May 17, 2011

Experts explore geopolitics at BRIC conference

CEOs, politicians, and policy experts from around the world joined U of C professors over the weekend for a two-day conference on the burgeoning international presence of Brazil, Russia, India, and China.

Titled "BRIC in 2020” (referring to the four nations by the acronym coined in a 2001 Goldman Sachs report on emerging markets), the conference presented panels on energy policy, the middle class, economics, and geopolitics.

Former Illinois Senator Adlai E. Stevenson delivered the keynote lecture. Following his tenure in Congress, Stevenson has since made a career investing in East Asian countries.

Stevenson urged the United States to cooperate with BRIC in the future, especially China. He believes the four countries represent a new era of global prosperity.

Pennsylvania State University Professor Barry Ickes, who also teaches at the New Economic School in Moscow, described the lengths of Russia’s dependence on oil, explaining how the nation’s economy is heavily reliant not just on the oil companies but also on the manufacturers of the equipment and support services used to extract oil.

President Robert Zimmer opened Saturday’s session of the conference at the International House. Other University professors speaking at the conference included Dean of the Booth School and Professor of Operations Management Sunil Kumar and Professor of History Dipesh Chakrabarty.

Joining a host of University experts were Marcelo Neri of the Brazilian Institute for Applied Economics, former Secretary of Energy of Brazil Afonso Moreira Santos, CEO of the public relations firm US-India and Corridor Angela Chitkara.

Heidi Levin (M.S. ’11), who was formerly the Executive Director of the Energy Initiative at the University, said that her plans to begin a position involving investments in one of the BRIC countries motivated her to attend the conference, though she would not elaborate further.

Flipping through pages of the notes she took during the conference, Levin said she was especially surprised to learn the extent of Russia’s dependence on oil. “They’re creating companies and investing in companies that aren’t efficient but are used by the oil companies to keep the economy going,” she said.

Like Levin, Susie Qiu, a Chinese masters student in financial math, also attended the conference for professional reasons. “I think maybe in the future I may have an opportunity to touch upon those issues or turn my career direction to that field,” she said.

Qiu was most interested in a presentation by Craig Burton of PositivEnergy Practice, an expert in China’s energy policy. Burton mentioned the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou, a high rise with slit-like openings which suck in wind and generate energy for the entire building.

During Burton’s talk, Qiu questioned why a private investor would construct the building. She said that, ultimately, real sustainability in China can be achieved if similar energy-efficient projects “can be expanded to other areas without the sponsorship of the government.”

Together, the BRIC nations are taken as a major player in the future of the global economy, representing over 40 percent of the world’s population and constituting a large chunk of the world’s GDP (figures differ, but the conference’s description cites 24 percent).

Luiz Filipe Serravite, a third-year in the College and international student from Brazil who co-chaired the conference, said that his interest dates back to 2003 when he first read the Goldman report and was impressed with its predictions and figures.

“It was really exciting seeing all these numbers—by 2050, China totally taking over the US, India almost taking it, seeing Brazil as the fourth largest economy,” he said. “Those were very big numbers that even inspired me to pursue a major in economics at a certain extent.”

He plans to return to his home country after he graduates, partially due to its economic boom.

Sasha Belyi (A.B. ’09), also a co-chair of the conference and a first-year masters student in Chicago’s Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP), described the difficulty of predicting Russia’s economic and political future. Even as a Russian, he said he personally could not know all of his country’s problems due to its vast size and manifold complexities.

Skeptical of the Goldman Sachs report’s relevance today, he said that while Russia may have been growing in 2001 when the report was first published, the financial crisis of 2008 has since changed the country’s economic and political landscape.

“Nobody knows who’s going to get elected in 2012. If it’s going to be [current Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev, the country probably will take a more progressive route,” he said. “If it’s [current Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin, it might stagnate where it is, and corruption is not going to stop.”

Jordan Sokoloski, a second-year and conference vice-chair, said that he walked away with the impression that the BRIC countries are more different from each other than alike.

About 300 people attended the conference in total, with roughly 150 showing up on Friday and Saturday each.

Belyi and other students are already discussing plans to host another conference next year and including other countries such as South Africa, Turkey, Thailand, or Indonesia.