This is the transcript of a speech that the author gave at a panel discussion on ‘Contemporary Global Governance and the Role of IBSA’, hosted by RIS and the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India. Click here to view details of the event.
We are gathered here to attempt a candid appraisal of IBSA Dialogue Forum with a specific purpose: how to assist our three governments – India, Brazil, and South Africa – to chart the way forward.
The year 2018-19 marks the 15th anniversary of IBSA. A series of celebratory events have been taking place in the three countries as well as on the margins of multilateral conference or fora.
At the outset, the member-states agreed on and projected the notion that IBSA would emerge as a “unique” multilateral grouping linking major multi-cultural democracies from the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. As Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim once stated, IBSA is an alliance not against anyone, but “in favour of our peoples”; it is also “in favour of a multipolar world where democracy – political, social, cultural – prevails.”
We meet today nearly 16 years after the Brasilia Declaration of this institution. It defined the overarching goal: to be instrumental in promoting “ever closer coordination on global issues” and enhancing “trilateral cooperation” in five broad areas – trade and investment, travel and tourism, defence, transportation and civil aviation, and science and technology (including IT and energy). A remarkable proliferation of areas of cooperation followed, with sixteen working groups in operation for quite some time. Later, in October 2017, the Trilateral Ministerial Commission accepted the proposal to streamline and cluster IBSA working groups in alignment with the UN 2030 Development Goals along with its social, economic, and environmental pillars.
Against this backdrop, several specific questions crop up, which need consensual answers from us. These could form the basis of our collective advice to policymakers. Let me identify some of the key questions.
First, the global context in which IBSA operates today is vastly different from 2003, the year of its birth. The unmistakable rise of China, U.S.-China strategic competition, ascendency of protectionist impulses, arrival of Industry 4.0, and the pressing need to counter international terrorism and promote maritime security are among the major trends that define our times. How should IBSA craft a meaningful role in this changing and complex dynamics?
Second, what is the role and relevance of IBSA in the contemporary global governance? The forum was born as the voice of South-South Cooperation in the era of the Millennium Development Goals (2000-2015) and has since traversed to the age of Sustainable Development Goals (2015-2030). How well has it navigated the transition? Is our voice heard and are our views respected in so far as the crucial development issues facing the world today, are concerned?
Third, the above two questions, in turn, take us to the elephant in the room – the inevitable comparison and competition between IBSA and BRICS. In April 2011, I contributed an op-ed to the prestigious daily – The Hindu. Its title ended with a question mark: “BRICS set to outshine IBSA?” Do we agree or disagree that this indeed has happened? If indeed it has happened, why? Why did our governments allow a long hiatus to develop between the 5th summit held in 2011 and the 6th summit which is yet to be held, despite several announcements of the intention to hold it? We need to reflect and agree on the specific set of reasons and then resolve how to proceed forward.
While engaging in this, we should probably agree to sincerely compliment the three foreign ministers and the foreign ministries who have kept IBSA going – through their continued faith and leadership, regular annual meetings in New York, and useful deliberations of the Trilateral Ministerial Commission. The latest meeting of the commission, held in New York in September 2018, and its outcome remain pertinent, especially the decision to “continue to coordinate on South-South Cooperation in the run up to BAPA + 40 events.”
Fourth, a major endeavour by IBSA was in the direction of UN reform, particularly democratization and expansion of the Security Council, so that it reflects the power realities of the 21st century. The forum strongly raised its voice on this subject. Subsequently, its members placed their hopes on BRICS, considering that two of the latter’s members – Russia and China – are members of the Security Council. But, regretfully, BRICS proved a disappointment, what with its frozen position on this issue. The Indian External Affairs Minister wisely suggested in September 2018: “… we three have to ensure that our collective voice is heard clearly in BRICS and other groups on UN Security Council reforms, since if we do not speak for our own interests, no one else will.” Does IBSA need a new strategy to wage this important battle in the coming decade?
Fifth, a shining example has been the IBSA Facility for Poverty and Hunger Alleviation, popularly known as the IBSA Trust Fund or just IBSA Fund. It is meant for the neediest nations of the South. It was established in 2004 and became operational in 2006. In over a decade since then, it has completed 31 development projects in countries ranging from Burundi, Guinea-Bissau, and State of Palestine to Cambodia and Vietnam, among others. The Fund drew international attention and appreciation. However, the total expenditure by the Fund so far is $37 million. The questions are: is this the best that IBSA governments can do for the betterment of the Least Developed Countries of the world? What will take them to raise this figure significantly, if not dramatically so that it begins to make a greater difference in the lives of the relevant constituency.
Sixth, the two critical functions the IBSA Dialogue Forum has performed are: (1) to coordinate and articulate its positions on global political and economic issues as well as questions of regional importance, and (2) to forge trilateral cooperation through regular consultations, conclusion of trilateral MoUs and agreements, and launching of pilot projects. To what extent does IBSA’s performance in this respect in the past impact its perceived role in global affairs today?
Finally, as Chair, may I request the panelists to address these questions in addition to other issues they might choose to raise and debate. It may be worthwhile to remember that our role is both to analyse and advise – in a constructive, creative and consensual manner.
Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Gateway House
These remarks were given at a panel discussion at the 6th IBSA Academic Forum organised by RIS and the Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India on May 3, 2019. Click here to view details of the event.
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