IBSA 10 years on

A reflection on the India, Brazil and South Africa grouping A reflection on the India, Brazil and South Africa grouping

By the time IBSA (India, Brazil and South Africa) completes its 10th anniversary, Conectas invites to a critical reflection of the grouping.

Below, Laura Waisbich, Foreign Policy officer at Conectas, analyzes the state of the debate around this trilateral initiative, based on the organization’s own work regarding IBSA. Due to its longstanding ambition to rebalance power relations among states and among political-economic blocs after the end of the Cold War or because of its strong bet on a South-South alliance, the 10th anniversary of IBSA raises many questions; with no easy answers. What is the legacy of the group? Can the group fulfill its potential in the current state of world affairs? Will those countries, with many commonalities and many other differences, make a difference?  


The overlapping between IBSA and BRICS – from which India, Brazil, and South Africa are also members together with Russia and China – is one of the main issues explored in this analysis, as well as some of the citizen participation and transparency and shortcomings surrounding the initiative, such as, for instance, the functioning of its Poverty Alleviation Fund.  


Finally, the analysis gives voice to civil society organizations in the three countries, casting doubts and provocations on whether those groups are being able to articulate themselves around those new axis and correlations of power, such as the ones present in this Dialogue Forum that completes its first decade of existence. 


IBSA 10 years on

What Brazil, India and South Africa have to tell the world

By Laura Waisbich, Conectas’ Foreign Policy Program Officer

In the week of the opening of the 68th UN General Assembly, held in September in New York, the new Brazilian Foreign Minister, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo, met both with his counterparts from the foreIBSA Dialogue Forum (India, Brazil, South Africa) and with the foreign ministers of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). While this demonstrated the plurality of the existing spheres of dialogue, the overlapping of the agendas, issues and membership, the two meetings raised questions about the importance and uniqueness of the trilateral group – IBSA, which turned 10 this year.

The doubts had been mounting since this year’s official IBSA summit, scheduled for June, was postponed without specifying a new date. There is no lack of analysts claiming that this is just one more sign that the Forum exists in the shadow of BRICS, which met this year as scheduled and is already gearing for next year’s Summit. This is no mere accident: as already mentioned, issues and members partially converge and they are frequently the responsibility of the same departments within the Foreign Ministries.

The declining priority afforded to IBSA by its members and its increasing institutional weakness contrasts with the growing interest among different civil society organizations – working in the three countries – to keep democratic dialogue alive between emerging powers from the Global South.

Beyond trilateral cooperation between the countries, the IBSA Dialogue Forum emerged from the ambitious political desire of its members to produce a joint international and democratic voice of the South. This is an important and extremely necessary project in a changing world that faces numerous crises and lacks efficient governance mechanisms.

In the absence of a Summit, the IBSA foreign ministers brought out an extended version of the traditional joint communiqué. This year’s Joint communiqué, released on September 25, went beyond the usual commentary on the agenda of the United Nations and more closely resembled the standard of longer declarations, addressing various issues on the international agenda and trilateral cooperation between the members.

The ministerial communiqué under review

Since the creation of the Forum, that brings together three countries all from different regions of the world, the common identity of its members has often been emphasized. Also frequently repeated are the comparative advantages that this group in particular has over other contemporary groupings and debate forums, namely that it permits the countries to stand together, decisively and autonomously, on a wide range of issues in international politics. IBSA has already demonstrated a willingness and a capacity in the past to coordinate politics, whether when faced with crises in the Middle East (see, among others, the IBSA Mission to Syria in August 2011 and the IBSA Statement on the Conflict in Gaza, in November 2012), or in joint positions at the United Nations Human Rights Council (see, among others, the introduction of a proposed resolution on the right to health and access to medicines, at the 12th session of the Council, in 2009).

The IBSA countries also jointly call for stepping up efforts to reform multilateral institutions. On this point, it is worth noting the aspiration shared by the three countries, albeit with competing concrete proposals – on one side Brazil and India (together with the G-4) and on the other South Africa (together with the other countries on the African continent) – for a permanent seat on the Security Council.

Another concrete, but still tentative advance within this partnership was the creation in 2004 of the IBSA Fund for the Alleviation of Hunger and Poverty. This initiative is based on the goals of the Forum itself to contribute to advance the interests of developing countries beyond the three member nations, through mechanisms of South-South cooperation. Given its innovative nature, the Fund has received various international awards. In its communiqué, the foreign ministers of IBSA mentioned that, over the years, the Fund “has demonstrated its importance and viability”. However, its work remains relatively unknown among the public in the three countries.

Apart from the annual report which retrospectively gives broad details of projects undertaken by the IBSA Fund, there is very little information on IBSA projects. The website dedicated to the Fund shields any information of relevance, with passwords. An interested citizen has no access to information on – the selection process of projects, the projected timeline, details of sub-contractors, impact assessment reports, target beneficiaries, overall project assessment, etc. For Vrinda Choraria, from the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, “ this lack of information on the Fund is frustrating as even a recent exercise of filing formal requests under the respective information laws, by organisations based in the three countries elicited no relevant information”. An information request to the UN Office for South-South Cooperation in United Nations Development Programme, which manages the IBSA fund, under its information disclosure policy, also did not provide the information that was sought. “ It is perplexing that a Fund that the three countries promote as a symbol of cooperation and assistance should be shrouded in such secrecy” adds Choraria.

