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The BRICS lead by example in global governance reforms

Written by Zhenbo Hou


Two major multilateral agencies have elected BRICS candidates (that is, candidates from Brazil, Russia, India, China or South Africa) as their Directors-General in the last two months. Are we seeing signs of increased leadership in global governance from the BRICS countries?

The BRICS have long been very strong advocates of global governance reform. At their Durban summit in March, the leaders made a clear statement that the reform of the IMF should reflect the growing weight of their economies. Nevertheless, apart from campaigning for a fairer share of voting rights, it remains unclear how they want to reform global governance or to make their contribution to global public-goods provision. The election of these two BRICS candidates, in my view, is very thought-provoking, as they could give an indication of how the BRICS are going to steadily increase their influence in the future.

At the World Trade Organization (WTO), Mr. Roberto Azevedo has become the first ever Brazilian to lead one of the key bodies in the post-war Bretton Woods system, when he, supported by all the major developing countries, was able to defeat Mr Blanco of Mexico, who was supported by the EU, Japan and the US. Optimists might point to the fact that a Brazilian could help to solve the deadlock within the ‘new Quad’ (the EU, US, India and Brazil) in the Doha Development Round negotiations if Brazil takes this as an opportunity to further enhance its role as a bridge between the global south and the global north. On the other hand, Brazil has been seen as an obstacle to progress in multilateral trade talks so getting Brazil to compromise will be a true test for Mr. Azevedo’s impartiality as the Director–General of the WTO.

Two months later on 25th June, in a similar but much less dramatic fashion, a Chinese Vice Minister of Finance, Mr Li Yong, was elected to the Director-General post of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), becoming the first ever person from mainland China to head an UN agency. Despite the fact that major countries usually have a claim on international posts when they have been members of the organisation, occupying a top post in a multilateral agency is still a very rare phenomenon for China. Until recently, scepticism about western leadership on global governance meant that China tended to keep a low profile, a tendency reinforced by a self-perception that China is still a developing country that is preoccupied by its own domestic development agenda.

Nevertheless, as Chinese businesses are becoming increasingly outwardly orientated, many voices within China are also arguing for the government to strengthen its role in global governance in order to shape global policy debates.

The significance of these two recent developments could go well beyond the WTO and UNIDO. It might be too far to argue that these are coordinated moves by the BRICS countries to replace the existing powers by inheriting the responsibilities in global governance, but one could certainly infer their intentions from their respective policy-makers’ statements.

For instance, the election of Mr Azevedo as the Director-General of the WTO led its foreign minister Antonio Patriota to herald ‘a global order in transformation [with] emerging markets [showing] leadership.’ Two days after Mr Li Yong’s election at UNIDO, Mr Wang Yi – China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs – spoke about his government’s intention to ‘provide a Chinese solution to global governance by making a meaningful contribution to global public-goods provision in order to tackle the common challenges faced by humanity in the 21st century’. According to Professor Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University, this is the first time that China’s policy-makers have openly spoken about their intention to provide global public goods.If such an intention is substantiated, it will represent a remarkable departure from China’s previously non-interfering approach in international affairs.

Furthermore, since the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom all withdrew from UNIDO, Mr Li might find the agency less geopolitically complicated. Moreover, the agency’s current membership now better reflects the very constituency that UNIDO seeks to assist – with the support of remaining wealthy donor countries, such as Germany, South Korea, and Japan. According to David Runde at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC, the key task for Mr Li is to leverage China’s resources in order to invigorate UNIDO as an effective and financially sustainable agency – the international community could then adjust its perception of UNIDO, as well as of China’s role in global governance.

Looking forward, it is encouraging to see some of BRICS countries proactively taking a leadership role in the provision of global public goods. The incoming Directors-General of WTO and UNIDO are also a ‘good fit’ in these organisations, providing balance between the global responsibility required, and the home country’s self-interests: Brazil being a ‘new Quad’ member in the WTO negotiations, and China being one of the most successful late industrialising economies. Questions remain, however, about whether the rest of the BRICS can continue to find their niche in providing global public goods, and therefore become constructive in global governance that both serves their domestic constituency and interests abroad.