Outlook for the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum
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  • September 18, 2008

    The third IBSA Summit will be held in New Delhi on October 15, 2008. It will provide an opportunity for assessment of the forum’s achievements so far. IBSA is a trilateral, developmental initiative between India, Brazil and South Africa to promote South-South co-operation and exchange. IBSA was set up following the agreement between the Heads of State/Government of Brazil, South Africa and India when they met at the G-8 meeting at Evian in 2003.

    The Forum was formalised at the meeting of the foreign ministers of the three countries at Brasilia on June 6, 2003 through the adoption of the Brasilia Declaration. The Declaration focused on issues of common concern including the reform of the United Nations, threats to security, social equity and inclusion, racial discrimination and gender equality.

    The main objectives of the IBSA Dialogue Forum include South-South Co-operation, promotion of trade and investment, trilateral exchange of information and best practices, and co-operation in a broad range of areas for mutual benefit. Though conceived as a Dialogue Forum, IBSA is rapidly moving into becoming a “strategic partnership.”

    The institutional mechanisms of the Forum includes consultations at Senior Official (Focal Point), Ministerial (Trilateral Joint Commission) and Heads of State and/or Government (Summit) levels. In addition, the Forum also facilitates interaction amongst academics, businessmen, and civil society. The first two summits were in 2006 (Brazil) and 2007 (South Africa). Four meetings of the Trilateral Joint Commission and several meetings of the 16 Joint Working Groups have been held.

    IBSA is described as a “unique forum”. It brings together three of the largest rapidly growing democracies in the world on three different continents. The three countries are well known for their multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural character. They are also known for their mega-diversity. The three countries have identified several concrete areas of co-operation. According to the Brasila Declaration, 2003, the Foreign Ministers:

    …identified the trilateral cooperation among themselves as an important tool for achieving the promotion of social and economic development and they emphasized their intention to give greater impetus to cooperation among their countries. While noting that their societies have diverse areas of excellence in science and technology and offer a broad range of potential opportunities for trade, investment, travel and tourism, they stressed that the appropriate combination of their best resources will generate the desired synergy. Amongst the scientific and technological areas in which cooperation can be developed are biotechnology, alternative energy sources, outer space, aeronautics, information technology and agriculture. Avenues for greater cooperation in defence matters should also be explored. The Ministers agreed upon putting forward to their respective governments that the authorities in charge of the portfolio for science and technology, defence, transportation and civil aviation, among others, also hold trilateral meetings, aiming at the creation of concrete cooperation projects.

    India, Brazil and South Africa are rapidly growing economies. Together, they account for over US $600 billion of global trade and a combined GDP of about $2 trillion. All three have ambitions of playing an important role in global affairs.

    They play important role in regional fora. Brazil is a member of MERCOSUR. South Africa is a member of SACU and AU. India is a member of SAARC, BIMSTEC and other fora.

    The IBSA Forum has set up IBSA Trilateral Joint Commission which has met 4 times. Issues discussed include the millennium development goals, South-South co-operation, NEPAD, South American integration, terrorism, disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control, Middle East, international trade, climate change, etc.

    The Trilateral Commission has set up several Working Groups on a range of subjects including agriculture, defence, education, health, information society, tourism, transport, culture, trade and investment, and science and technology.

    The three countries have also set up an IBSA Fund which funds poverty reduction and capacity building in developing countries. The IBSA Fund is administered by the UNDP. Each country contributes $1 million every year to the fund. Projects have been undertaken in Guinea-Bissau and Haiti.

    Trilateral trade crossed $10 billion mark in 2007. The agreed target of $15 billion by 2010 is likely to be met. Cooperation between businessmen of the three countries is intense and it takes place within the framework of the IBSA Business Forum.

    There is a proposal for a Free Trade Area between India, SACU and MERCOSUR. If it comes about, it will play a major role in global trade.

    The three countries are located on three different continents separated by great distances. Therefore, improving connectivity is a major theme of IBSA co-operation. This includes air, shipping, visa and people-to-people connectivity. Contacts between parliamentarians and women have also been improved.

