By Na'eem Jeenah
Last week, Brics leaders formalised the establishment of the New Development Bank (NDB), which will use its $100 billion (R1.24 trillion) in initial capital to fund infrastructure and sustainable development projects both at home and overseas.
The NDB will not only bind these countries together in common purpose but will introduce something not seen since the dawn of contemporary multilateralism: competition to the Western-dominated international financial system.
Despite the best intentions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, the existing international financial institutions have consistently fallen short of their aim to provide development assistance to the most marginalised nations.
With their often-problematic loan conditions, they have at times impeded rather than promoted equitable development.
The NDB could change this. As a bank created in and by the global south, and for the global south, the Brics bank could be revolutionary.
It could, for example, provide critical development assistance to middle-income countries whose economic status has prevented investment by traditional donors.
Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt are reeling from the knock-on effects of the war in Syria, now in its fifth year.
They have taken in 98 percent of the refugees, with drastic repercussions for their own economies and societies. The war has already cost Lebanon $20bn – almost half of its annual gross domestic product – and Turkey $12.5bn.
But the World Bank, with reserves more than four times as much as the NDB’s committed capital, considers these countries too rich to be assisted with its more generous loans at lower or zero interest rates.
The UN estimates that Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt will collectively need $5.5bn this year alone to fund their response to the Syria crisis.
So far, slightly more than one-fifth of that plan has been funded by the international community.
This abandonment perhaps gives rise to another acronym that we could employ to describe Syria’s neighbours: the Jilted.
If the Brics bank were operational today, it could fund part of the regional plan and have plenty left over.
Brics member states, despite their limited reserves, have already provided development assistance to Syria. Brazil, for example, pledged $5 million at a recent international pledging conference on the Syrian crisis.
But what the NDB offers is a unique, collective initiative with the potential to both amplify and institutionalise this assistance at the multilateral level.
This is a great opportunity for Brics countries to step in where traditional donors will not or cannot, thereby demonstrating their collective leadership on behalf of other emerging economies.
Supporting the response in the Middle East would also be in line with the policies espoused by individual Brics governments, who acknowledge a correlation between development and sustainable peace.
Peace and stability in the region are global public goods. By supporting development in Syria’s neighbours, the NDB could increase stability across the entire region and make peace more likely. This would be in everyone’s interests.
Furthermore, Brics member states have abundant development expertise, especially in livelihood support, agriculture, water and sanitation and health.
The NDB could harness the wealth of experience of its members to help Syria’s neighbours cope by improving their water, sanitation, hygiene and electrical infrastructure.
The advent of the NDB is exciting for those who have long lamented the inertia and bias of the current global financial system.
Through the NDB, the Brics can redefine what development assistance means and how it works, and ensure that the most marginalised communities benefit from it.
Syria and the crisis it has caused in the region is the most pressing humanitarian disaster of our time. In this, the NDB has an opportunity to take the lead and guide the international response that has so far been woefully inadequate. And as an institution dedicated to the public interest, it must ensure that its operations in the region are transparent.
Strong accountability mechanisms must also be put into place.
Shortly before he left office, one of the founding members of the Brics, Chinese President Hu Jintao, detailed his vision for the bloc as “defenders and promoters of developing countries and a force for world peace”.
Brics nations have an opportunity to show that they are different, people-centred and determined to do right not just by their own people but by everyone living in fragile states or feeling the negative effects of a struggling economy.
The NDB could be an exciting realisation of Hu’s dream if it succeeds in mobilising much-needed funds for the humanitarian and regional spillover of the Syrian crisis.
Na’eem Jeenah is executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, a research institute dedicated to studying relations between the Middle East and Africa.
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