Brazil and international development cooperation: ‘a model in waiting’

24 March 2016

The Africa Regional Centre of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) is now ‘open for business’ in Johannesburg. It is yet another sign of the expanding footprint of the ‘rising powers’ in Africa. Compared to China or India, Brazil is a relatively small player, yet it has managed to make a mark in Africa and globally, especially under the leadership of charismatic Lula da Silva. During his time in office (2003-10), Lula led an unprecedented shift of his country's foreign policy towards the global South while helping to elevate Brazil to the status of a global player.

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Back in 2010 the outlook was promising yet cautious. Brazil aid programme was dubbed a "global model in waiting". Its potential was acknowledged but there were some tangible institutional and operational issues to address to fulfil its ambitions. Six years on, however, the expectant waiting has turned into tired disillusionment

Six years on, however, the expectant waiting has turned into tired disillusionment.

Brazil is vanishing, it seems, from the international development cooperation scene

This is happening ahead of time and before Brazil has proved its South-South promise to be more than rhetorical hype. Many may have never been convinced by the South-South euphoria. Others may regard Brazil's premature retreat as a missed opportunity. This blog sways towards the latter.

A come back is needed.Yet, the omens do not look favourable.

For the last couple of years, Brazil has been wrestling with major economic and political turmoil at home. This has severely hampered its engagement abroad. As the country prepares to host the Olympic Games in just a few months, amidst concerns about overpriced infrastructures and unfitting venues, the Zika epidemic strikes and adds further strain. When you think matters cannot get worse, news break about Lula's alleged connections to a mega corruption scandal. This is a major blow to the image of success that Lula had so skilfully cultivated internationally and is now on the verge of being irremediably tainted.

The ‘golden age’ of Brazil's South-South cooperation that marked Lula's years in power is over, as noted by Laura Waisbich, a researcher from CEBRAP, a Brazilian think tank, at a recent conference of the Centre for the Rising Powers in Global Development (pdf), hosted at IDS. Facing budgetary constraints and little attention from current President, Dilma Rousseff who is busy putting the house in order and avoiding impeachment, Brazilian cooperation has been, for the last couple of year, gradually receding into backstage.

To top it off, the Africa venture itself has not been as smooth as initially envisaged by Lula. There are accounts of sluggish implementation, broken promises, unfulfilled potential and contestation and, from Brazilians themselves, of previously celebrated miraculous recipes.

Now is the time to take stock

The rhetorical claims of Brazilian cooperation needed to be challenged and force Brazilian actors into a more self-critical and less self-centred attitude.Development cooperation is an old ‘trade’ and many promises of silver bullets and cosy partnerships have been deployed before.

Deconstructing the myth of Brazil-Africa affinities

Firstly, the myth of Brazil-Africa affinities based on common history, culture and racial kinship needed deconstructing. Susanne Ress’ ethnographic research on UNILAB – the University of International Integration of Afro-Brazilian Lusophony – gives an account of the gap that separates Brazilians' imaginaries of Africa and contemporary Africa as well as the difficulties of striking the envisioned horizontal interaction and integration. Afro-Brazilians and African students at UNILAB are separated by different struggles and interests and segregation based on race, gender and class emerges in the classroom.

Forthcoming work by Katia Taela at IDS will help to illuminate further claims of ‘sisterhood’ and ‘brotherhood’ by Brazilian ‘aid workers’ vis-à-vis their Mozambican counterparts and deconstruct the myth of mutual learning in their exchanges.

My own research on researchers from Embrapa (pdf) – the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation – working in development cooperation projects in Mozambique, suggests that capacity to fruitfully engage with local counterparts depends more on individuals’ personal attributes and attitudes than on presumed affinities and South-South credentials.

Questionable claims about Brazil's recipes being fit for similar African contexts

This is particularly noticeable in agriculture where parallels between Brazilian and African countries’ tropical geography have justified the deployment of Brazil's ‘tropical technology’. Landscape-based similarity claims have been a particularly strong feature of Brazil in Mozambique.

Other parallels have been drawn – for example, those concerning the presumed relevance of Brazilian concepts such as family farming and social struggles against agribusiness and modernisation.

Yet, when they arrive in Africa, Brazilian imaginaries, technology, policy templates and political struggles land in a different context, and get reinterpreted and often reconfigured, as revealed by a recently launched collection of articles on China and Brazil in African Agriculture.

The impact of Brazilian cooperation on the lives of those it was supposed to benefit has yet to be assessed.

In the meantime, impact on local politics and state-society interactions has already been significant. Natacha Bruna, a researcher from Observatório do Meio Rural, a Mozambican NGO, shared a critical view of Brazilian cooperation's footprint in her country at the IDS conference. ProSAVANA – a trilateral initiative between the governments of Brazil, Japan and Mozambique – is regarded as a threat to local communities.

It seems that the Brazil-Africa honeymoon is over and that the image of Brazilian South-South cooperation as an easy and convivial relationship is now being questioned. So, yes, Brazilian cooperation has disappointed in many ways and its brand is under stress. Brazilian aid workers on the ground complain indeed of changing attitudes.

Brazil-Africa honeymoon may be over but exciting aspects of Brazil's own development trajectory deserve more attention

Yet, as the saying goes, let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many exciting elements in the Brazilian development trajectory that deserve being highlighted and more effectively incorporated into international development cooperation.

One is the focus on pluri-dimensional policy interventions that tackle different development challenges in an integrated fashion.

Examples include:

The problem is that these complex policy experiences, which emerged out of a particular context and political struggles, have been tremendously simplified into transferable recipes where only certain components get through.

Another exciting element from Brazil's development history is the mix of alternative pathways for agricultural development. Brazil's agricultural cooperation draws on this complex setting, where different visions of development, seen as either complementary or conflictive, co-exist. Agribusiness clusters, family farming mechanisation, peasant farming resistance, agroecological systems are all part of the mix.

Yet, again, they do not arrive with the same weight in Africa. This is in part because of vested interests on both sides – for whom certain solutions are more lucrative that other – but also because of a dominating predisposition towards modernisation and Green Revolution-type of interventions. For example, the Africa version of the More Food programme, has largely promoted four-wheel tractors, overshadowing the potential of small-scale mechanisation solutions. This is an area where Brazil has plenty of experience that has apparently failed to permeate development cooperation.

Let's not prematurely dismiss Brazil on the basis of its exuberant rhetoric and sloppy performance

There are many lessons to be learned from the country's rich, complex and often conflictive development experiences. Brazilians have a meaningful role to play in sharing these experiences.

The challenge, of course, is avoiding ready-made recipes, marketed as tropical silver bullets, and focusing more on processes or ways of thinking policy that suits local contexts. This approach is less amenable to quick-wins and requires the sort of enduring engagement on the ground that Brazil is still far from delivering, especially under the present circumstances. And so the waiting continues.

A shorter version of this blog was originally published on The Conversation.

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