BRICS Bloc, New Development Bank and Where the Heck is it

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Some of this post is a bit dated, as this was meant to be written as an editorial for a BRICS Journal way back towards the fag end of 2015, and a lot of water has flown under the bridge ever since, with India holding the BRICS Summit in October last year in Goa, which also saw parallel sessions being organized by Peoples’ BRICS Forum, a conglomerate of civil society organizations from BRICS member countries raising concerns over the possible funding patterns the Bloc would be undertaking at the expense of environmental degradations and human rights violations. So, let us get on with it:

The BRICS bloc, a conglomerate of five of the biggest emerging economies is home to 43% of the world’s population with a share of 22% of the global GDP. These staggering statistics make Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa truly a force to reckon with. The bloc’s initiative to erect a development finance institution in the form of New Development Bank (NDB), is often attributed in the West as a reaction to the institutional sclerosis of Washington-DC-dominated World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whereas it is a catalyst complementing rather than challenging the Bretton Woods institutions or the Asian Development Bank in fighting poverty in the emerging economies. Whatever be the attributions, the logic of fighting global poverty is itself steeped in controversies ranging from applying mathematical and statistical juggleries to determine the number of poor according to standards that are a far cut from realities on ground, to economic measures built upon the plinth of models that on many occasions forgo the human capital in a relentless pursuit of development agenda, which is meaningless if only persevered in concentrating on the extreme poverty and purblind to the gap yielding inequalities.

The world is watching with keenness on the mushrooming of New Development Bank, which was officially launched in Shanghai in July, 2016. What would be the underlying rationale of this model? How and where would the finances flow? If the investments were complemented to fill a vast infrastructural gap, how would the safeguards be architected to prevent socio-economic and environmental violations on ecologies? What of the democratic set-up that underlies the formation of this bloc and subsequently of NDB getting hijacked by the political and economic clout and prowess of China? These have been some of the pressing and contentious questions that could either derail the rationale behind this initiative or leave no stone unturned in replicating the western-dominated financial institutions that find themselves increasingly in the eye of the storm for fostering irreversible violations and damages. Aside from that, China’s growing eminence in G20 is a step to rival G8’s macroeconomy, international trade and energy capitalisation lending it legitimacy for a foreign policy geared towards a north-south dialogue in addition to the south-south dialogue efficacious through BRICS and G20. Moreover, China views G20 as an economic platform with other emerging countries on board for a resolve on international affairs. G20 along with BRICS Bank is a contrivance for a financial architecture that focuses on development issues on the one hand, and internationalising its currency on the other. Clearly, it is not a case of what Deng Xiaoping called for “China keeping a low profile”. So, is it merely a speculative materialism that is the engine behind China’s true intentions?

The Asian Development Bank has calculated an infrastructural gap worth $8 trillion in the Asia Pacific needing to be filled by 2020. This is where NDB would cash-in most, and likely create a polarity between infrastructural funding and other developmental concerns. But, what is infrastructure is as hazy as the fuzzy logic of the calculated gap. It is a prerogative to continuously industrialise the BRICS, of building and upgrading ports, gateways, intelligent transportation and communication, power generational and distributional capabilities to augment developmental agenda, which incidentally sets parameters for economic prosperity, the fruits of which permeate to the hitherto-considered peripheries in a fight against poverty. However, the Articles, according to NDB President KV Kamath have a purpose sketched out for the Institution, “To mobilise resources for infrastructure and sustainable development projects in BRICS and other emerging economies, complementing the existing efforts of multilateral and regional development banks.” This is imperative of sustainability, pragmatism, innovation and speed of execution, of which the last could accelerate in a more experimental manner. The speed could pierce through bureaucratic red tapes, blunt operating procedures, and intensify delivery of massive infrastructural projects. Dang Xiaoping, in a rather philosophically pensive manner referred to reform as a process of feeling stones while crossing the river. Although, this should be the dictum NDB needs to seriously gravitate to, dangers of transgressions are lurking heavily.

The BRICS economies are undergoing economic upheavals, and China, the second largest economic power in the world with a nominal GDP more than the rest of bloc’s combined GDP is seeing NDB along with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as cardinal tools of its foreign policy initiatives. All of the three have a vision to revive China’s economic might through One Belt One Road (OBOR) and Silk Route through regional collaboration on the one hand and transcending state boundaries for facilitating trade links on the other. How would this augur for India is as important a question as how would the Government in India prioritize its policies for the NDB to plug in? The Government has sockets in place to provide the necessary plug ins, be they in the form of new tax allocations providing more funding for the states in order to empower growth, set budgetary allocations in order to expedite transport, communication and power capacities, proposal to create National Investment in Infrastructure Fund with a base capital of $3.25 billion, to planning and implementing regulatory reforms keeping a steady eye on growing influx of private capital and associated technologies to finally expunge bottlenecks to growth-led development model as a result. This is crucial, not just for India but for the entire bloc as a whole, since NDB’s priorities will be in line with the national development banks of member countries in effectuating the removal institutional roadblocks to growth. With a stated lending of up to $34 billion every year to begin with for filling up the huge infrastructural gap, NDB will act as an additional source of funding for India where the estimated gap in infrastructure is up north of $500 billion till 2020.

