Towards an autonomous civil society space in BRICS and the G20

Towards an autonomous civil society space in BRICS and the G20: critical reflections from our Post-BRICS & Pre-G20 Dialogue Workshop with SANI members & partner stakeholders

Johannesburg | 30 September 2015

Blog by the South African Network Inequality (SANI)

‘Comrades, there is one thing that we must remain cognisant of and that is that the BRICS is here. BRICS is here and it is in South Africa. The regional African Development Bank is in Johannesburg South Africa. What is important is to ensure that there is maximum accountability in terms of the foreign policy that our government employs in the Africa region and the globe.’

This is how Sibulele Poswayo, Project Manager in the South African National Inequality Network (SANI), chose to explain to delegates why civil society must engage with BRICS, the G20 and other multilateral structures.   Of course, there were opposing views that differed sharply from the perspective offered here, but a generous and open spirit characterised the proceedings of this workshop convened by the Economic Justice Network’s (EJN) SANI on 30 September in Johannesburg, South Africa. The workshop was used to share civil society organisations’ (CSO) experiences of the recently held BRICS meetings in Russia and to look forward to the upcoming G20 meeting. Underlying all the deliberations was an attempt to unpack the issue of an autonomous civil society contribution to the BRICS agenda, how best to use that space within BRICS, and to position activist Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) as the premier interface between government and civil society on BRICS-related matters.

The deliberations at the workshop were framed around a number of key issues, which were spelled out in the opening address to the workshop by the Executive Director of EJN, Malcolm Damon. He elaborated on seven key issues that reflected both existing experiences of CSOs within BRICS as well as philosophical and practical challenges that CSOs face in their dealings with the formal BRICS structures.  Reflecting on CSO experiences, he argued that the effectiveness of CSOs in promoting their development agendas ultimately depends on the specific Presidency of the BRICS or G20 formations. In a recently held G20 meeting in Turkey, the statement from the civil society formations in the G20 (known as the C20) was officially accepted by the Deputy Prime Minster of that country and an undertaking was given that it will be discussed within the structures of the G20. However, there is no guarantee or accepted mechanism that would ensure that the views of civil society would be treated with the same degree of respect as was evident in the Turkey G20 meeting in future Presidencies of the multilateral structures.

He further argued that governments have side-lined CSOs by treating formal business, their networks and think-tanks as the true representatives of civil society. This often meant that these organisations functioned as gate-keepers by filtering out views that would be challenging to the status quo. In terms of tactical guidance in how best to play in the BRICS space, he made a number of pertinent suggestions. One, CSO formations must discuss how to challenge the dominance of formal business in the G20 and BRICS structures. Two, CSOs must broaden their understanding of ownership of development issues and avoid simply supporting and acquiescing in national-led or country-specific agendas. This was vital as issues discussed at BRICS have implications beyond the countries represented at the BRICS meetings. Three, there is a need for a critical discussion about whether CSO formations work within the agenda determined by Presidencies or whether energy should be devoted to crafting additional and independent agendas. He mentioned the case of food security, which was not present in the original Turkey agenda, but after thoughtful reflection by a United Nations Agency-with the support of CSOs-this issue became part of the formal agenda. This scenario betrays the risk of operating as an insider. Four, there are tremendous challenges that need to be navigated around civil society’s insider status and the limiting conditions in some BRICS countries that make it hard to pursue outside strategies. There is need for both strategies and such a view should promote common ground among CSOs that fundamentally differ in their approach to BRICS and the G20. Finally, BRICS and the G20 offer multiple advocacy opportunities, precisely because these structures are driven by consensus-forming.  This allows CSOs access to government representatives and present us with the opportunities to influence national government positions.

Although the two ensuing panel discussions were not intended to provide a response to the opening address, it is more interesting to report and reflect on the discussions in the two panels against this backdrop. Both panels grappled with understanding and promoting autonomous spaces in BRICS and G20 for Southern CSO formations. The first panel, which dealt with CSOs in BRICS, was more split about the strategic value of engaging with BRICS. Some panellists and members of the audience questioned whether BRICS represents a departure from the status quo and pointed out that there is little evidence of any advocacy or policy gains as a result of this engagement. For Fatima Shabodien from Actionaid South Africa, accepting to participate in BRICS structures robs CSOs of the opportunity to define alternative social and economic justice models.

