The student-led global governance research groups at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy are made up of the G7, G20 and BRICS Research Groups. Having been a member of all three research groups throughout my undergraduate career at the University of Toronto, I had the opportunity to go to a number of G7 and G20 Summits to experience the summit process first hand. I was especially excited this year that the opportunity has finally come to the BRICS Research Group, as we successfully received our accreditation to cover the 10th BRICS Summit in Johannesburg on site at the media center. The BRICS, like the G7 and G20, is an international summit institution. Unlike the G-summits, the BRICS consists of members that are developing countries and emerging economies, offering a chance for the developing world to stand in solidarity and voice their concerns on the world stage. Members include Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

The BRICS Research Group is a student-led group of around fifty students at the University of Toronto and RANEPA. Throughout the summit cycle (the date of the last summit to the beginning of the following summit), we work on compliance reports that monitor a selection of priority commitments, tracking whether or not member countries have complied with what they committed to do. Our report summarizes the publicly available information from each member state with regards to each commitment and provides scores on our -1 to +1 scale. We have been producing these reports since 2012, and now have a large database. Four members of the U of T leadership team of the BRICS Research Group were on site in Johannesburg. Each of us picked our individual topics of interest to focus on at the Summit. Our China Specialist, Ian Stansbury, was responsible for tracking the member China and the issue of regional security. Our BRICS Research Group Editor-in-Chief, Angela Hou, was responsible for tracking the member India and the issues of gender and development. Our South Africa local team member, Jane Filipiuk, was responsible for tracking the member South Africa and the issue of macroeconomics and trade. I was responsible for tracking the members Brazil and Russia and the issue area of health.

I landed in Johannesburg on July 23. This was my second time in Africa and I was beyond excited to see what Johannesburg has to offer. The area where we stayed was near Nelson Mandela Square, one of the most iconic squares and most lively areas in the city. This year, 2018, also marks the Nelson Mandela Centennial. “Mandela 100” slogans were all over the area, alongside “BRICS 2018” posters. My first impression of the city was celebratory and lively. The first press briefing that I attended for the summit was hosted by the minister of public relations of South Africa. The Minister announced that South Africa, after extensive preparations, was in a state of readiness and looked forward to a fruitful summit.

The first formal event that took place was the BRICS Business Forum. Business leaders across BRICS countries came together to discuss the role of the private sector in boosting the BRICS economy, under the central theme of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The press was briefed by another press briefing after the Business Forum, which summarized the outcomes of the meeting. The objective of the business forum was to address perceived imbalances in the global trading environment and the shift away from multilateralism. The forum reinforced the BRICS members’ dedication to a multilateral rules-based system and the need to increase BRICS cooperation in this regard. In particular, the BRICS emphasized the need to cooperate in trade in a way that focuses on complementarities and prepares for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. One of the most concrete outcomes was that Chinese President Xi Jinping announced at the Business Forum 14 billion dollars of investment in South Africa. South Africa stated that currently, South Africa invests more in other BRICS countries than the BRICS does in South Africa, and that this needs to change. As host, and on behalf of the African continent, South Africa sent the key message that the BRICS needs “investment-led trade.” “Investment cooperation is top of the game for us,” the spokesperson for South Africa stated.

The next event was the official leaders’ summit. When the leaders’ summit began, our team started to focus on our specific topics of interest. Each of us were responsible for producing an “objectives set” report for each country and issue area, indicating what the summit communique would need to produce if it were to be successful in achieving the goals of the specific member country and issue area. Our research consisted of online research and listening to the live broadcasts from upstairs in the convention center, where the BRICS leaders were meeting for discussions. While a couple of sessions were closed, there were several open sessions where all the leaders’ speeches and contributions were live-streamed to media members in the media center. These sessions gave us a tremendous amount of insight and details into each BRICS member’s priorities, objectives, and perspectives on key issues in the global economy and global governance. Then, when the Johannesburg Declaration was released, our team began to work on the “objectives met” part of our tasks. We matched our “objectives set” document with the communique (the 2018 “Johannesburg Declaration”) and gave letter grades (A to F) to reflect how well the Summit had achieved its desired objectives – for both the members and the issue areas.

In addition to our research tasks, our team also had several solid achievements to be proud of. On the day of the leader’s summit, we prepared and put together the BRICS Research Group’s on-site press release for our 2017-2018 Xiamen Summit BRICS Compliance Report. We provided some meaningful analysis of compliance trends in our press release, which attracted the attention of several media outlets, including the Economist, which based an article regarding BRICS compliance on our report. Each of us also participated in interviews with several media outlets regarding our issue areas and/or countries of expertise. Some of the media outlets that we interacted with include China Daily, Xinhua News, and Voice of America. In addition, some of us also wrote blogs for the issue area that we were assigned. Our China Specialist, Ian Stansbury, wrote a blog on the hotly debated issue of the China-US trade war and its implications for understanding China’s global governance leadership. My blog on health reflected the BRICS concrete steps in making progress for its health agenda, the importance of this agenda item given the vaccination scandal in China which coincided with the BRICS Summit, and the need for the BRICS to do more given their great potential.

Overall, I had a meaningful and rich summit experience. My days at the Johannesburg media center allowed me to see many BRICS Summit processes in action, including watching some working sessions live. Reporting directly from live proceedings certainly made me feel closer to the subject that I study, in comparison to the second-hand information that we are limited to when we are not on site. Seeing the interest in our compliance report from media outlets and other researchers was also encouraging, and reinforced that the work our research group does is useful, meaningful, and important. At the same time, I was also extremely grateful to have the opportunity to spend time in Johannesburg and experience a new city. Even though I did not have much time to explore the city beyond the area we were located, let alone the large country of South Africa, I felt the warmth and inclusiveness from the hospitality that the South African government provided at the media center and surrounding areas. The friendly security guards and the peaceful and calm atmosphere really set this summit apart from other G7 and G20 summits that I attended in the past, and instilled in me a sense of optimism towards the nature and future of BRICS cooperation – in not only the economic and political realm, but the cultural and people-to-people exchanges as well.