Guest blog post by: Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez | Deputy Global Programme Manager | Empowering CSO Networks in an Unequal Multi-Polar World | Follow on Twitter @t_dunmore
When the leaders of the BRICS countries were recently jetted into the Brazilian coastal city of Fortaleza for their annual meeting, just a few kilometres away, civil society organisations from the same five countries were discussing an alternative economic and political model at the BRICS Peoples´ Forum (see video here).
For many, the BRICS grouping represents an opportunity to build an alternative discourse on sustainable and equitable development at a global level. The official BRICS declaration from Fortaleza, in line with previous declarations, talks about ´Inclusive Growth and Sustainable Solutions´. It refers to a commitment to peace, social inclusion, equality, sustainable development and cooperation.
However, after several years of such meetings questions are being raised as to whether this discourse is turning into actions. One advance is that the much heralded BRICS Bank has finally been launched to provide fresh sources of financing for infrastructure and sustainable development. When asked by participants at the People´s Forum what kind of projects the bank would fund, a representative from the Brazilian government stated that the definition of ´sustainable development´ was still lacking, and he emphasised that the BRICS Bank was exactly that, a bank to lend money and not a development agency.
At the People´s Forum a diverse range of trade unions, social movements and NGOs engaged in debate. Landless people, fisherfolk, women, indigenous groups, amongst many others, passionately described how for them the BRICS bloc meant nothing more to them than a continuation of the same economic model that has caused exclusion for large parts of the population in these so-called ’emerging economies’. There may be impressive economic growth in all five countries, but growth for whom was the question being asked by many here, and how long can this growth continue, given that it is built on the exploitation of natural resources.
With the exception of Brazil, the BRICS countries have all become more unequal in terms of income distribution over the past 20 years. Even Brazil remains one of the most unequal countries in the world, despite the introduction of effective poverty-reduction measures. Brazil´s lauded ´Bolsa Familia´ programme, and regular increases in the minimum wage are often seen as examples to be followed. Yet voices from civil society draw attention to the fact that the underlying economic model has not changed. Large-scale agriculture and extractive industries continue to drive the country´s economy, and there is a general sense that these have largely benefitted a wealthy and powerful elite, whilst harming the environment and doing little if anything to improve the lives of the poor.
The differences in perspective are striking. For many, the BRICS would appear to hold promise. The declaration from the leaders of these five countries makes commitments unseen in other global groupings like the G20 or G8. Yet at the People´s Forum, it is clear that the vibrant array of civil society organisations from across the BRICS remains unconvinced. Perhaps a key sign of a real alternative being constructed will be whether the BRICS leaders themselves engage in a meaningful dialogue with these critical voices.