The rise of the BRICS?

Is rapid development in a handful of large and increasingly powerful countries transforming the global economy? Or is ‘BRICS’ just a catchy slogan?

Matthew Bishop
Matthew Bishop

The world is undergoing a deep and protracted process of change, with power shifting from ‘the West’ to ‘the East’.

In both academic and more popular literature, commentators are suggesting that we are seeing the  ‘rise’ of five increasingly influential countries: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa; commonly referred to as ‘the BRICS’, a concept first coined by researchers at Goldman Sachs investment bank.

It was given added impetus by Fareed Zakaria’s well-received book The Post American World, which identified how ‘the rise of the rest’ will usher in (and arguably already is) a period of relative American decline in the coming decades.

But does the ‘rise of the BRICS’ capture these complex changes? There are in fact a number of unresolved problems with the concept.

Firstly, can these countries actually be said to be ‘rising’, in a simple and straightforward way?

Moscow, for example, is hardly a new kid on the diplomatic block, and it was only twenty years ago that we spoke of Russia as an imperial ‘superpower’.

Similarly China, if we take a much longer historical view – as do a number of influential observers, including much of the Chinese intellectual and political elite – can be seen to have been a powerful and influential civilisational force for many centuries, even since before the establishment of the modern USA. China’s supposed arrival at the Western-dominated top table is but a recent chapter in a much longer story.

The second issue is that, for this conceptual idea to carry real weight, there probably has to be some kind of core dynamic driving the rapid development of these five countries, and potentially even a central shared agenda or ideology. They have, of course, sought to institutionalise the BRICS as an official organisation with regular summits, which suggests a degree of unity.

But the ‘BRICS’ are also extremely diverse. Russia is an increasingly authoritarian yet highly precarious state largely dependent on resource rents which are vulnerable to shifts in global energy prices. India has seen a boom in high-tech industries in certain enclaves, yet rural life for the majority has changed little.

Similarly, Brazil’s recent development has been underpinned by dramatic agrarian change that has seen a reassertion of elite dominance and marginalization – along with mass unemployment – for much of the rural peasantry (more on From Doha to El Dorado?, PDF, 254KB). South Africa is in the list largely because it’s perceived as the most powerful country in Africa, giving the ‘BRICS’ greater regional balance.

This brings us to the third dilemma; there could be a degree of selection bias in the countries that have been chosen. Selection has been based mainly on recent economic growth, rather than the wealth of other indicators that might have generated different selections.

So if we push the envelope a little further, as some thinkers have done, we might decide Mexico and the ASEAN-4 (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand) deserve mention. Then what if we go even further, to include other regional economic powerhouses like Nigeria, Turkey or Argentina? The concept’s usefulness starts to break down quite quickly.

Finally, we come to the fourth issue that builds on this idea and is more abstract and theoretical: what does the idea of a ‘rise’ actually tell us, beyond simply the fact that these countries are growing and becoming more powerful?

It teaches us little about why China is apparently diversifying and growing its economy more dramatically than the other four BRICS. It offers few clues as to whether Brazil will achieve its ambition of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, or what it might use such influence for. It also cannot explain how many of these countries will cope with the intense demographic pressures, inequalities, and rural/urban divides that are disfiguring their societies much more rapidly than they ever did in Western Europe and North America (where industrial revolutions took generations, rather than a couple of decades).

The ‘rise of the BRICS’ is useful for describing what is happening to our rapidly changing world. But it tells us much less about how this change is coming about, why it matters, or, indeed, where we might be going.

These five countries have very different social models, their patterns of state-society relations and political competition are extremely diverse, and they are exercising a range of strategies to achieve their (very different) ends. All of which are predicated on very different assumptions, and with varying implications.

Nonetheless, the ‘rise of the BRICS’ as an idea of our time, is undoubtedly here to stay. So, what can we take from it?

It does make us think very clearly about the changing terms of the global political economy of development, in which much greater diversity must be recognised and understood.

And it forces us to rethink the role of the state in development: it’s no surprise that those countries that are doing well enjoy an activist state which is engaging in strategic policy, rather than, to use Vince Cable’s own words, the misguided supply-side ‘voodoo economics’ preferred by the current UK government.

Finally, it compels us to consider those developing countries which are having far less success, and which are excluded from  – as well as both confused, worried, and threatened by – the extraordinary changes which we are witnessing unfold.