On the other hand, Corlette Letlojane from HURISA felt that the decisions made within BRICS have consequences that cannot be ignored or left alone to government players alone. Furthermore, because BRICS is a cross-country forum, existing national, regional and international legal instruments provide an immediate and useful engagement angle.

In terms of how to engage with BRICS, Sibulele Poswayo urged delegates to focus on four key issues pertaining to inequality. These include wealth, social, income & gender equality, clarifying the relevance of the NGO agendas, claiming ownership of the development agenda (especially in relation to the new Development Bank) and regionalising the importance of the New Development Bank’s sensitivity to environmental and social safeguards in its development finance strategies. The latter point drew further comment in that some panellists and members of the audience felt that South Africa and its CSOs are growing further apart from their African counterparts, thus risking alienating the country and the BRICS project. Finally, an important contribution of the panel was to recognise that the legitimacy of the multilateral structures lies in the ability of countries to embed projects at the local government level. Yared Tsegay from the Africa Monitor argued that an excessive focus on the global and regional dimension of the work of BRICS is unlikely to endear the structure and its projects to local constituencies.

Members of the second panel dealt with diverse issues that included reflections on climate-smart agriculture (Gray Maguire from Project 90X30), gender equality (Sakina Mohammed from POWA), and the capturing of high-value chains by the more developed countries (Ayabonga Cawa from Rethink Africa). The panel was united in its reflection on actual practices and how these could help define a clearer role for CSOs in multilateral structures. All panellists mentioned the importance of South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) for their respective sectors, but stopped short of saying that the NDP has already changed practices in their sectors.   In fact, Sakina Mohammed was clear that the NDP did not necessarily herald more resources for the work her organisation does in promoting gender equality, but it has forced them to think about strategic partnerships with others that engage in the business of promoting women’s and children’s rights.

The second panel echoed the conclusions of the first panel that cross-country development and advocacy work could be rooted in regional and international instruments and thatcountry-specific laws and practices can be singled out for good or bad practice models. For example, the climate–smart presentation by Gray Maguire suggested the adoption of an existing instrument (the Human Development Index) and expanding it by including a measure of our ecological footprint. These positions will not only make sense in a South Africa context, but could be usefully shared with CSOs in China, India, Brazil and Russia.

A very important issue that emerged from the second panel was the notion of ‘a global division of labour.’ Ayabonga Cawa argued persuasively that a potentially energising issue across the BRICS countries could be clarifying how these national economies position themselves to take up higher value chain activities in the global economy. So instead of South Africa focusing solely on extracting platinum reserves, we should think of value addition in the form of beneficiation etc. However, because of the prevalence of poverty in many BRICS economies, caution was advocated in adopting models that would exacerbate exclusion of the poor.

Given all the reflections, what is the way forward for SANI in promoting autonomous spaces for civil society in BRICS and the G20? Sibulele Poswayo, Project Manager in SANI, in closing the meeting, summarised possible trajectories

  • It is vital that network members of SANI assert themselves and dictate to the SANI secretariat the key priorities that EJN needs to take into the BRICS and G20 meetings towards addressing inequality in both spaces;
  • There is a clear need to dig deeper into the notion of inequality and we owe it to ourselves to understand inequality at a deeper level as SANI members to ensure that we can articulate our SANI position to other South African, African & BRICS civil societies;
  • We need to explore the commonality among organisations that choose to employ the insider or outsider advocacy strategy of BRICS/G20 to enhance cohesion instead of promoting further fragmentation of civil society;
  • In spite of the profile of our agriculture work, SANI must continue to focus on other prominent inequality issues, especially its work on social security and tax justice.
  • SANI needs to align itself firmly with elements of the broader African civil society and we must guard against isolationist tendencies; and

So what is the key lesson that emerged from these reflections? Put simply, given that the engagement with BRICS structures is still new, CSOs need to remain tactically astute in crafting and consolidating a role within these formations. This is best put in a remark made by Sibulele Poswayo in her presentation on the first panel.

‘We need to remain within the core group. We need to remain within the core group of the leaders, the business and academics and not to make the same mistake that labour has made. Labour has been moving on its own for the past couple of years and as a matter of fact, it is not within the core groups.’

This approach of borrowing strength from other structures in BRICS should ultimately lead to a wide acceptance of the unique and indispensable role of civil society in orienting BRICS and the G20 away from the powerful and towards the needs of the poor and vulnerable in our societies.

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