OBSERVING the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and SA ) summit from the New Delhi periphery, it seems the future of the grouping, its collective priorities and true global impact are riddled with uncertainty. The summit - certainly in India - was overshadowed by Tibetan protests, sceptical reporting around Chinese interests and companies, and diplomatic juggling as Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met bilaterally with his counterparts from Brazil, Russia and China but not SA.
This is due to two fundamental issues: First, Brics is not a grouping of equals. The differences in size, levels of development and political orientation are often overlooked when exploring commonalities and co-operation. The Chinese economy, at $6-trillion, dwarfs the rest, and while Brazil, India and SA are three of the most vibrant democracies in the developing world, China and Russia remain staunch autocracies.
Second, each has divergent national interests that inform its role in the changing global landscape. This has steered the agenda away from key economic imperatives and a commercial orientation, which the business world had hoped would provide an alternative in light of stagnation and mounting concerns in traditional western markets.
Originally coined by Goldman Sachs as an economic collective, Brics has graduated well beyond economic and demographic credentials. The grouping has become vocal on global politics but has avoided decisive approaches to the reform of the global financial architecture, stronger collaboration in multilateral decision-making and addressing direct discrepancies hampering closer ties between themselves.
We saw this with the lack of a clear nomination of a candidate from Brics for the International Monetary Fund's (IMF's) top spot last year. More recently, Brics and the developing world have failed to agree on a clear single candidate for the World Bank presidency. They are divided once again by regional and ideological differences, while the US and Europe seem to be united behind the US-based global health expert, Jim Yong Kim, the US nominee for the position.
But more direct issues are of even greater concern. These include addressing mounting monetary concerns and avoiding the notion of currency wars - which is essentially a "China versus the rest" scenario - and implementing key enablers to facilitate business between Brics players through simple agreements such as double tax and visa requirements. In short, tangible results have been few and far between.
This raises the question: what is the future of Brics? Similar groupings have done little in the past few decades. Broad-based organisations such as the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77 have proven to be nice-to-have talk shops but with toothless delivery. While the more recent India-Brazil-SA forum aimed at greater focus than its broader predecessors, it too has failed to leave a lasting impression in its 10 years of existence.
Some have suggested that Brics could replace the Group of Eight (G-8) as the rule-making body behind the global political and economic system. Given the transfer of economic power from west to east and the active role of the newly formed G-20 - for which Brics forms the hard core - this may seem viable. But translating economic might into individual wealth and political power will take far longer. Living standards and human development in Brics nations are a long way behind the US and Europe. In addition, Brics still account for just 11% of the voting share at the IMF compared with the US's 17% and the European Union's 36% share.
Despite the focus on a softer approach to both Syria and Iran, Brics is unlikely to provide a feasible alternative to the current United Nations Security Council and its permanent five members any time soon. The political differences between Brics members are simply far too great.
There is no denying Brics is a powerful collective. Representing 10% of global gross domestic product but up to 70% of global economic growth, along with half the world's population, these are the leading economies driving our future. Both China and India will have larger economies than the US by 2050, and Brazil overtook Britain to become the sixth-largest economy in the world at the end of last year. Despite this growth, it will take far longer for Brics nations to reach similar levels of individual wealth and overcome their enormous development challenges.
Companies from the Brics economies are playing an important part in the rise of these countries. China is home to two of the world's three largest banks - Industrial & Commercial Bank of China and China Construction Bank are ranked first and third respectively. Huawei, the leading telecoms equipment manufacturer from China, employs more than 110000 people worldwide and has a market capitalisation double the size of Ericsson's. Brazilian mining house Vale is the second-largest mining company in the world. Petrobras, the state-owned oil and gas company, is the biggest company in the southern hemisphere and boasted the largest initial public offering in history at the end of 2010 - raising more than $70bn in just two days. Indian giant Tata is made up of 98 operating companies in seven sectors, employing 400000 people worldwide. And the global beer brewing market is dominated by AB InBev and SABMiller, from Brazil and SA respectively.
Clearly the focus needs to shift to economic and developmental tangibles and aim for real commercial outcomes. Talks on "ecofriendly plans", "demographic challenges" or a common "economic front" that challenges the West will not cut it in an increasingly competitive world. The actors - specifically companies from Brics nations and inter-Brics institutions - need to be included more constructively in the dialogue. Real targets must be set through the building of collective trust and capacity.
With these priorities in mind, the idea of building a multilateral development bank through the combined efforts of Brics institutions is a positive outcome from the summit in New Delhi. Banks and the credit lines they provide are important conduits of investment, growth and development. They provide the glue behind economic integration and the reassurance for companies seeking deeper commercial engagement in developing regions. They also encourage policy coordination that includes a development dimension with commercial actors involved.
But such grand ideas do come with a word of warning. Political rhetoric looking to hijack these progressive initiatives needs to be avoided. A Brics development bank should not seek to replace the World Bank and other Bretton Woods institutions. It serves to complement what we already have.
The next step is to implement. This is the role of skilled technocrats in conjunction with commercial practitioners eager to invest and grow their company's market share in Brics and surrounding countries. An approach that actively involves business, core institutions and coherent policy-making will ensure targets to double trade and investment flows within three to five years are achieved.
Refocusing Brics priorities on economic imperatives with inclusive practical solutions will help ensure it does not suffer a similar fate to previous multinational gatherings of this nature. It will build broad-based trust and confidence while capturing the interest of commercial players in and among Brics.
. White is the director of the Centre for Dynamic Markets at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.