Is Brazil’s contribution to global development at stake?

Published on 28 November 2016

Lidia Cabral

Research Fellow

The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation is gathering in Nairobi this week for its second High-Level Meeting. With its new government showing little interest in pursuing the multilateralism and international development, is Brazil fading as a Southern power and as an engaged global development actor?

Brazil has participated in previous such gatherings, since “South-South cooperation” first entered the aid effectiveness jargon. It tended, however, to display the attitude of a sceptical observer as it was keen to assert its Southern identity and separation from a space perceived as dominated by the hegemonic North.

The new government is likely to retain the reluctant attitude towards this policy space but for different reasons: it has little interest in multilateralism and international development.

Over the last decade, Brazil has been frequently depicted by its government and external observers as a rising power or as an emergent Southern influence in a changing geopolitical order.

This happened in a context of economic prosperity that helped to boost the country’s foreign affairs. The construction of the Southern identity also reflected a particular party-politics configuration in Brazil where the leading Workers Party (PT) was favourable to a counter-hegemonic role in foreign politics, greater engagement with Southern nations and diversification away from traditional partners in the North.

Recently, however, Brazil’s Southern identity seems to be fading for reasons to do with (again) domestic politics, the state of the economy and the underwhelming performance of the country’s South-South Cooperation (SSC).

Brazil’s contribution to global sustainable development is at stake and this is a shame as the country’s development trajectory has lessons that could be usefully learnt with other countries in the Global South.

The rise of Brazil and turn to the South: a unique contribution to South South Cooperation and international development

Brazil rose to global prominence from the mid to late 2000s with an active foreign policy towards the South.

Although committed to multilateralism and the “minilateralism” of fora such as BRICS, IBSA or CPLP, Brazil’s foreign policy emphasised the country’s unique contribution to international development through SSC that comprised diplomacy, cooperation and business.

Additionally, its acclaimed policy successes and innovations at home were deemed fit for other developing countries. Also, Brazil’s SSC was more than a charitable endeavour but a win-win affair between partners where both sides benefited, much like China and India portray their Southern relations.

Brazil’s agricultural-based engagements in African countries are an illustration of its assertion as a Southern power and the interplay between politics, technocracy and business in the construction of the Brazilian SSC model.

The narrative of affinities with African countries – based on similar climate-soil conditions, common historical legacy or shared social-political struggles – was used by the range of actors mobilised around cooperation, comprising government departments, research institutions, businesses, civil society organisations and movements.

The medley of cooperation interventions was portrayed by the Brazilian government as a menu of options that African countries could choose from.

Yet, it mirrored Brazil’s domestic politics and long running struggles in Brazil’s agrarian politics that travelled to Africa through SSC and the many actors involved in its construction. The inevitable contradictions compromised the thrust and effectiveness of individual interventions.

The fall and fading of Brazil as major player in the Global South: domestic crises and changes in foreign policy

Brazil’s SSC has failed to deliver the promised transformations or indeed establish an alternative paradigm for cooperation.

While some of this may have resulted from management oversight and the failure to mediate conflicting interests, the change in economic and political circumstances in Brazil has also played a part.

Foreign policy activism waned under the Presidency of Dilma Rousseff and the budget for technical cooperation was slashed as the economic downturn put significant pressure on government. In the meantime, Brazilian businesses abroad had been struggling with a worsening business environment and were further weakened by their links with the corruption scandal that contributed to Rousseff’s recent removal from office.

The new conservative government, led by President Michel Temer, has announced major policy turns in foreign policy. The Southern identity rhetoric is now completely absent and has been replaced with the notion of reinforcing of alliances with traditional Northern nations – such as the United States of Trump – and a stronger narrative on business and bilateralism.

China and India are still viewed as strategic partners, although recent interactions with the BRICS suggest growing distance and some are talking about “Braxit”, the exit of Brazil from the club.

Even if Brazil remains a BRICS, the country’s counter-hegemonic soft power seems likely to vanish.

As for Africa, the new foreign ministry sees it as a big and expanding market that needs to be explored with clear benefits for Brazil, leaving behind the compassionate rhetoric and diplomatic extravagances of previous PT-led governments. Indeed, the new minister of agriculture noted recently that Brazil cannot distribute its agricultural technology to Africa for free.

Brazil’s commitment to multilateralism, Southern solidarity and cooperation is at stake and this may compromise the country’s contribution to sustainable global development.

Two reasons why Brazil’s Southern identity remains important

1. Geopolitics: Brazil’s Southern assertion has been part and parcel of a campaign for democratising global governance and reinforcing multilateralism.

With regards to sustainable development more specifically, Brazil has shown considerable engagement with the process leading to the SDGs and its SDGs position paper highlights its contribution towards sustainable development and the role of SSC.

2. A unique development experience to draw on: It is not the win-win formula that makes Brazil an exceptional partner – China and India have proved more competent in practicing win-win cooperation.

Brazil’s uniqueness stems from the country’s own development trajectory and its experiences with holistic social policies, deliberative democracy and technological innovations that constitute key references for global development. Many of these experiences have a distinctive Southern (in the sense of non-conformist and non-conventional) flavour that the current conservative government risks failing to acknowledge or understand.

Yet, as I’ve previously written, the transfer of Brazil’s appealing innovations into other contexts is not straightforward.

The socio-political fabric that generated such innovations is not easily replicable. Asserting Brazil’s unique contribution should not be about celebrating the Brazilian ways and trying to emulate Brazilian approaches to development, but instead, about reflecting on how Brazil’s domestic trajectories were generated. This requires a more reflexive attitude by those at the frontline of cooperation.

The presumption of South-South affinities has often been taken too far, particularly vis-à-vis Africa, with an overconfident reliance on the Brazilian brand that has compromised the ability to engage effectively with other contexts.

So far, the study of Brazilian cooperation has been confined to a historical moment of Brazilian politics and diplomacy that has led to its categorisation as an unquestionable Southern power.

Our understanding of Brazil’s position in international development may need to be revised as the government of Temer unfolds its foreign policy. Brazil’s disengagement with the Global South, if that is the route followed, would be disappointing and a significant miscalculation of the country’s position in global affairs.

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