For the vast number of Indians, reality is far from development modelled on growth as envisaged by the political machinery at the centre. Growth forecasts have been revised downwards fearing a significant deceleration in exports and a capital flight from the country, courtesy unfavourable investment climes and a pitiable ease of doing business standards. While the Index of Economic Freedom ranks the country at 128 on a scale that defines the economy as situated in a mostly “unfree” zone, socio-economic concerns like malnutrition, falling public health indices, extreme poverty and growing inequality continue to plague the country. NDB’s role will be put under an intense scanner in addressing such internal contradictions of a magnitude that cannot be resolved merely by an external makeover tied to a growth that belittles its own citizenry. Unless Human Development Index, which emphasises life expectancy, education and income and GINI Coefficient Index, which measures inequality representing income distribution to country’s citizens are brought to affect the rating agencies’ take on India’s investment climate, Government’s relentless pursuit of developmental ends would never reach the multitude of people caught between the scylla and charybdis of regimental vagaries.

(DATED) With the upcoming India-Africa Summit to be hosted by New Delhi in October, there is a likelihood of trade relations between the two regions getting an uplift. Not only are India-Africa relations much softer compared to China’s scrambling for the African continent, it could also signal the way NDB gets projected by India in tune with its own foreign policy and diversify trade patterns seeking inroads into natural resources rich countries to augment a new investment destination for the increasing global profile of Indian corporate sector. As the Bank’s focus is concentrated on private investments, this gears in well with India’s investment in Africa in services and manufacturing sectors, roping in a vast population of non-resident Indians on the continent in a drive to foster economic regionalism on the one hand and throw around diplomatic weight on the other in a benign manner underlying India’s unique power equations. NDB could be a strong node bringing these realities to fruition, by promoting a reform in global economic governance with far-reaching significance and consequences. What remains to be seen is how much the NDB will abide by operation guidelines and procedures to see itself as not only different from other multilateral development institutions in terms of expediency, but also hold true to safeguards that protect vulnerabilities rather than exploiting and expropriating them. The latter is still a desiderata!!

Where is it all headed now?

The bank is planning to raise funds by issuing bonds in India, denominated in the local currency, the rupee, after to issued renminbi-denominated bonds in China in 2016. “In 2017, predominantly we’ll aim at taking up more lending tools to raise another $2.5bn for projects spreading over our member countries that are sustainable and do economic good. Virtually, we will try to double the lending of 2016 this year. What we are doing here at NDB is only a fraction of the need. Beyond lending, we would like to act as a catalyst, to get more parties involved in the lending process for projects that contribute to economic growth and sustainability,” said Kamath.

Major challenges for the bank lie in the changing global economic situation, which is seeing interest rates rise in developed countries. But, developing countries’ fast economic growth will help offset the effects, said he. Kamath also called the China-led OBOR a sound initiative that would bring benefits across several countries by investing in a significant way and creating economic momentum. “The program also brings synergy, making regions come together all along the Belt and the Road,” he said. Further he called, “We see it as something that will clearly spur economic activity in the region, and we think that the program is going to succeed.” On to renewable energy, where the focus seems to be concentrated….

In October last year, a new strategic report was produced by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), reviewing how successful the NDB has been so far. The report looked both at the increased renewable capacity of all five BRICS countries, but also the economic strain of such an ambitious project, a strain that is clear from the funding gap already present.

The NDB set targets tailored to each of the BRICS countries, taking into account their plans and their existing renewable capacity. The bank is designed to offer loans quickly and flexibly to the BRICS countries to make achieving these possible. “They had financed about $911m and that they had declared intent to finance or increase their loan by about $1.2bn every year,” says IEEFA consultant and the report’s author Jai Sharda. “So [the NDB is providing] about 11% of the public capital required.”

The report uses the concept of blended finance to work out the progress made and the progress required by the BRICS countries. “The concept of blended finance is basically built on the idea that when there is public money going into a sector it draws private money into that sector,” Sharda explains. “For every one dollar of public finance – the sort of finance being provided by the New Development Bank – it is estimated that it will make four dollars more of private money. So we built our estimations on that basis.”

Developing countries are some of the biggest consumers of energy in the world, as expanding a country’s infrastructure is energy-intensive. Economic development often requires large-scale industrialisation, such as we have seen in China, which has led to a more prosperous economy but also meant that China is the largest producer of CO2 in the world. All five of the BRICS countries rank in the top 20 polluters.

