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Joanna Shelton

How quickly things change. Just a few years ago, the view of most economists and analysts was that the so-called BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – soon would overtake the world's advanced economies as engines pulling the world economy forward.

Recent events have shattered that view. In its latest forecast, the International Monetary Fund once again lowered its projection of global growth for 2016 – to 3.2 percent – due in large part to the sharp slowdown in countries that until recently were considered the world's leading lights.

Let's take a look at what has happened in previously booming economies to cause this seemingly sudden reversal of fortune, starting with the country most in the news of late: Brazil.

Brazil's economy fell into recession last year for the first time since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and it is shrinking this year, too.

Economic pain adds to the political turmoil besetting the country.

Serious corruption scandals involving many of the country’s top politicians are unfolding, even as President Dilma Rousseff faces impeachment and removal by Brazil's legislature for allegedly cooking government books to mask deficit spending.

Brazil's economic boom, and its recent bust, have been driven heavily by China's roller-coaster ride. China's formerly red-hot economy is now slowing, perhaps substantially. Its previously voracious demand for iron ore, copper, coal, oil and many other imported commodities has fallen, resulting in reduced exports from Brazil and other commodities producers.

South Africa is suffering similar withdrawal pains from China's slowdown, as is Russia, which confronts the additional problem of sharply lower prices for its main export, oil. Like Brazil, Russia's economy has fallen into recession.

India, alone among the "BRICS," is faring relatively well, with its economy reportedly growing over 7 percent. However, many outside experts question the validity of its statistics and believe growth may be much slower than official figures suggest.

Looked at purely from an economic perspective, these countries' difficulties all can be traced to various external factors or to economic mismanagement at home.

But the story is much more complex. The troubles confronting these large emerging economies reinforce the message that good governance matters.

Stable, responsive political systems; strong legal and judicial systems; and a relative absence of corruption among the ruling elite are among the attributes that contribute to an environment allowing individuals and businesses to flourish.

In Brazil, Russia, China, South Africa and, to a lesser degree India, the narrative is similar in many ways. Official corruption is widespread and deeply entrenched, which means that leaders and government officials often are more interested in enriching themselves, their families and friends rather than in making decisions for the wider public good.

The absence of fair, accessible and transparent legal and judicial systems in these countries means that citizens and businesses may have little or no recourse when faced with official misconduct or corruption.

In fact, the opposite often is true. People brave enough to challenge the powers that be may quickly find themselves in jail, maybe without access to an attorney; or perhaps "disappeared," never to be heard from again.

Of course, good governance isn't important only for emerging and developing countries. It's an essential underpinning of good economies everywhere. The euro crisis of recent years has been intensified by European governments' failure to build the proper institutional infrastructure for a common currency shared by different countries with differing economic needs.

In the United States, our presidential campaign has been long on pointing fingers at problems and short on proposing specific solutions.

Some chronic problems, such as our long-term fiscal health, unsustainable social expenditures, and aging infrastructure, don't even make the short list for issues worth discussing by candidates.

At some point in the life of every nation, the quality of its governance can make or break prospects for growth and prosperity. In today's uncertain world, it is more important than ever for countries to address domestic challenges in order to set the stage for a brighter future and to shield themselves as much as possible from turbulence from abroad.

Sadly, I fear that some of the previously high-flying BRICS are likely to be weighed down by poor governance at home and inhospitable conditions in the wider global economy. Rather than driving the global economy forward, they are more likely be a drag on global growth. Even worse, their economic and political troubles will compound the challenges facing their citizens as they strive for better lives for themselves and their children in the future.

Joanna Shelton was deputy secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris; held senior positions in the executive branch and Congress in Washington, D.C.; and teaches at the University of Montana. You can reach her through her website,

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