Modern Diplomacy brings you the final in the series of interviews that focus on BRICS Alliance and its Quest for Cultural Cooperation. In this interview, Victoria Panova, Co-Chair of the BRICS Civil Forum, Managing Director of the National Committee on BRICS Research, Scientific Supervisor of the BRICS Russian Organizing Committee Expert Council and Vice President for International Relations of Far Eastern Federal University, discusses most of the salient points. Here are the interview excerpts:
In 2015 you headed the NGO Working Group on BRICS, what would you say were the main non-government directions and, to what extent, these have been implemented over these past five years?
Panova:Back in 2006, when there was still the G8 and Russia was chairing the Group that year we, a group of dedicated representatives of civil society and academia led by prominent activist Ella Pamfilova, who was back then chairing the Council on development of human rights and civil society organizations in Russia together with our colleagues in the other G8 countries came up with the idea of the need of much deeper involvement and need for enhanced influence on the part of civil society of our countries on the otherwise quite closed process of governmental meetings of the G8 countries.
There were meetings with business that interested official representatives, but also parallel anti-globalist process trying to counter the official process. We thought that it is vital to make sure our governments here us, but we realized we have to act constructively and joined efforts to launch the full-blown Civil process at the G8, in fact that year was the first time that we garnered attention of all the nine Sherpas (including that of the EU) and had our ideas promoted among the governmental representatives urging them to be bolder and have a real connect with their proper civil societies.
The year 2015 came, the second time for Russia to host initiated BRICS alliance, the G8 was no longer existent at that time, but we were sure changing the composition of states is not altering the essence of what we were trying to do. And it goes without saying that in today’s world it should be two-way movement – not just people and society working for their country to be strong and efficient, but the country – its officials – should be ensuring the State does understand the vital needs and wishes of its people. And importance of this idea doesn’t change from one type of political regime to the other, doesn’t have a different meaning in the Western or Eastern hemisphere, doesn’t depend on the level of economic development of the given country and group of countries. Thus, once again, partly with the same enthusiastic civil society representatives, partly the newcomers we came up with the idea to enrich the second track of diplomacy and ensure a broader engagement of BRICS local communities in shaping the global agenda (it should be noted, that two years earlier similar process was also initiated at the Russian Chairmanship in the G20). Our goal was to create an environment for a constructive dialogue between governments and its citizens, promoting mutual understanding and acknowledgement of people’s concerns as well as encouraging strong problem-solving relations and generation of innovative ideas.
Within Russian Chairmanship in 2015, we kick-started the BRICS civil process by holding the first Civil Forum. We were looking at previous experience of the kind, but also tried to innovate with extra formats of involvement to ensure our voices are heard to their maximum. This year with the pandemic we experimented even further. In fact momentum wasn’t lost even with the travel restrictions and globally introduced lockdowns. We’ve held unprecedented number of online round tables across all the eight working groups in order to work out comprehensive and inclusive set of recommendations featuring wishes and needs of global, not just BRICS, civil society community.
This format received attention from the BRICS governments and it speaks volumes. As the BRICS governments’ officials traditionally attend some of our events, the credibility of our interaction platforms is widely recognized. I think that our important result is the creation of conditions for public sector and civil society representatives to discuss sensitive issues where they can go beyond official talking points and explore new ideas. These consultations provide policymakers with a better understanding of motivations and interests of the other actors and a clearer sense of how their policy initiatives are perceived by the citizens of BRICS countries.
Capabilities to offer policy advice and produce positive effects provided food for thought regarding institutionalization of the BRICS civil process. It would allow our societies to have more profound people-to-people connections, a wider range of joint activities, including cultural exchange. Emerging of intra-BRICS association of NGOs may also upgrade our current consultation platforms and mechanisms. It seems that we are on the way to it.
How would you argue that some of the initiatives have largely remained unrealized primarily due to diverse challenges and due to the geographical locations of BRICS members?
Panova:Challenges related to the geographical remoteness of the BRICS countries have been consistently associated with peculiarities of people-to-people cooperation. Long distances and high costs of travel within our countries, certain underdevelopment of services sectors and tourist infrastructure as well as burdensome visa procedures remain the foremost barriers for BRICS. We also have to remember that BRICS represents 40% of the world population and about 30 % world’s land surface that is why it takes time to raise awareness on BRICS and engage our societies into activities of the grouping. Our countries thereby seek to expand the geography of BRICS official events and promote each other’s cultures.
Outcome documents elaborated within the BRICS track 2 diplomacy have traditionally comprised recommendations and suggestions in these fields. Among them – to simplify visa procedures, to launch initiatives on cultural tourism, to harmonize standards of educational systems, to establish scholarship schemes promoting cultural and educational exchange. We may witness that these recommendations are gradually addressed, but tangible results could be expected in a long-term perspective only.
Could you please discuss why empowering women, in particular, has become important as one of the latest NGO directions for BRICS? How has this stimulated interest among members of BRICS?
Panova:A primary reason for the growing relevance of women empowerment agenda for BRICS is that in this context our countries encounter a variety of common challenges. Performance of BRICS countries in the international rankings, such as WEF Global Gender Gap Index and the OECD SDG Gender Index displays that we tend to be ranked lower than most of developed and some developing countries are. Despite the fact that our five countries demonstrate relatively high performance in the fields of education and health, we have major gaps in women’s economic and political participation.
