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BRICS group of major emerging economies will hold a summit in Johannesburg

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

How many countries would want to belong to a club that has Russia as a member? The answer is, well, quite a few. They're showing interest in joining BRICS, the grouping of world economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. BRICS is holding a summit in Johannesburg this week. NPR's Philip Reeves says its rising prominence appears to be partly linked to the war in Ukraine.

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PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The United States Congress is on its feet. This is a standing ovation for Ukraine's president Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his visit to Washington last December.

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PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: Thank you so much.

REEVES: Zelenskyy delivers an upbeat message.

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ZELENSKYY: We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.

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REEVES: Then Zelenskyy adds this.

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ZELENSKYY: We have to do whatever it takes to ensure that countries of the Global South also gain such victory.

REEVES: The term Global South isn't really geographic. It refers to the world's poorer, often post-colonial countries but also to the BRICS nations. It's territory where Zelenskyy's battle for the minds of the world is a long way from victory.

SANUSHA NAIDU: I think countries in the Global South are saying, if you have a problem with Russia, it doesn't make it our problem.

REEVES: Sanusha Naidu is from the Institute for Global Dialogue based in South Africa, the country hosting the BRICS summit.

NAIDU: We are independent countries. We can make our independent decisions. We don't have to be corralled into taking up side based on how others want to see it.

REEVES: There's resentment within the Global South over being pressured to impose sanctions and also over the attention the U.S. and its allies give to this conflict but not others. Jorge Heine is a former Chilean ambassador to three BRICS countries.

JORGE HEINE: For many countries in the Global South, to make this war into a global war, into a unique war, is quite inappropriate. And they strongly disagree with it.

REEVES: BRICS nations account for 4 out of every 10 people on the planet. That number could soon grow. South Africa says some 40 nations have either applied to join the group or expressed an interest in doing so - reportedly including Saudi Arabia and Iran.

MATIAS SPEKTOR: I think it's the Western tone of moral superiority that gets these countries really worked up about this, when the West itself is violating principles and norms of international law all the time.

REEVES: Matias Spektor is professor of International Relations at the Fundacao Tulio Vargas in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The question of whether and how to admit new members will be high on the summit's agenda. Spektor says China is pushing for expansion.

SPEKTOR: Because China conceives of the BRICS as a group in which the chief purpose is to show the world that there is an alternative to the Western international order.

REEVES: Jim O'Neill used to be top economist at Goldman Sachs.

JIM O'NEILL: Still today, the Chinese call me the father of the BRICS every time I ever speak to them.

REEVES: BRICS matters to China, says O'Neill.

O'NEILL: They think it gives them a real voice in this never-ending argument that they need to have a bigger say in the World Bank, the IMF, WTO and so on. And they're right. On that, they are definitely right.

REEVES: The Chinese call O'Neill the father of BRICS because of an article he wrote 22 years ago. In it, he flagged Brazil, Russia, India and China - BRIC, as he called it - as emerging economies deserving a greater role in global governance. The group was set up a few years later using the acronym O'Neill invented. It added the S later after South Africa joined. O'Neill is unimpressed with its performance so far.

O'NEILL: The BRICS political leaders have not really achieved anything since they first started meeting, in my view, other than this remarkable symbolism.

REEVES: BRICS should set clear criteria before admitting new members, says O'Neill.

O'NEILL: Do these countries bring something that the BRICS don't have already? Will they bring something that will make the economic and social performance of the current members better than it was before?

REEVES: As the BRICS club jets into Johannesburg...

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: ...One key player will be missing. Vladimir Putin faces an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court. As a signatory to the court, South Africa would have been obliged to detain him, though they probably wouldn't have done so, says Shivshankar Menon.

SHIVSHANKAR MENON: Problem is the day after. What do you do with it in the morning after? And is the world really going to take this on?

REEVES: Menon's a former foreign secretary and national security adviser of India. He dislikes the term Global South. Its countries differ greatly and often have conflicting national interests, he says. Yet Menon admits they share some big issues that need attention, including...

MENON: Issues of debt, issues of development, issues of climate change.

REEVES: BRICS has a reputation in the West as a mere talking shop. Now, as it prepares for its 15th summit, the mood is changing. The system of global governance is under growing stress, says Matias Spektor in Brazil.

SPEKTOR: The system is becoming more dangerous by the day. And if on top of all the problems we have already, then you alienate the countries from the South, then we are asking for trouble, really.

REEVES: The West needs to pay attention, he says.

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.