The BRICS Expansion: Why?

by robert looney
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

bob looney teaches economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in California.

Published November 29, 2023


Jim O’Neill, the former Goldman Sachs exec who coined the “BRIC” acronym for the economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, felt that in an ever-changing world, creating associations among groups of economies could have unique collective advantages. In one period (now on the wane) that group might be the newly industrialized economies that flourished from open global trade, free markets and cheap labor. In his view, by the early 2000s, the BRICS countries (including South Africa since 2010) had a leg up thanks to their size and abundant cheap labor.

If four or five is good, why not eleven? The BRICS group is expanding in 2024, adding Egypt, Ethiopia, Argentina, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Actually, membership applications came from 23 countries. Just why they favored the six is a bit perplexing — and will likely remain so because they provided no specificson rationale.

The intricate and frequent adversarial connections among the latest entrants suggest it will be difficult for all 11 countries to find common ground on pretty much anything save their conviction in some sort of manifest destiny. The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, for example, has long been a thorn in the relationship between Egypt and Ethiopia. Saudi Arabia and Iran, with a long fractured history and irreconcilable disagreements about Islam, have only recently restored diplomatic ties — and the Gaza catastrophe threatens even that cold peace.

Recent Patterns of Growth

Another impediment to collective achievement stems from the reality that, despite early optimism, global growth favoring the BRICS (or BRICS+) has yet to materialize. The BRICS did increase their share of global GDP from 26.6 percent in 2010 to 32.1 percent in 2023. However, this expansion came in a period in which the economies of the advanced industrial nations were in the doldrums — they grew at a meager annual rate of 1.8 percent during this period. And in any event, a much different picture emerges when comparing the BRICS’s economic performance to other emerging and developing countries.

Data from the International Monetary Fund show that in the 2000s, the BRICS group enjoyed an average annual GDP growth rate of 6.0 percent — pretty snazzy. However, the figure fell to 3.5 percent from 2010 to 2022. Not one of the countries in the group, by the way, had a better growth record than in the previous decade. The six countries about to become BRICS+ members managed GDP growth of 4.9 percent in the 2000s, dropping to 3.3 percent in the later period.

The mediocre collective performance of the BRICS reflects many factors; their economies are hardly similar. But in part it likely stemmed from the problematic quality of their internal governance. Using the World Bank’s governance indicators, on average the group scored in the 44th percentile in the later period. (Most advanced industrial countries, by contrast, score in the high 80s or low 90s.) And it is hard to believe that countries so badly run can play a leadership role on the global stage.

Truth is, the BRICS expansion fits the category of sound and fury, signifying little. Without a shared vision or ideology, it’s hard to pin down what the BRICS+ group could achieve.
Why Join the Club?

If the new entrants are not hitching their economic fate to the original five, what do they expect to get from the association? For that matter, what did the BRICS hope to accomplish by expanding their membership?

It’s not entirely a mystery. Faced with the rising competition between the United States and China, the new member countries have sought to diversify their bets, lest they be caught between the superpowers. They apparently also wanted to shift away from alliances in general towards the more transactional sort of relationships favored by China, India and Russia, and to leverage those relationships in their ties with the United States and other Western nations.

At least in theory — well, mostly in theory — BRICS membership has the potential to mobilize the voices of the global South, which is appealing given the frustrations with how Western institutions and governments often ignored issues of importance to emerging and developing economies. More tangibly, new members had country-specific reasons to pursue the linkage with BRICS.

In Iran’s case, the government sees it as an opportunity to legitimize the theocracy and its leadership on the international stage, where the West is busy painting Iran as a pariah. And moving closer to China as its major oil purchaser makes strategic sense. But why is this dependent on BRICS membership?

Egypt, for its part, wants to attract foreign direct investment and ease foreign currency shortages. The prospects of loans that don’t have to be repaid in U.S. dollars are also appealing. Egypt sees BRICS countries as potential markets for their goods. But again, why does membership matter?

Argentina’s and Ethiopia’s objectives appear based on little more than wishful thinking. Argentina’s president, Alberto Fernández, sees membership as a potential lifeline to escape the country’s worsening economic crisis. He dreams of initiating a “new scenario” for the nation, enabling it to enter new markets, consolidate existing ones, attract more investment, create jobs and increase imports. Ethiopia, for its part, “feels the existing international order is not fair in which the voices of the Global South are not heard.” It sees its inclusion as providing the bloc an opportunity to “mobilize African countries toward ensuring a fairer world.” Just how this translates into policy is unclear.

As for the legacy BRICS countries, when faced with the choice between deepening ties among themselves or expanding the club, maybe they couldn’t resist the lure of new headlines.

Winners, Losers?

Truth is, the BRICS expansion fits the category of sound and fury, signifying little. Without a shared vision or ideology, it’s hard to pin down what the BRICS+ group could achieve. The new members will probably have to settle for the morale boost that comes with joining a club that doesn’t treat them as second-class. The best guess now is that BRICS+ won’t be much more than a catchy acronym that sponsors an annual world-class party in some attractive city. My vote would be for Buenos Aires.

main topic: Economy: Global