After the honeymoon: what would a happy marriage between Brazil and Africa look like?

The myth of success. The narrative about Brazil’s agricultural success is widespread, particularly beyond borders. In less than 30 years the country has moved from being a net food importer to a net food exporter. Brazil is also the world’s largest producer of orange juice and coffee, and the second largest producer of soybeans, beef and poultry. It transformed the barren cerrado (Brazil’s vast savannah land in the central-western region) into the world’s most important soybean producing region. Yet despite these and other achievements, Brazil’s agricultural story is also tainted by thorny disputes over land and sustainable use of natural resources. Policies to support Brazilian agribusiness have been forcefully contested by social movements and farmers’ unions who point to the negative externalities and social costs associated with the expansion of the dominant agribusiness model. Africa must be made aware of the full story and temper its fantasy of miracle of cerrado-inspired development with a sense of realism, carefully considering the pros and cons of the Brazilian ‘success story’, and assessing its suitability to African conditions as well as (inclusive and sustainable) development needs.

The myth of affinities and best fit. Affinities between Brazil and Africa are commonplace in political discourse on South-South cooperation. Shared history is used to justify cultural kinship and similar agro-ecological systems (at least with parts of the African continent) are stressed to indicate the suitability of Brazilian agricultural science and technology. But such affinities are largely an overstatement and political rhetoric; differences between Brazil and African countries are not insignificant, whether in economic, sociological, anthropological or political terms. Research on Africa must be brought to bear and so must the potential role of Afro-Brazilians as brokers in the Africa-Brazil encounter.

The challenge of adapting to local conditions. Adaptation was a recurrent word in last week’s debates. Brazil’s agricultural technology must be adapted to fit the sheer diversity of agro-ecological systems found across Africa. But adaptation is not just for crop science. It also means finding solutions that are appropriate to the social and cultural environment of the partner country – for example, to be effective, school-feeding programmes should be sensitive to local cultural attributes of food. Adaptation also concerns suitability of cooperation programmes to local institutions and policy processes. Increasingly, Brazilian cooperation focuses on reproducing ‘successful’ pro-smallholder public policies developed within Brazil – examples include the More Food Africa and Food Purchase Programme. Although success of such policies within Brazil still needs to be validated, achievements to date in expanding their reach resulted from a combination of strong leadership, a robust bureaucracy, and, perhaps more importantly, a particular dynamic between the state and society (our next challenge). Transposing these experiences to African soil successfully requires moving from a technocratic approach to development, to an approach that understands development as a non-linear process, one which requires unremitting engagement with local culture, institutions and processes.

The challenge of reproducing effective state-society dynamics. There is widespread consensus, at least at the rhetorical level, about the need to involve Brazilian civil society and social movements in South-South cooperation to make it more effective, given the role they have played in the struggle for pro-poor and sustainable development within Brazil. In fact, there have been some, so far isolated, attempts to do so. The question, however, is to what extent the state-society dynamics that emerged within Brazil are transferable and replicable elsewhere (back to the issue of adaptation)? The problem is that such dynamics are to a large extent endogenous and shaped by the idiosyncrasies of local culture, socio-economic structure, political system and history, which are impossible to emulate through formal cooperation processes.

The challenge of forging truly horizontal partnerships.

Brazil claims to have horizontal relations with other Southern countries to be one of the driving and distinctive features of its cooperation policy. By the same token, Brazil sees itself as a partner rather than a donor. But rhetoric apart, Brazil’s economic, political and diplomatic might are a hard match for most African countries. In order to guarantee a truly balanced partnership, and distinguish South-South relations from traditional aid practices, there needs to be a more concerted effort to bring Africa’s (broad-based) ownership to the fore. The lack of awareness about the Brazilian cooperation agenda on the eastern side of the Atlantic suggests that this is far from being achieved.

To end on a positive note, myths are being questioned increasingly and awareness of the challenges is gradually building – as reflected in the debates hosted in Brasília. Brazil’s nascent development cooperation social community, made up of academics, practitioners and non-governmental organisations, will play a key part in deconstructing unhelpful myths and generating constructive criticism around cooperation policy and practices. Research on this topic by Future Agricultures Consortium (FAC), CIRAD and other international networks will continue playing a crucial role in making independent assessments, stimulating debate and putting Brazil’s experience in Africa into perspective.


Image: Just married, by shahsszz on Flickr