BRICS neglects the role of technology in economic development

President of China Xi Jinping gestures during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24. Xi’s remark at the summit is relevant: “History will be shaped by choices we make”, says the authorPhoto: AFP

President of China Xi Jinping gestures during the 2023 BRICS Summit at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg on August 24. Xi’s remark at the summit is relevant: “History will be shaped by choices we make”, says the authorPhoto: AFP

Published Aug 29, 2023


The 15th BRICS summit in Johannesburg from August 22 to 24 attracted global interest not seen in many years. Several countries, including Argentina, Nigeria, Iran, Belarus, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, expressed interest in joining the bloc.

South Africa, the smallest economy of the five countries, invited leaders from more than 30 African states and the Global South to the meeting. The interest is understandable since BRICS represents 44% of the world population and 26% of its gross domestic product (GDP). BRICS surpassed the G7 countries in 2020 in terms of their combined GDP.

It became clear that the BRICS members – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are entertaining ambitions of becoming a geopolitical alternative to Western-led formations and forums. International events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the trade war between the US and China are forcing a decision whether BRICS will remain a loose trade alliance or become a new international coalition with an own currency.

The theme of the summit was: “BRICS and Africa: Partnership for Mutually Accelerated Growth, Sustainable Development and Inclusive Multilateralism.” This informed the five priorities of the summit:

– Developing a partnership towards an equitable just transition with regard to climate change.

– Transforming education and skills development for the future.

– Unlocking opportunities through the African Continental Free Trade Area.

– Strengthening post-pandemic socio-economic recovery and the attainment of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development.

– Strengthening multilateralism, including working towards real reform of global governance institutions and strengthening the meaningful participation of women in peace processes.

– Leveraging the transformative role of technology in socio-economic development.

In the digital era, technological innovations are transforming the landscape of countries and industries. The role of technology in socio-economic development, therefore, has become increasingly prominent and impactful all over the world.

Technology revolutionised many industries and has emerged as a driving force in propelling nations towards progress and prosperity. Technological innovation acts as a catalyst for economic growth.

Countries that invest in research and development and encourage innovation, tend to experience higher levels of productivity and competitiveness. Industries like artificial intelligence, biotechnology, renewable energy and automation can create new markets and generate employment opportunities. Additionally, the rise of start-ups, often fuelled by technological breakthroughs, leads to the creation of innovative products and services.

Empowering communication

Information and communication technology (ICT) has broken down geographical barriers and transformed communication. It empowered individuals and equipped them with the tools needed to contribute meaningfully to their communities and economies.

The advent of the internet, social media and mobile devices has transformed how we interact and paved the way for greater access to information, education and business opportunities. Digital platforms, virtual classrooms and online courses democratised education and enabled people to learn new skills and acquire knowledge remotely, engage in remote work and collaborate with peers on a global scale.

Enhanced connectivity opened doors for international partnerships and the exchange of knowledge, thereby fostering socio-economic growth. The role of technology in education is particularly crucial in addressing the skills gap and preparing the workforce for jobs of the future.

Addressing social challenges and inequalities

Technology also presents the opportunity to address socio-economic inequalities. Governments and organisations can harness technology to develop targeted solutions for issues such as poverty, health-care access and gaps in education. For instance, mobile banking and digital payment systems enable financial inclusion for underserved populations, while data-driven insights facilitate more effective social welfare programmes.

Technology and the BRICS agenda

Although important themes have been formulated by BRICS such as the transitioning to renewable energy, a focus on future skills and the strengthening of socio-economic recovery and sustainable development, the role of technology in “accelerated growth” and “sustainable development”, as mentioned by BRICS, was relatively under-emphasised.

There is no doubt that BRICS could be an important means for economic development of the member countries. However, it seems that the emphasis of the BRICS economic grouping was much more on strengthening multilateralism between member countries, bolstering the bloc by introducing new member countries, and the “de-dollarisation” of the bloc by creating its own BRICS bank and currency.

Despite several meetings of the BRICS Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) steering committee during 2023 (paragraph 68) little has crystallised in the Johannesburg II declaration.

However, the BRICS Young Scientist Forum hosted by South Africa; the BRICS STI Framework Programme connecting scientists through the funding of a portfolio of research projects between BRICS countries; and the BRICS Action Plan for Innovation Cooperation (2021-24) should be commended.

Out of the 94 paragraphs of the Johannesburg II declaration, only eight touches to some extent on technology and, mostly, not in the context of economic growth.

Paragraph 23 refers to the “formidable potential of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)” in growth and development.

In paragraph 33 “the dynamism of the digital economy in enabling global economic growth” is admitted. ICT is primarily framed in terms of the interconnectivity of supply chains and payment systems to promote trade and investment.

In paragraph 36 “human resource development on new technologies” and the development of industry 4.0 skills are mentioned as being important in the New Industrial Revolution.

Paragraph 51 welcomes cooperation regarding financial technology, and payments, the leveraging of technology to address climate data gaps, initiatives aimed at enhancing cybersecurity, and the development of financial technology, including the sharing of knowledge and experience.

Paragraph 53 underscores the significance of technology and innovation, with an emphasis on the transfer of low-cost technology.

Paragraph 69 refers to satellite technology, while paragraph 70 addresses the advancement of the use of clean energy options, promoting research and innovation in energy science and technology.

In paragraph 74, BRICS commits to strengthening skills exchanges and co-operation among BRICS countries by exploring opportunities on digital education, sharing digital educational resources, building smart education systems, and jointly promoting digital transformation of education in BRICS countries.

Despite the mentioning of technology in a few paragraphs, the important role of technology often is not indicated such as that of the promotion of health care in paragraph 65.

Although a balance is important and renewable energy is mentioned in paragraph 70, the role of fossil fuels in supporting energy security and energy transition and technological neutrality is emphasised.

Often when the declaration refers to technology, the emphasis is on the transfer of technology and not on developing new and innovative technology.

Making the right choice

The role of technology in socio-economic development cannot be overstated. As societies continue to evolve in the digital age, embracing technological advancements is imperative for progress and economic growth. By fostering innovation, enhancing connectivity and addressing pressing challenges, technology has the potential to create a more inclusive and prosperous world for everyone. It should also be the responsibility of BRICS to harness the power of technology.

Perhaps the BRICS summit was as Professor Bonke Dumisa asked: “Is it just another annual stokvel booze-cruise meeting for photo opportunities?”

Although phrased in a somewhat different context, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s remark is relevant: “History will be shaped by choices we make.”

Professor Louis C H Fourie is an extraordinary professor in Information Systems of the University of the Western Cape.