Run IBSA, Run

The India-Brazil-South Africa summit can prove immensely fruitful if only there is more focus on tangibly shared gains and the will and imagination to achieve them
Sanjay Kapoor Brasilia 

The imprimatur of Brasilia's legendary city planner and architect, Oscar Niemeyer, is really compelling at the Itamaraty Palace. Headquarters of Brazil's foreign office that has begun to give content to Brazil and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's regional and global ambitions, Itamaraty conveys business till you step in it. Visitors have to traipse through a long bridge over an ornamental pool replete with small islands of tropical plants to reach the grand column-free 220-square meter hall.

After attending the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) summit on April 15, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh found himself waiting in Itamaraty's imposing hall that also serves as a fascinating backdrop to courageous architectural design and avant-garde art. Despite the stifling protocols of these summits, the expansiveness of the venue and relaxed security seemed to rub on the prime minister who seemed to be in an unusually chatty mood.

When some journalists caught up with him and asked him about including China in IBSA, then he was categorical about the fact that the glue that bound the trilateral initiative was democracy. Implicit in his remarks was the fact that since China does not practise parliamentary democracy, so it has little space in this trilateral grouping. So what about Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) summit, which was to take place a few hours later? "BRIC is an idea of Goldman Sachs. We are trying to give it some shape." 

At the face of it, the prime minister may be giving greater importance to IBSA over BRIC when he said that "IBSA was coming on its own," but he seemed cognisant of the phenomenal rise of China and how it was changing equations of every multilateral forum. Although China's inclusion in IBSA may have been dismissed, but the moral quotient of IBSA, being underpinned by parliamentary democracy, seems to be misplaced when it is apparent that China is part of every other grouping of which India is a member - whether it is G-20 or BASIC.

From this standpoint, China cannot be pariah in the case of one group and acceptable in the rest. It is these existential misgivings that blight IBSA. World Bank Chairman Robert Zoellick in a recent paper that heralds the end of the third world, has questioned, the wisdom of having such groups. He talks about multiple poles of growth where new patterns of "integration combine regional intensification with global openness". His worldview provides fair space to China to do its bit to lift Africa and other poor countries out of poverty.  

Although the start of IBSA was quite tentative, it held great promise when it was conceived in 2003 by the leaders of three countries on the sidelines of UN General Assembly. Subsequently, the three foreign ministers met in Brasilia in 2003 again and came out with a Brasilia Declaration that served as a charter for future cooperation between three large democracies straddling three continents. 

The endeavour of this initiative was to ascertain whether it was possible to build on the burgeoning relationship based on trade and other issues at multilateral forums like UN and WTO. Till some differences surfaced on the issue of agriculture last year, the three countries had been coordinating action in WTO and controlling the course of dialogue in trade negotiations.  

India, Brazil and South Africa have shown accelerated economic growth in the past few years and they are also well integrated in global production networks and have internationalised enterprises. They have comparative advantage in different sectors: India in services, space technology; Brazil in agriculture, bio-fuels and manufacturing, and South Africa in agriculture, energy and manufacturing. From this standpoint, there is great scope for working together.

An UNCTAD paper written in 2007 by Lakshmi Puri titled 'IBSA - An Emerging Trinity in the New Geography of International Trade', builds a case for South-South cooperation and how it can give new direction and content to trade and development in these continents. The push to facilitate these partnerships has to come from governments. There were suggestions that the three governments would conceive some big, viable projects in the area of energy or transport systems to kickstart this relationship. 

During IBSA's fourth edition in Brasilia, the leaders of the three countries agreed to work towards launching a satellite to track earth-related issues and engage in climate studies. Although the planned date is 2012, no money has been allocated to this joint enterprise. Seven years into IBSA, more such projects were to be planned in different sectors of the economy, but for a host of reasons they have not produced results. The most important being distance. 

All these countries have not been able to create a dedicated shipping corridor that takes ships from India to South Africa and then to Brazil. Most of the Indian carriers have to take the European route to reach the ports of Brazil. Even when it comes to air-connectivity, India does not have flights to Latin America. Indian businessmen have complained of distance, in case of enlarging their relationship with Brazil; but this is a specious argument as China is a major investor in Brazil. 

There has been some token Indian presence in Brazil. Tata has a partnership with Brazil bus manufacturers. Brazilian aircraft company - Embraer - has a tie-up in India's defence sector.

It is in the area of agriculture and bio-fuels that India was expected to invest substantially, but for some reasons they have kept their hands in their pockets. According to Rakesh Vaidyanathan, who heads the BRIC institute in Sao Paulo, India should invest in agriculture for long-term food security. "Surprisingly, there have been no significant moves in this direction," he said.

Bilaterally, though, India and South Africa have shown a pick up in trade and commerce. Many Indian companies have big presence there. India's brand has benefited from the IPL cricket tournament that was organised in 2009 in South Africa. Rough estimates show that the IPL brought in $2 billion to recession-racked South Africa in a space of just 45 days. Bharati Airtel's attempts to buy telecom major MTN may not have succeeded, but the exercise displayed the international character of Indian companies. In the area of drugs and pharmaceuticals too, India has established big presence.

IBSA countries, with a large mass of people under poverty, have been trying to learn from each other's experience in tackling this scourge. The architecture of programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) of India or Bolsa Familia of Brazil is being studied closely by academicians and government agencies for possible replication in different societies. An IBSA-fund has been set up to finance small projects in Ramallah, Haiti and Laos. Also, different forums have been set up to create a favourable environment for this initiative. 

Despite these measures, there is a manifest lack of enthusiasm for IBSA in all the three countries. Brasilia has displayed general indifference. The man on the street did not have a clue what this event was all about. Same holds for the media. Indian media, obsessed as it is with Pakistan, terror and its domestic affairs, did not really bother about the outcome of this summit. IBSA initiative, if it works, has interesting implications - only if there is clarity about what it seeks to achieve.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2010