As such, the NDB has set goals to reduce the BRICS environmental impact while increasing the amount of energy they produce through renewable energy sources. Brazil is arguably in the best position to do this, as in 2015, 74% of its energy came from renewable sources. According to the IEEFA’s report, “Brazil’s 2024 Energy Plan envisages an increase in total installed renewable capacity, including large hydropower, from 106.4GW in 2014 to 173.6GW in 2024.”

India, China and South Africa have all set impressive targets, and have begun work to reach them. India intends to increase its renewable energy production by 40% by 2030, as well as reducing emissions intensity by 33%-35% over 2005 levels. China’s targets are even greater, as it plans “to reduce emission intensity by 60%-65% over 2005 levels”, the IEEFA report says. “China is estimated to increase its solar capacity to 127GW by 2020 from 43GW at the end of 2015, and wind capacity from 145GW in 2015 to 250GW by 2020.” South Africa has the furthest to go of the BRICS, as at present it gets 94% of its energy from fossil fuels but has plans to install a further 17.8GW of renewable energy capacity by 2020.

Russia is slightly different to the other BRICS countries as it has technically already met its target. Russia’s target was to reduce emissions by 25%-30% over 1990 levels, and emissions are currently around 40% lower than 1990 levels. However, the country is planning a 4.5% increase in the amount of renewable energy it produces by 2020.

All five BRICS countries have made progress, although to different extents. Brazil currently produces the most renewable energy, with 74% of its energy coming from renewable sources, the vast majority coming from large hydroelectric plants.

Sharda suggests that Brazil’s current success is, in part, due to its long-standing history of renewable projects, necessitated by a lack of coal: “I think Brazil has been better off than especially China and India in implementing more renewable energy because they lacked fossil fuel alternatives.”

Despite their fast-growing economies, India and China have historically been slower to develop their renewables sectors. “India and China have massive amounts of coal deposits, similarly Russia has large amounts of oil and gas deposits, and South Africa is one of the biggest exporters of coal,” Sharda says. “All of these countries have had a traditional, natural advantage.”

But things are beginning to change for both China and India, and they are expected to see the biggest boom in renewable energy of any of the BRICS countries in the next few years. “China led the coal and thermal power boom, they didn’t have an issue with dealing with worsening environmental conditions at a national level then,” Sharda says. “But the government and policy makers have actually become very sensitive to environmental issues which are why they are focusing a lot on renewable energy now.”

There is a massive trend moving towards renewable energy sources in China so, despite the fact that 74% of its energy came from fossil fuels in 2015, the IEEFA report estimated that China would increase its solar capacity to 127GW and increase its wind capacity to 250GW by 2020. However, in January, China increased its targets and its spending on renewable energy, and now plans to invest at least $360bn by the end of 2020, solidifying its position as a global leader on clean energy. Meanwhile, India increased its renewable capacity to 225GW by August 2016, a huge leap from 97GW in 2005. This is predominantly from using hydro.

Russia and South Africa are making slower progress. South Africa still relies on fossil fuels, increasing its renewable capacity to just 2.1GW in March 2016 from 1.8GW the previous year. Russia is making small progress predominantly due to a lack of investment from the country itself, only allocating $1bn for renewable technologies in all 17 Russian states in 2014.

Despite rapid development in the BRICS countries, for Brazil, China, India and South Africa there is a long way to go for any country to meet its targets. There is a funding gap which the NDB, among others, need to fill to help stimulate the development of the renewable energy industries in each country. The IEEFA estimates that “meeting these targets would require an annual investment of around $177bn. In comparison, the investment in the renewable sector in BRICS countries in 2015 was $126bn, leaving an average shortfall of $51bn.”

It is clear, therefore, that a vast increase in investment is needed. “Brazil’s renewable capacity expansion plans would require an investment of $86bn, or 85.2% of overall electricity generation capacity investment,” the IEEFA report states. This is despite Brazil’s impressive hydroelectric infrastructure. Meanwhile Russia would require an investment of $44bn, India will require $128bn, China $254bn and South Africa $30bn.

Whilst these figures are for varying timescales and some countries, China in particular, are likely to be able to channel enough money to meet their targets, it is clear that a much greater and more sustained investment will be needed if the BRICS countries as a whole are to achieve their goals. Furthermore, these figures do not include the knock-on infrastructure upgrade costs that renewable energy generation will create. India alone will need a further $26bn over the next ten years to update its grid.

But more is going to be done, starting with an announced increase in the loans available from the NDB. “The development bank has actually declared that they were targeting to expand and increase their support of energy development this year,” Sharda says. “Their target is actually about 35% percent of the overall public capital required.” This large increase could make all the difference.

At present, despite impressive advances in renewable capacity in the BRICS countries, some look set to miss their targets. If the NDB and other multilateral development banks and financial institutions manage to increase investment, the BRICS could have a massive effect on the environmental damage currently being created by their energy systems. Their success will be evident across the next ten years and beyond, and will be keenly anticipated around the world.

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