Moreover, the size of its capital (each country contributes 1 million dollars per year), seems quite modest when compared to the 100 billion slated for the future BRICS Bank. Even acknowledging the natural differences between a fund and a bank both relate to public investment and have been justified in terms of financing development. Moreover, the types of projects financed by the fund also reveal a model of development that is quite distinct from the one focused on infrastructure, which will be the focus of the new bank.

IBSA’s focus on development reflects in the joint communiqué which gives IBSA’s vision for the debates on the post-2015 development agenda. It mentions the following priorities: poverty eradication, economic growth, job creation, social inclusion and sustainable development. It is important, however, for the countries to be more vocal about the need to respect human rights in this new agenda that is being prepared. Development and human rights are complementary and mutually reinforcing values.

In the communiqué, the three foreign ministers reaffirmed the importance of the group and the intention to strengthen cooperation in the future. They praised the group’s international political coordination at different forums and on a variety of topics: in the UN on Syria and the Middle East, with the BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China) on climate change, in the World Intellectual Property Organization and even in the BRICS, reads the communiqué.

However, it is not clear to what extent the IBSA countries coordinate their actions within its superset – BRICS. Conversely, the BRICS appear to occupy increasingly more room on the international political agenda of India, Brazil and South Africa. The case of Syria is the best example of this.

Besides the condemnation of the use of chemical weapons, the paragraphs dedicated to Syria in this ministerial communiqué added little to what had already been said in the BRICS Declaration in March 2013 on the need for a diplomatic solution to the conflict and the full and unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to all parties involved in the conflict. More than six months after the Durban Summit, and given the worsening of the humanitarian crisis, the concrete actions (for example, in terms of financial donations) are below the capacity of the countries. Brazil, for example, donated US$150,000 in 2013 to Syrian refugees in Jordan. It also signaled its intention to give another US$100,000 to OCHA, also in 2013. Even if both donations are made, they would still be small considering Brazil’s capacity.

A genuine commitment to the mitigation of the humanitarian situation in Syria and the region would require a willingness to commit funds consistent not only with the size of the economy of the countries in question and with the emerging leadership that is currently exercised, but also with the growing priority that the foreign policy of the IBSA countries have placed on humanitarian cooperation.

The reference to human rights in the joint communiqué also offered nothing specific or further than what had been said by the BRICS in March, briefly mentioning the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, in Vienna, and pledging further cooperation in the area. For the organizations accompanying IBSA, this should be a priority for a coalition that established democracy and human rights as the pillars of its identity, and its implementation will be carefully monitored.

According to Mandeep Tiwana, from the South Africa-based CIVICUS, “while IBSA has great potential to deepen the protection of human and democratic rights globally, its constituents need to enhance their legitimacy to advance these values”. Tiwana further presents three factors that could support this process: “First, the political leadership of these three countries needs to be confident in the knowledge that despite the imperfect enjoyment of human rights by their own citizens, substantial progress has been made in their domestic environments. Second, there must be a willingness to discard diplomatic niceties and call a spade a spade at bilateral and multilateral forums when gross abuses of human rights are committed. This will require a spring cleaning of current diplomatic doctrines and relationships. Third, there needs to be an acknowledgement that IBSA has much to offer to in terms of south-south cooperation by helping to put in place democratic institutions and stable structures across the developing world”.

Finally, the communiqué includes the matter of espionage by the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA). Echoing the speech given by the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, at the opening of the UN General Assembly, the communiqué condemned the practice of illegal interception of communications in other countries and described it as a violation of national sovereignty and individual rights. The IBSA and BRICS countries also mentioned support for the Brazilian proposal to introduce a multilateral discussion on internet governance. The same language was expressed in the declaration of BRICS foreign ministers, on the following day.

Moving forward

It does not seem prudent to supersede or abolish IBSA. After a decade of existence, it still fills a much needed gap and must be revitalized. Both, IBSA and BRICS, groupings serve distinct functions in the international arena and add value in different ways. Committing to IBSA is to commit to a model of development allied with democracy, involving social participation in the formulation of public policies and human rights. Internationally, it is about bringing innovation and cooperation to South-South dialogue and strengthening the autonomy of these countries in relation to the traditional big players of the East or the West. It also facilitates articulating new agendas and creative joint efforts to manage international crises. Finally, and most importantly, IBSA’s agenda is about driving the reform of global governance, so it not only benefits the particular countries, but also addresses the concerns of the society at large.

From this commitment to democratic dialogue there emerges the need to strengthen it. Development with democracy seems to be the national slogan of the three IBSA countries. What is needed now is to align the international identity of the group to these same values that shape their highly acclaimed national projects.


Download here the letter sent by Conectas, Civicus and Comonwealth Human Rights Initiative to the foreign ministers of India, Brazil and South Africa expressing concern with the cancelation of Ibsa 2013 Summit.

* Laura Trajber Waisbich is political scientist and international relations analyst. She graduated in International Relations from the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP) with a Master’s in Political Science from Sciences Po Paris. She works for the Foreign Policy Program at Conectas, where she is engaged in activities around the emerging powers and knowledge for action. Since 2011, Laura is also a researcher for the Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (Cebrap), working on social participation, south-south development cooperation, and open government. 

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