Unpacking the BRICS Summit 2020 - Development benefits for South Africa and Africa / Ashraf Patel
The BRICS group of nations was formed in 2010 with a view to promote closer economic, political, developmental and peace and security objectives in a multi-polar world. Moscow has taken over the chairmanship of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in 2020, at a time when multilateralism is under severe strain due to resurgent nationalisms in many regions of the world. The Russian government is planning to organize at least 150 events at expert and ministerial levels during its term, which will culminate in the hosting of the BRICS summit. In addition, the five heads of state will hold an unofficial meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit convened by Saudi Arabia in November.
Since 2009 BRICS has achieved tangible results and has gained a reputation as a powerful and independent bloc: established coordination mechanisms within itself that are conducive to effective cooperation in politics, trade, finance, sport and culture. This year Moscow is to focus on further enhancement of foreign policy alignment among member states on key issues on the international agenda, most importantly those discussed at the United Nations. The Russian leader Vladimir Putin believes that BRICS countries should play a pivotal role in the UN.
Russia’s chairmanship in BRICS has the potential to yield positive outcomes for South Africa and its ailing economy. Russia strongly supports the need for the dialogue with the Global South. Thus, it will seek to reinvigorate the BRICS outreach and BRICS+ programmes. Both mechanisms can be used by South Africa to advance the interests of the AU and SADC within the bloc and its allies. Except for the 2019 summit in Brasilia, expanded outreach meetings have been taking place on the sidelines of BRICS summits since 2013, which involve the presiding country’s neighbours. There is also the expectation for the New Development Bank (NDB) to announce new members, with some of them most likely to come from Africa. Additional African countries on board will assist South Africa in attaining the SDGs envisaged by Agenda 2063 with the help of the BRICS states.
South Africa’s borrowing alone from the bank for sustainable infrastructure projects has already reached the mark of $2 billion, representing roughly 16% of the NDB’s total portfolio, and more than $1.5 billion will follow in further loans. Both BRICS and NDB have proven themselves to be reliable and resilient institutions that are not influenced by the West.
Addressing the equitable trade equity & digital economy development issues.
The BRICS Digital Agenda provides interesting insight into the emerging agenda of BRICS and the Global South. As members of the UN and its key agencies such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as well as UNESCO, all BRICS nations align to these international fora, both in the domain of cyber resilience as well as the regulation of the digital economy. For instance, the recent BRICS summits in Goa in 2016; Xiamin in 2017; Johannesburg in 2018; and Brasilia in 2019 all discussed 4IR and Development and offered an avenue to share domestic experiences in a new Digital industrialization model, and keeping the internet safe, data uncompromised and access affordable – a challenging task indeed. How can the various stakeholder institutions in the BRICS countries work together to address these common challenges? The Digital BRICS themes related to internet policies: the new BRICS 4IR centre, digital industrial development, institutional cooperation in Cyberspace, access and inclusion, Internet and pluralistic Governance and the digital economy. 
While it is clear that digital economy, 4IR and e-commerce is developing rapidly across the globe, the proposed WTO E commerce treaty is a site for contestation, with current models of this development highly uneven, asymmetrical, with e-commerce (both in platforms, sales, revenues and jobs) extremely concentrated amongst a few countries. Indeed, critical segments of the digital economy and e-commerce are highly oligopolistic, replete with instances of rent-seeking, anti-competitive practices, tax evasion, and associated with a weakening of labour conditions and marginalisation of SME’s. The challenge for BRICS policy makers, regulators, academics and the private sector, and civil society alike will lie in fostering greater access to the Internet, creating new innovations & apps, funding creative solutions on the labour disruption and new skills development for 21st century jobs; Additional engagement will be driven by tech-facilitated creative solutions and mechanisms for digital innovation for the creative sector; including how tech solutions are changing the game, using blockchain, smart contracts and digital copyright solutions.
Early indications are that Moscow is determined to renew the BRICS Strategy for Partnership in Trade and Investment adopted at the 2015 Ufa summit. The BRICS working group on tourism is to resume its meetings this year after being neglected under the Brazilian chairmanship. Given the importance attached by the National Development Plan (NDP) to the hospitality sector of the economy, South Africa can capitalize on deepening cooperation with the BRICS partners in this sphere and market itself as a major tourist and business events destination. The impact of tourism cannot be overestimated, as it supports more than 1.6 million jobs in South Africa and accounts for more than 9% of the country’s GDP.
As a part of the long-term planning for the bloc’s economic development Moscow also calls for defining new strategy tasks aimed at boosting cooperation between specific industries up until 2025. The five countries have great potential to boost collaboration in transport, agriculture and energy fields. Russia will further promote the projects of Energy Research Platform and the BRICS Women Business Alliance. Since China is the world's largest producer of photovoltaic power (surpassing EU countries); and Russia has profound expertise in constructing nuclear and gas-fired power plants, both states can contribute to the diversification of SA’s energy mix and ease the burden on Eskom’s energy supply gap.
Another vital area of cooperation between the BRICS member countries is to deliver real benefits for people and help improve living standards and the quality of life. That is why the 2020 agenda includes such topics as the development and integration of remote areas, the exchange of experience in regulatory impact assessment, strengthening ties in healthcare, including fighting infectious and non-infectious diseases. In the light of the recent novel coronavirus outbreak it is of paramount importance for BRICS members to join efforts in combating the deadly disease known as 2019-nCoV.
Moscow has made it clear that 4IR-related projects should be a priority for the bloc, for this reason digital trade, the use of digital solutions in the field of intellectual property development and the promotion of artificial intelligence technologies will be high on the agenda of the summit. An exchange of opinions will help SA embrace innovative digital technologies and tap into the global ICT market to create new jobs. With an unemployment rate of 29% such an opportunity cannot be missed.
Vladimir Putin highlighted that Russia seeks to strengthen the existing BRICS structures and financial mechanisms, namely the New Development Bank (NDB), the Contingent Reserve Arrangement and its microeconomic data exchange system. Moscow will also be promoting the development and integration of BRICS national payment systems to reduce dependence on the US dollar in international transactions. An efficient BRICS payment system can encourage payments in national currencies and ensure sustainable payments and investments among the five countries, which make up over 20% of the global inflow of foreign direct investment.
The upcoming summit will rely heavily on the input from the academic community, namely the BRICS Think Tanks. The chapters in Beijing and Moscow have held their first planning meetings in early January 2020. Russia will further promote the activities of the BRICS Network University, expand contacts between academic and scientific centres, research institutions and universities in the five member countries. BRICS academics firmly believe that their work will offer much-needed advice on future progress of the group and help the five leaders be at the forefront of international decision-making.
Mr. Ashraf Patel is a development and public policy analyst and researcher with a focus on digital and ICT policy regulation, knowledge economy and innovation policy. He is currently a Senior Research Associate at the IGD focusing on the digital economy. Mr Patel has over 15 years of experience in Public Policy, development, management advisory, communications, stakeholder management, ICT policy and telecoms regulation, innovation systems development, e-education projects and ICT4D initiatives in various capacities in South Africa & Sub-Saharan Africa. Mr Patel's various roles and responsibilities included ICT Policy research programme manager, Africa ICT/Telecoms analyst as well as innovation programme coordinator.