Policy Brief 29: Strengthening Civil Society Influence on BRICS

The role and participation of civil society organisations within BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and its relevant institutions are critical for civic engagement, influencing policy and decision-making and holding their governments accountable. However, there is a narrow space for civil society representation at BRICS forums. The upcoming 10th BRICS Summit hosted by South Africa in July 2018 will provide an opportunity for consultation, debate and putting BRICS civil society voices firmly on the agenda.


Independent civil society organisations in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries must push for being included in the official policy, decision and ideas-making processes, structures and forums of the emerging power grouping.

Very few of the complex problems facing society, the environment and the globe can be resolved without civil society input, or by governments alone.

South Africa holds the BRICS presidency this year, and will in July host the 10th BRICS Summit. The BRICS grouping is a state-led initiative, with little direct participation by non-governmental organisations, communities and citizens.

There are no formal structures for civil society participation in BRICS institutions, decision-making and consultations. Civil society organisations for the purpose of this brief encompass non-governmental organisations (NGOs), community-based organisations (CBOs), social movements and trade unions which do not form part of the state (Edwards 2009).

Only business and select academics have so far been included in formal BRICS processes, structures and forums. A BRICS Business Council was established in 2013 to promote business, trade and investment among the business communities of the countries.

In 2009, the BRICS Academic Forum was created, bringing together researchers from each country, to provide ideas on approaches to individual country developmental challenges, how to build effective BRICS institutions, and counter the domination of global trade, economic and political architecture by industrial countries.

A BRICS Civil Society Forum was created by Russia at the 2015 BRICS Summit held in Russia. However, the forum has no formal channels into the BRICS structures, processes and decision-making. South Africa will organise a BRICS Civil Society Forum at the upcoming summit in July.

Trade unions from BRICS countries initiated a BRICS Trade Union Forum following a meeting held on the sidelines of the International Labour Organisation conference in Geneva in 2012. The Trade Union Forum is not part of the official BRICS structures, processes and decision-making.

BRICS civil society organisations have increasingly been marginalised by governments

Industrial country dominated global groupings such as the G8 and G20, have civil society forums, which are dominated mostly by industrial country civil society organisations, analysts and academics.

Russia is a limited democracy, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has state capitalism with controlled political freedom. China is pursuing state capitalism in a one-party state, with little political freedoms. Russia and China have marginalised civil society within their countries, and has especially clamped down on international NGOs (Simon 2011; Buxton and Konovalova 2012; Cook et al 2015; Zhang 2015).

Brazil, India and South Africa are the globe’s leading developing country democracies. South Africa has channels for civil society to participate in its engagement with the G20. South Africa’s Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) in 2015 established the South African Council on International Relations (SACOIR), in which civil society, organised labour, business and academia are represented to shape the country’s foreign policy (DIRCO 2015).

However, under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, this democratic channel has been significantly reduced. The Jacob Zuma presidency has been hostile to civil society organisations, alleging they were “puppets” of industrial powers, wanting to unseat him (Gallens 2017; Gerber 2017). Nevertheless, mobilisation by civil society organisations has been instrumental in getting Zuma to resign because of his undemocratic decisions, corruption and mismanagement (Gumede 2018).

Brazil has structured democratic channels for civil society involvement in foreign policy (Inoue and Costa Vaz 2012; Costa Leite 2014). It has a Committee on Foreign Policy and Human Rights which pushes for transparency in international relations of the government. It holds public hearings in Brazil’s Congress, reviews the country’s positioning in the Human Rights Council and pushes for information about the government’s foreign policy decisions to be made publicly available (John 2012).

India has also increasingly restricted the space for civil society organisations (Chilkoti 2014; Mashru 2014). Indian historian Ramachandra Guha (2017) recently decried that the Indian government are increasingly using colonial-era “sedition” laws to act against civil society organisations critical of government.

Under IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) the grouping of the world’s largest developing country democracies, which has now been eclipsed by BRICS, there are formal channels for civil society, with civil society specific forums, including the media, with direct input into the IBSA official deliberations (Osava 2010; Jenkins and Mawdsley 2013; Stuenkel 2014; Dirco 2017). Such participatory institutions for civil society is wholly absent in BRICS.

Making the BRICS Business Council and Academic Forum genuinely representative

It is imperative that the BRICS Business Council is populated by genuine entrepreneurs, to provide the dynamic growth, business and innovative ideas, and not “political” capitalists or token crony ones, who parasitically live off the state.

Almost all industrial countries grew because of both a domestic and foreign partnership between these governments and their private sectors – governments often safeguarding domestic markets for, and opening foreign markets for local companies (UNCTAD 2007). It is of course, crucial to foster a developmental partnership between BRICS business and governments.

It is also crucial to have BRICS academics, analysts and experts involved in the generation of ideas, policy and creating institutions, as no country in the post-Second World War have developed from poverty to developed status when excluding its best home-grown thinkers.