Among these challenges, we may see the lack of transparency in gender budgeting, low participation of women in decision-making and political processes, gaps in implementation of women’s labour rights, including gender pay gap. In all BRICS countries women have to overcome barriers such as lack of professional training to obtain necessary digital skills, prevalence of informal employment and unpaid care work, lack of financing for women-owned businesses, and many others. In addition, stereotypes about the role of women in the society aggravate this situation.
I should say that this issue gained momentum in 2015, when BRICS countries made their commitments to adhere to Sustainable Development Goals, including SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. It also encouraged women and men worldwide to take more active roles in gender mainstreaming. It evolves as a trend, and upstream initiatives began to emerge. Topics on gender equality more often appear at BRICS events organized by our civil society organizations.
Our civil society organizations persistently draw the attention of the BRICS Leaders to the gender agenda. Our governments repeatedly recognized empowerment of women as a driving force for economic growth and agreed on a set of key policy principles to improve the status of women. This year BRICS Women’s Business Alliance was established to foster female entrepreneurship and participation of women in international trade. There is still a room for action. Recently the world has seen implications of these gender disparity trends catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic. I can say that balance upset caused by the pandemic revealed those pre-existing problems and pushed forward gender mainstreaming in all countries of the world, not only in BRICS.
I think that continuing efforts of our civil society in this regard will contribute to further formation of BRICS as a prominent example of an alliance uniting socially responsible economies, attaching great importance to ensuring the inclusiveness of its communities and to meeting the needs of citizens.
Despite all you have said above, in what ways would you argue that the group has a unique for developing Civil Society?
Panova:Indeed, BRICS is the grouping of countries from different parts of the world, countries with distinctive histories and cultures, but similar values. At the same time, BRICS brings together great minds of humanity with outstanding creative potential. BRICS is paying higher attention to its human capital and it is but natural to opt for the taking advantage exactly of this potential.
There is one thing that may “kill” the most innovative idea – lack of political will. In this context, BRICS represents an open platform established by our governments as a priority. This is also an important precondition for laying a solid groundwork for the advanced development of our societies.
So, are the negative perceptions really changing about BRICS? What keeps you personally motivated working for this Civil BRICS?
Panova:For over a decade the public image of the grouping has been transforming from “BRICS as marketable product” to “BRICS as a strategic partnership”. For some time, BRICS was perceived as not a very successful interpretation of Jim O’Neil’s ideas, for another period BRICS has been viewed as “a power to confront the Western dominance”. Luckily, the reality has nothing to do with both judgements.
BRICS perception of itself is close to the ideas or Yevgeny Primakov, Russian former Prime Minister. He drafted the concept of the need for maximum multi-vector engagement, championed the idea of no other alternative to the multipolar democratic world and as one of the prerequisites of such – the Russia – India – China strategic triangle which is considered to be a progenitor of future BRIC, and later – BRICS. Still, BRICS as a newly established club mechanism had to earn its place in the system of global governance.
I should say I see much less skepticism about BRICS lately. Probably it is changing due to certain global outcomes of the BRICS economic cooperation while it is only one of three pillars of our partnership (other two are “politics and security” and “humanitarian and cultural cooperation”). Let me give you some examples: in 2020, the total GDP of the BRICS countries amounted to 25 % of the global GDP and in 2015-2019 our GDP have been growing faster than the global GDP. In 2020, the share of BRICS in international trade reached 20 % while over the past five years the mutual exports of have also grown by 45 %. BRICS countries were capable of establishing the New Development Bank and launch effective solutions globally. I must emphasize that it became the first case in history when so called “club mechanism” managed to create its full-fledged financial institution and created it in less than five years.
What keeps me personally motivated is keen interest of our countries’ citizens to shape and take part in BRICS agenda. This interest is growing beyond BRICS – today we witness ever-increasing engagement of representatives from non-BRICS societies that is also a positive trend. BRICS is getting more demanded for people, and there is a strong message from our governments that BRICS should be a people-centered institution. I think these are the most essential conditions for creativity and innovation.
In terms of strategic outlook, is it appropriate to conclude the discussion here that BRICS is purposefully looking for a unified Soft Power as part of efforts in dealing with dominance by Western and European countries?
Panova:As I briefly mentioned in my previous answer – BRICS has never intended to be the power dealing with dominance of any states or groups of states. BRICS has grown to be self-sufficient mechanism, and it means that our governments need to respond to the needs of their citizens. These needs formulate grand strategy of the grouping, and it coincides with interests of the most countries in the world. Expanding outreach to its networks, BRICS serves as a proponent of the renewed world order that implies several decision-making centers. I think this circumstance could raise the idea that BRICS endeavors to undermine the world order.
On the contrary, our countries aim to play a stabilizing role in global affairs by promoting respect for the principles of national sovereignty, non-intervention in internal affairs, mutual respect and consideration of each other’s interests as well as respect of the international law. As BRICS stands for multipolar, democratic, just and fair world order, it undertakes efforts to make the voices of the developing world heard. And aren’t those the core features of peaceful and harmonic world?(Modern Diplomacy)