Since the BRICS+ format was re-launched by China in 2022 a radical change took place with respect to BRICS on the international stage. Within a span of just about one year dozens of countries from the developing world expressed their willingness to join the block. Looking back at the history of the formation of other blocks and alliances it is hard to find a comparable case of such popularity and attraction from some of the largest economies of the Global South. In this respect the BRICS is going through a unique moment in its history that in many ways validates the approach towards greater openness to the global community engendered by the BRICS+ approach. The key question at this stage is: what candidates will secure BRICS membership in the near term and what modalities of their association with the bloc will be pursued within the BRICS+ format?
In the past month, several regional heavyweights have joined the string of BRICS candidates that started to build up since last year. Among the recent additions to the list of candidates are Bangladesh and Ethiopia – the economies that are among the most populous and fastest growing not only in their respective regions, but throughout the entire Global South. While the accession of both Bangladesh and Ethiopia to the core of the BRICS grouping is unlikely in the very near term, there are important considerations why these two developing countries should feature prominently in the emerging BRICS+ framework.
As regards Bangladesh, in terms of the possible modalities of BRICS+ cooperation, the country has already become a member of the New Development Bank. The economy of Bangladesh will benefit from NDB’s emphasis on green development and sustainability, given the notable challenges posed by the mix of high population density, high population growth and sizeable financing needs in the environmental sphere. Bangladesh also stands to play an important role in building stronger links between BRICS and the region of South Asia.
As for Ethiopia, it plays a crucial regional role in Africa – it hosts the headquarters of the African Union and has been one of the most active drivers of African unity and solidarity in the preceding decades. It is also the second most populous country in the African continent, while being also the largest economy in Eastern Africa. Ethiopia also demonstrates some of the highest economic growth rates in Africa and the world economy more broadly – according to the African Development Bank, real GDP growth fell to 5.3% in 2022 from 5.6% in 2021 but remained above East Africa’s average (4.7% in 2021 and 4.4% in 2022).
Of all of the possible modalities of BRICS+, membership in the New Development Bank (NDB) is one of the priorities for Ethiopia given the financing requirements and the fundamental needs of greater connectivity for a large land-locked economy. In fact, Ethiopia is the largest landlocked economy in the world by population and among the largest landlocked economies by territory. Also, as rightly pointed out by Andrew Korybko who has been an active proponent of closer cooperation between Ethiopia and BRICS, “formalizing Ethiopia’s bilateral relationship with BRICS … expands the scope of cooperation beyond the … focus on that group’s South African member while still keeping it concentrated enough on Ethiopia”. With Ethiopia’s accession into the BRICS+ circle most of the key regions of Africa are going to be covered by the BRICS outreach framework – East Africa (Ethiopia), South Africa (South Africa) as well as possibly North Africa (Egypt and Algeria) and West Africa (Nigeria).
In the discussions surrounding the selection of new members of the widening pool of BRICS candidates many observers mention natural resources, geopolitical influence, or a prominent regional role in one of the integration arrangements of the Global South. But the most important resource possessed by the developing economies is “human capital” – the population of the country that can be empowered via the opportunities that the BRICS+ platform brings to national development. In this respect, the candidacies of Bangladesh and Ethiopia are among the most important for the future BRICS+ framework.
As a rising number of developing countries enter into the BRICS+ circle it will be critical to devise development strategies for these countries that become “success stories” and positive “demonstration effects” for further waves of BRICS+ entrants. In this respect, apart from the importance of NDB loans disbursed for purposes of connectivity and green development there will also need to be a BRICS-related international organization that addresses the needs of securing macroeconomic stability. The BRICS CRA in its current form is not capable of addressing these needs of developing economies. The Global South should create institutions that can emulate and surpass the success stories that have been built on the basis of the Bretton Woods international organizations and the EU experience with new waves of expansion.
On that latter point, some may argue that the current wave of expansion of BRICS could be likened to the EU expansion to include the economies of Eastern and Central Europe of the former Communist block. In reality, however, the differences are very much there, the most important being the modalities of conditionality as well as the openness and flexibility in the approach of BRICS to expanding economic cooperation with other parts of the Global South. While criteria for expansion will be advanced by BRICS core economies, these are unlikely to be as stringent and political/value-based as in the case of the EU. The opportunity for BRICS is to improve on the valuable experience accumulated by the EU in terms of inclusiveness and accession of new members.
In the end, the rising number of developing economies announcing their intention to join the BRICS block marks the “BRICS+ moment” in its history. This BRICS expansion is already becoming a major transformational factor of global economic governance. With time the hope is that the BRICS will be able to establish a framework that allows the block to reach out and build cooperative links with all developing economies. One possibility is a platform for regional integration arrangements in which BRICS+ countries are members. The creation of such a platform for regional blocks and organizations that is open to new members could trigger a wave of applications and “enlargement” similar to what we witnessed with the recent wave of country-level expansion of the BRICS block. Both Ethiopia and Bangladesh could be important drivers of these second-generation expansion waves of BRICS+ that are based on the cooperation among the main regions and regional arrangements of the Global South.