Most of the development ideas reproduced in formal academic texts are from industrial countries, and because of this, it is not surprising that industrial country originated texts are biased towards development models generated in industrial countries. It is thus key that BRICS countries produce a canon of alternative ideas, thinking and platforms to tackle pressing, complex and diverse global challenges.

The challenge for the BRICS countries is not to handpick pliant academics and civil society groups, but the most capable, imaginative and innovative within their countries or diaspora. It is crucial that academics, experts and analysts invited to the BRICS Academic Forum represent the best of a member country’s domestic and diaspora brains trust and not token invitees.

BRICS civil society must take up global leadership

Global civil society is dominated by industrial-country origin civil society organisations which get generous funding from their governments, business and middle classes. Such industrial country civil society organisations often also dominate the generation of development ideas, humanitarian and aid priorities, and the issues put on the agendas of multilateral organisations, and industrial and developing country governments.

It is therefore critical that BRICS civil society organisations – whether trade unions, NGOs and think tanks assume thought, policy and debate leadership within BRICS, and also globally.

The structures, institutions and forums of BRICS are still evolving and not cast in stone. Civil society should constructively, but critically engage with BRICS, rather than reject the entity out of hand. Civil society organisations within BRICS must pool their resources, campaigns and ideas. They have to form strategic alliances across the BRICS countries. Strategic alliances among BRICS civil society organisations will give them the critical mass not only to influence the BRICS agenda but also give them critical mass to influence the global agenda, debates and priorities of global multilateral organisations (Mackenzie 2012).

Lysa John, the Indian researcher, pointed out: “The array of political and legal oversight mechanisms that are operational within the European Union today have come about after decades of work by civil society organisations and the use of innovative campaigns to educate and engage the public on these issues” (John 2012: 11).

 What role should BRICS civil society play within the alliance?

Civil society organisations can contribute to democratising the discourse on BRICS. They can be vehicles for participatory democracy and can create a ‘civic’ dialogue on the appropriateness of priorities and policies.

There is often a disconnect between the issues that leaders and governments may deem important, compared to the issues that ordinary citizens and communities want to be prioritised. This is even more pertinent in BRICS countries, with its non-democracies, where a number of governments often act unilaterally.  It is crucial that civil society organisations bring the grassroots issues on the BRICS agenda.

Civil society can provide ‘a structured channel for feedback, criticism and protest’; and can act as an ‘early warning system’ when the direction of BRICS engagement appears to be going astray.

The jury is still out whether the BRICS Development Bank and the Contingent Reserve Fund will be substantially different in their development approaches to the World Bank and IMF – which they have so passionately criticised (Tomlinson 2013). Furthermore, the big question remains whether the BRICS bank will be based on good corporate governance.

BRICS civil society groups, media, and academics will have to link up to ensure the BRICS Development Bank and institutions pursue lending and infrastructure projects that are ecologically sustainable, promote inclusive economic growth and development; and that the bank based its operations on good corporate governance.

Civil society can also play a monitoring and evaluation role, both of governments and BRICS institutions. BRICS civil society organisations should hold their governments accountable for development promises made. Civil society in the BRICS democracies – India, South Africa and Brazil – must push to make it mandatory that their parliaments approve foreign loans for infrastructure.

BRICS civil society groups will have to monitor the investment activities of the BRICS Development Bank, and make such information widely available. Civil society could monitor the environmental, social and wider economic impact of BRICS projects.

But civil society must also monitor the investment decisions, activities and behaviour of BRICS public and private sector companies in operating countries. Of all the members, only South Africa has rules for its private sector not to partake in corruption abroad – and for them to be prosecuted for misbehaviour. However, the corporate behaviour of SA companies in say Africa or developing countries are not monitored – civil society organisations should do so.

Civil society organisations should pursue solidarity, launch campaigns and lobby their own governments when civil groups and activists are being proscribed in peer BRICS countries. Within BRICS institutions, processes and forums, civil society groups do not currently have broad-based platforms in BRICS institutions to influence decision-making – a major shortcoming, which BRICS civil society groups will have to agitate for.


BRICS countries are increasingly providing alternative global leadership to industrial countries (Moilwa et al 2015; Poskitt, Shankland and Taela 2016). Civil society in BRICS country have the opportunity to on the back of the rise of BRICS, also concomitantly increase their own global voice, as vehicles of alternative ideas, models and leadership to the industrial country global consensus (Tandon and Bandyopadhyay 2013).

BRICS civil society organisations will have to come up with the practical ideas on how to deal with complex country, regional and global developmental challenges. To this, they will have to exchange ideas, development lessons and information between each other, within and between BRICS countries, and with progressive developing and industrial countries peers.

But civil organisations will also have to partner better with BRICS higher education institutions to co-generate new ideas for our times. They must also strategically partner with the media, to not only co-monitor BRICS governments and institutions, but to inform ordinary citizens, and to spread the new civil society generated ideas widely within BRICS.

Finally, BRICS civil society organisations will have to partner with civil society organisations and the independent media in developing countries where BRICS institutions, such as the BRICS New Development Bank are operating in, to hold these institutions accountable, ensure they consult with local communities, pursue ecologically sustainable infrastructure and development projects, and adhere to basic human rights.

