The BRICs: 20 years later | By Dr Usman W Chohan

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The BRICs: 20 years later

THE term “BRICs” was introduced exactly twenty years ago by Baron O’Neill of Gatley as an acronym for emerging markets that would drive economic growth in the 21st Century: Brazil, Russia, India and China (and for a time, South Africa).

The term emerged as part of an effort to shift attention away from the traditional Western economies that had been showing signs of stagnation (beginning with Japan after 1989) and to instead focus investor and academic attention towards the large underdeveloped markets which would improve their economic fundamentals overtime.

These large markets had not yet realized their full potential, O’Neill argued, and so investing in them early on (circa early 2000s) would yield maximum returns as these countries developed.

The BRICs term became an infatuation on Wall Street, with countless pundits pronouncing it as a new investor gospel.

Yet 20 years down the road, one sees a much more mixed picture among the members of the category, largely because the category itself was tenuous at best.

China did indeed come to drive a significant share of global GDP growth in the first two decades of the 21st Century, growing from 13% of world economic product in purchasing-power parity terms in 2010 to more than 18% today.

The most significant effort to reduce poverty in human history has been that of China’s, and it has become not just the manufacturing centre of the world, but also a leader in technological innovations at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour.

It has also begun to reshape its economy to realign with people-centric welfare (under “Xi Jinping thought”), and move to a higher stage of economic development in the historical-materialist sense.

The consensus among economists is that China’s economy should surpass that of the United States by the end of this decade, a point underscored by the differing outcomes of both countries during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When economists speak to an optimism about international development and poverty reduction over the past few decades, they are generally alluding to China’s success, and not that of the developing world as a whole.

In fact, many developing countries are receding further in development outcomes, with some having worse per capita outcomes than their forefathers did under the iron fist of colonialism.

Yet if the ‘C’ in BRICs has fared well, what of the others? India’s economic growth after 1992 was premised on unleashing economic energies that had been repressed by institutional inertia and an excess of vested interest groups, which Manmohan Singh attempted to overcome as an apolitical Finance Minister who warned that India was staring at an economic abyss.

Yet he and other reformers only took mild steps towards sustainable growth – steps which helped in driving record post-independence economic growth but which didn’t address the structural issues that India faced.

By the 2010s, that burst of economic energy had begun to fade and the inept government of Narendra Modi has enacted numerous policies which have dealt terrible blows to India’s potential, without addressing the structural issues in turn.

Some of the worse policies of the Modi government include those concerning the Covid-19 fiasco with India bequeathing the world with the delta variant no less, and causing immense hardship during the pandemic, even as neighboring countries (especially Pakistan) maintained an impressive degree of normalcy in crisis conditions.

Other poorly-judged policies include the demonetization scheme (which disproportionately affected the poor), the three farm bills (which have been repealed recently but were vehemently anti-agrarian), and a hostility towards neighbors based on ideological lunacy.

Instead of undertaking deep structural reforms of the economy based on the pro-economy persona that Modi cultivated while governing Gujarat, Modi has instead only masqueraded as a reformer. By any reasonable projection, India’s economy in 2050 will only be as large as that of China’s last year.

India’s economic size will therefore be at a 30-year delay to China’s; and yet, both Washington and Delhi harbor fantasies of India being some sort of challenger to China, which is grandiose at best and dangerous for global security at worst.

The ‘I’ in BRICs is, therefore, stalling since the small window of mild reforms taken 30 years ago are dissipating and extensive misgovernance now reigns.

As for Russia, the post-Soviet era of unfettered capitalism has led to occasional spurts of optimism that have ultimately proven to be exaggerations.

Russia has faced economic crises including that of 1998, which bankrupted the most sophisticated financial experts at the time (Long-Term Capital Management) and the country itself still relies on legacy strengths from the Soviet era, as well as natural endowments such as natural gas.

Its population is shrinking and much of the social efforts of the USSR-period have been eroded, including a robust education system and widespread health coverage.

Additionally, Brazil’s growth has also been characterized by positive spurts that have ultimately been negated by weak internal systems and rampant inequality.

The left-wing Lula period drew much positive attention for its inclusive economic efforts, but subsequent governments have thoroughly mismanaged its economic potential, particularly the Bolsonaro government which currently rules.

Like Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil has profoundly damaged the fabric of the Brazilian socio-economy and faltered utterly during the Covid-19 pandemic – resorting to bravado and rhetoric to mask governmental ineptitude. This speaks to the bittersweet adage of the Brazilians that “Brazil is a country of the future… and always will be.”

The ‘B’ and the ‘R’ in BRICs have, therefore, also not delivered on the promise of development as imagined by Baron O’Neill and other emerging market optimists. One sees, therefore, that the notion of BRICs has not held up in hindsight and upon close scrutiny.

There are a few similarities among these countries now, and one is better looking at each of them outside of the awkward BRICs grouping itself.

There is a cohort of less popular countries, such as Vietnam and Bangladesh, that are driving growth much more sustainably and impressively than the BRICs.

Twenty years on, then, one should put the catchy but ultimately ill-equipped term of “BRICs” to rest.

—The writer is the Director for Economics and National Affairs at the Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies, Islamabad.

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