    The IBSA Forum provides an opportunity to the three countries to discuss regional and international issues. They have exchanged views on almost all contemporary issues and developed common positions which have been enshrined in their joint declarations. This has helped them to enhance mutual co-operation in multilateral fora and speak in a common voice representing the views of developing countries. They have also been invited regularly to the outreach meetings of G-8 where they have taken up issues of developing countries in a forceful manner.

    In the five years of its existence, IBSA has come a long way. There are many more milestones to be crossed. IBSA will grow if it shows quick and visible results in the areas that affect the common man in the three countries. Otherwise, it will become a mere talk shop.

    The 3rd IBSA Summit will provide an opportunity for stock taking and for chalking out a roadmap for the future. A large number of projects have been identified for future. But the emphasis must shift to implementation.


    IBSA has strategic significance for India, Brazil and South Africa. It represents an attempt by these three leading developing countries to make their voice heard at important international fora on issues of global concern. IBSA has shown remarkable resilience since 2003. It has managed to put in place mechanisms for exchange and co-operation.

    IBSA is an attempt at presenting a workable model of South-South cooperation. Decision making is simpler compared to other South-South fora like the G-77 because it involves less number of countries.

    IBSA countries have shown a capacity to work together. However, it should be realised that the three countries are located in different regions, face different sets of challenges in their respective regions and sometimes their intentions and concerns may not converge. Thus, excessive expectations from IBSA would be misplaced. IBSA needs to evolve with the passage of time.

    On political issues of concern to developing countries, IBSA has been able to speak in a common voice at multilateral fora like the WTO Doha Development Round and at the climate change negotiations. However, their interests may diverge on some issues. This could put their co-operation in IBSA under stress.

    Trilateral trade has risen rapidly. But more work remains to be done. The three countries will need to evolve at least preferential trade arrangements if not a free trade area if they have to make an impact on global trade. Brazil is a member of MERCOSUR and South Africa of SACU. This constrains their evolving an IBSA free trade area. For critical mass, trilateral trade must be far above $10 billion, perhaps at $30-$50 billion in the next five years. This will help shift trade from North-South to South-South direction.

    The Brazilian and Indian economies are much larger than that of South Africa even though the latter has the highest per capita income among the three. Asymmetry in economic size should not be allowed to come in the way of developing IBSA co-operation.

    Are there enough complementarities to give a fillip to IBSA co-operation? Brazil has considerable experience in the production of biofuel. South Africa is rich in minerals and has clean coal technologies. India has strengths in the services sector. IBSA countries should synergise each other’s strengths to mutual benefit and for leveraging their strengths.

    Brazil and India have staked their claim to permanent membership of the UNSC. South Africa has the same ambition but it has not been able to get the nod from the African Union. In the process it has not been able to support Brazil and India, the members of G-4, in their bid for UNSC membership.

    How does IBSA compare with the Indian Ocean Rim-Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC) on BIMSTEC, of which India is a member? IOR-ARC and BIMSTEC have not lived up to their promise despite the strong underlying strategic objective and wide membership. Lack of political will and funding have been cited as reasons for underperformance. Moreover, such initiatives are usually run top-down by bureaucracies. IBSA will need to avoid these pitfalls if it has to grow into a meaningful organisation.

    In the last few years India’s foreign policy has been diversified. India is reaching out to different regions and different countries beyond its neighbourhood. For India, IBSA serves as an important instrument of foreign policy. It played an important role in building a consensus at the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in favour of a waiver allowing India to participate in civilian nuclear commerce. The common chord struck between India, Brazil and South Africa during IBSA meetings would have created the ground for these countries to support the Indian case at the NSG.

    IBSA has a large potential but converting it into results beneficial to the common man is the real challenge. It should move beyond merely being a dialogue forum. It needs to create a critical mass so that its voice is heard in global affairs. In particular, it needs to enhance co-operation in trade, skills, investments, technology, energy, defence and environment sectors.

    Prepared by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair at IDSA.