Selected Bibliography

Buxton, C. and Konovalova, E. (2012) “Russian Civil Society: History, Today, and Future Prospects”, Briefing Paper 37, Oxford: INTRAC

Chilkoti, A. (2014) “New Delhi and Civil Society: Friends Again?” Financial Times, 21 November,http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2014/11/21/new-delhi-and-civil-societyfriends-again/

Cook, L.; Iarskaia-Smirnova, E.; Tarasenko, A. and Gotlib, A. (2015) “Civil Society Steps Up: New Directions in Social Policy in the Russian Federation”, UNRISD Project Brief 12, Geneva: UNRISD

Costa Leite, I.; Suyama, B.; Trajber Waisbich, L.; Pomeroy, M.; Constantine, J.; Navas-Alemán, L.; Shankland, A. and Younis, M. (2014) “Brazil’s Engagement in International Development Cooperation: the State of the Debate”, IDS Evidence Report 59, Brighton: IDS

Department of International Relations and Cooperation (2017) “India-Brazil-South Africa Declaration on South-South Cooperation”, DIRCO, Pretoria, October 17

Department of International Relations and Cooperation (2015) “DIRCO to launch two foreign policy institutions”, DIRCO, Pretoria, July 14

Edwards, M. (2009) Civil Society, Cambridge: Polity

Gallens, M. (2017) “R2K challenges Mahlobo to provide regime change evidence”. News24, Cape Town, May 17


Gerber, J. (2017) “‘We are monitoring everything’ – Spy Minister Mahlobo”. News24, May 16


Guha, R. (2017) Democrats and Dissenters. New Delhi: Penguin Random House

Gumede, W. (2018) “How civil society has strengthened democracy in South Africa”. Policy Brief, Democracy Works Foundation, Johannesburg, May

Inoue, C. and Costa Vaz, A. (2012) “Brazil as ‘Southern Donor’: Beyond Hierarchy and National Interests in Development Cooperation?” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 25.4: 507–34

Jenkins, R. and Mawdsley, E. (2013) “Democratic Emerging Powers and the International Human Rights System”, New York: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung

John, L. (2012) “Engaging BRICS: Challenges and Opportunities for Civil Society”, Oxfam India Working Paper Series 12, New Delhi: Oxfam India

MacKenzie H. (2012) “Principles for Civil Society Engagement with Multilateralism”, In Heidi Moksnes and Mia Melin (ed), Global Civil Society: Shifting Powers in a Shifting World (2012), Uppsala: Uppsala University

Mashru, R. (2014) “India’s NGO Backlash”, Foreign Policy,

India’s NGO Backlash

Mawdsley, E. and McCann, G. (eds) (2011) India in Africa: Changing Geographies of Power, Oxford: Pambazuka

Moilwa, T.; Wilson, E.; Shankland, A. and Corbett, H. (2015) “Realising the Potential of Civil Society-led South–South Development Cooperation”, IDS Policy Briefing 84, Brighton: IDS

Poskitt, A., Shankland, A. and Taela, K. (2016) “Civil Society from the BRICS: Emerging Roles in the New International Development Landscape”, Institute of Development Studies (IDS), February

Osava, M. (2010) “IBSA – Closer social connections, not just gov’t ties”. IPS News, Brasilia, April 16


Pressend, M. (2013) “South African Civil Society and Public at Large Need to Influence International Relations”, SACSIS, Johannesburg, www.sacsis.org.za/site/article/1710

Simon, K.W. (2011) “Regulation of Civil Society Organizations in China – Current Environment and Recent Developments”, International Journal of Civil Society Law 9.1: 55–84

Stuenkel, O. (2014) South-South cooperation: Does the IBSA Fund matter? Post-Western World, January 27


Tandon, R. and Bandyopadhyay, K.K. (2013) “Civil Society – BRICS Engagement: Opportunities and Challenges”, New Delhi: PRIA and FIM

Tomlinson, B. (2013) “Working with Civil Society in Foreign Aid: Possibilities for South–South Cooperation?” Beijing: UNDP China

UNCTAD (2007) “Economic Development in Africa: Reclaiming Policy Space. Domestic Resource Mobilisation and Developmental States”, Report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. New York and Geneva. September 26

Zhang, J.Y. (2015) “Contested Symbiosis: State-NGO Relations in China”, Open Democracy/ISA RC- 47 Open Movements, 20 August, https://www.opendemocracy.net/joyy-zhang/contested-symbiosis-statengo-relations-in-china

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is Executive Chairperson of Democracy Works Foundation and former Deputy Editor of The Sowetan newspaper.

During the anti-apartheid struggle, Gumede held several leadership positions in South African student, civics and trade union movements. He was a political violence mediator and area coordinator for the National Peace Committee during the multiparty negotiations for a democratic South Africa and was seconded to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He is the author of several number 1 bestsellers. His more recent books include: Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg); and South Africa in BRICS – Salvation or Ruination (Tafelberg).

To read publications by William Gumede on our website please click here.

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