRICS right now – their first intergovernmental institution, the BRICS bank, has just named its President and has not yet lent a penny. Very few people, if any, can be said to have been impacted by a “BRICS” decision. But civil society organisations have witnessed the impact of the BRICS in Africa, and sense where things are heading – and have reasons for cheers and for fears.

A story told about a bus: One day a bus was driving in the pouring rain, and as it drove towards its next stop, the people inside the bus, said ‘Don’t stop, if you let those people on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ But the people at the bus stop called out ‘Please stop, we are cold and wet, and there is room enough for all.’ The bus stopped and the people got on, but when they got to the next stop there were more people asking to get on and those same people who had just got on said of those outside, ‘Don’t stop, if you let them on it will be cramped and they will get us dirty.’ Are the BRICS challenging the old G7 elite, so that all countries can get on the bus, or are they joining to form a new elite that will keep others off the bus and in the rain?

What will be the character of the relationships between BRICS countries and poorer developing countries: respect, or domination? To the BRICS bank pledge that it will be client-centred, people asked “who is the client?” A participant summed up the impact of a mining project in her locality that is backed by a number of BRICS countries: “Poisoned water. Poisoned air. Forced displacement. Abuse of workers. Non-payment of taxes. A crack down on protest.” She asked: “Is this South-South? Is this cooperation?” There were other, positive, stories too – of projects supporting family farming and genuine technology transfer. These different examples provided an opportunity for participants to sketch out both their no and their yes. Yes to investment, no to landgrabbing. Yes to welcoming companies, no to accepting tax avoidance. Yes to growth, no to dangerously widening inequality. Yes to agreements reached by consent, no to force. Yes to getting rid of the old elite, no to a new elite. Yes to the Bandung Conference of 1955, no to the Berlin Conference of 1884-5.

The most important solidarity, it was said, is between people. A couple of weeks ago in Brazil, members of the landless movement told me about how they had been right to celebrate when Lula swept into the Presidency, but wrong to assume that all that mattered was who was in power. The work of civil society in challenging the powerful must go on whoever the powerful are and wherever they are from. Last week’s meeting in Maputo reaffirmed that truth for international engagement too.

A key aspect of the discussions was the need to go beyond making policy recommendations to the BRICS. Emphasis was placed on self-determination. No one – from the West, the East, the North, or the South – is coming to save anyone. BRICS do represent a challenge to the old order but the economic logic they represent is similar. The concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few will not be undermined by the rise of the BRICS, but it can be challenged by citizens. Communities need to set out, together: What is the development we want? How do we strengthen our power? So that whoever comes, from wherever, will see that guests are welcome but exploitation will be difficult to get away with. As the defeat of colonialism showed, the power of the people is stronger than the people in power.

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Ben Phillips

About Ben Phillips

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, the growing movement for a more equal world. He has lived and worked in four continents and a dozen cities, and led programmes and campaigns teams in Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children, the Children's Society, the Global Call to Action Against Poverty and the Global Campaign for Education. He began his development work at the grassroots, as a teacher and ANC activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, in 1994, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76