In the last few years, the abbreviated word of “BRICS” became the buzz word on the global political, economic and social stage. Particularly last week, the words “BRICS”
and the “BRICS Countries” were at the center stage of African political and economic debate. This is due to the fact that the “5th BRICS Summit” was held, for the first time, in Africa.
Gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest and major business city, President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, President Putin of Russia, Prime Minister Sing of India, President Ping of China and the host President Jacob Zuma of South Africa, spent two days deliberating on a number of issues of common interest, mainly economic. In addition to other Southern Africa Presidents such as the likes of Eduardo dos Santos, President of Angola, the other equivalent notable who rubbed shoulders with the five big shots of BRICS was our Prime Minister, Hailemariam Dessalegn. He attended the Summit under his capacity as the current Chairman of the African Union. Prime Minister Hailemariam, in his keynote address, emphasized the need for Africa to further increase its building of economic infrastructures to achieve sustainable economic growth.
At the conclusion of their 5th Annual Summit, the leaders of the BRICS countries offered a list of proposals to developing countries, particularly African countries, in order to tackle their current economic problems and to achieve sustainable development. The most important outcome of the Summit, probably, was their consensus to establish the “Development Bank of BRICS”.
The enormous and increasing influence of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) can be seen in many areas including economics, politics and culture. The economies of the BRICS countries have expanded significantly, and in 2011 China overtook Japan to become the second largest global economy. Brazil and India are now sixth and ninth, respectively.
The expanding influence of the BRICS countries is impacting global economics, politics and culture. The health sector is no exception. While growth in the BRICS countries has recently begun to slow, it has shown greater resilience than growth in the US and Europe in the face of the global financial crisis. Their foreign assistance spending also has been increasing at very high rates. One of the distinguishing features of these countries is beyond direct assistance; they are investing considerable time, money and energy building their capacity in science and technology. Through platforms like the BRICS forum, they are also exploring opportunities for a more formal collaboration among themselves and with other developing countries.
Without much propaganda and pomp, the BRICS countries are all established providers of foreign assistance; however, their contributions have increased significantly over the last five years. They are often referred to as “emerging” or “non-traditional” donors, but each has been providing different levels of assistance to other countries for decades. As the US and Europe have slowed donor spending due to their economic crisis, the BRICS countries’ assistance programs have become much more prominent.
The funding involved is still relatively small when compared to overall spending by the US and Western European countries. China is by far the largest contributor, and South Africa is likely the smallest by a significant margin. However, in recent years the growth in their assistance spending has accelerated. According to the Global Health Strategies Initiative(GHSI) recent research report, between 2005-2010, Brazil’s assistance spending grew by 20.4% annually, India’s by 10.8% annually, China’s by 23.9% annually, and South Africa’s by 8% annually. Russia’s assistance increased substantially early in the same period, before stabilizing at around $450 million per year. Brazil and Russia prioritize health within their broader assistance agendas. China, India and South Africa are all contributing to some degree, but their formal programs focus on other issue areas.
BRICS countries are employing approaches to foreign assistance that are different from traditional donors and shaped by domestic experiences. They have made health advances over the past few decades, and their policymakers feel this equips them with a unique perspective on improving health outcomes in developing countries. As a result, all of them except for Russia, openly reject “Western” approaches to foreign assistance in favour of models anchored in domestic programs and their own political and social philosophies.
Aside from Russia, BRICS countries do not like to see themselves as donors. Instead, they see themselves as developing country partners that are sharing best practices and helping other countries build self-sustaining growth.
As with Western donors, economic and political interests are influencing BRICS countries as they expand their development and health assistance programs. There is no question that their health and development programs and policies are guided by broader strategic priorities. Other approaches have generated criticism: both India and China may tie some assistance to the purchase of domestically produced goods. It is important to note that many traditional donors are influenced by politics and economics.
According to several studies on global aid, between 1970 and 1994, 78% of the UK’s bilateral aid and 57% of France’s bilateral aid went to former colonies, and the UK recently announced it was refocusing aid on Commonwealth countries. Meanwhile, much of US aid is used to procure domestically produced goods and services. Four out of the US government’s five food assistance programs procure their food aid in-country, and the US requires that 75% of its commodities are shipped on US-flag vessels. Rough estimates suggest that in the fiscal year 2004 more than 90% of US food aid expenditures were spent in the US. Innovative domestic health programs and policies in BRICS countries are increasingly influencing health practices worldwide.
According the report of the GHSI, given its small international assistance program, South Africa’s influence in global health has largely been through examples produced in its efforts to combat HIV/AIDS and TB, particularly in recent years, as it has strengthened its domestic programs. Similarly, India’s low-cost health service delivery programs and recent success interrupting polio transmission offer templates for countries trying to get to the most difficult-to-reach populations. Brazil’s commitments to health equity, HIV treatment and nutrition programs have all been recognized as models for success in resource poor countries.
BRICS countries are taking steps to broadly prioritize health as an essential element of development and foreign policy and to coordinate these efforts through the BRICS forum. The production of high-quality, lower-cost health technologies by these countries are improving access in resource-poor countries. The growing investment in early-stage research and development (R&D) by them could have a similar long-term impact. Arguably, of the BRICS countries contributions to health, one of the examples that have the most impact is the role that Indian companies have played in expanding global access to vaccines and essential medicines.
At the same time, all of the BRICS countries are investing heavily in science and technology. According to the GHSI report, China, for example, has pledged to increase R&D expenditures to 2.5% of GDP by 2020, while India has just launched a US 1 billion innovation fund focused on problems afflicting developing countries.
Some of these innovations have grown out of commercial interests and others from efforts to address domestic health challenges. Yet the health challenges of BRICS countries are often similar to those in many developing countries and their innovations could quickly reach and benefit populations in need. As they continue to prioritize innovation, they could expand the supply of health technologies that are appropriate and affordable for developing-country settings, while pushing down prices across the globe.
In the final analysis, with the above in mind, there are also other global political, economic and social sectors in which the BRICS countries will play a prominent role for the betterment of millions of people in the developing world in particular and in the world in general.