Global Brazil meets the new Africa: how much of an introduction do they need?

Africa-Brazil connections have a long history, with records dating back to Portuguese colonialism. Ties were strong then. These were built, not least, through transatlantic shipping routes and slave trade which left visible marks on either side of the Atlantic.

After Brazil’s independence, relations with Africa were pushed to the margins as the nascent nation was concentrating on its geopolitical insertion in the region and on strengthening ties with the North Atlantic region. Relations with Africa were reactivated during the continent’s struggle for independence, particularly from the 1960s and into the 1980s, a period marked by a relatively strong flow of capital and goods across the South Atlantic. But it is into the 21st century that Africa becomes a major element of Brazil’s geopolitical agenda, particularly under President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s leadership.

Today, Brazil’s footprint in Africa cannot go unnoticed. The country currently has embassies in 37 African nations, which makes it the 5th largest non-African diplomatic representation across the continent (ahead of the UK). Trade has intensified, although still on rather unequal terms (Brazil exports mainly processed goods and Africa exports raw materials, especially oil) and so has foreign direct investment, particularly in the oil, mining and construction sectors. Development cooperation has also had major revitalisation during Lula’s administration, reflecting both the country’s geopolitical agenda as well as the President’s personal commitment to assisting Africa’s development effort. Current President Dilma Rousseff seems to be following the same path, although with a more pragmatic view that reveals a Brazil that is open for business, while “leaving a legacy” to Africans.

Business deals and diplomatic alliances apart, Brazil has a lot on display of potential interest to Africa’s development process, not least, its cutting-edge tropical agriculture and tropical health expertise and technologies, and also its much publicized public policies across a range of development issues, including on AIDS treatment, school feeding and social protection. Its governance experiments, such as participatory budgeting and other forms of popular engagement in policy processes, could also be of relevance to deepening participatory democracy and strengthening accountability in Africa.

Similarities across the Atlantic can potentially make the transfer of technologies and experiences straightforward. But the affinities claims should surely be tempered by acknowledgement of:

  • Differences in historical trajectory after past colonial ties, leading to the emergence of different political systems and socio-economic structures on either side;
  • The absence of Brazilian afro-descendants (this is the social group with the closest cultural affinity with parts of the African continent) in formal development cooperation initiatives, with their role as potential brokers in the Brazil-Africa knowledge encounter remaining, at most, poorly explored; and
  • Gaps in knowledge about the other side of the partnership, with the myth of Brazil’s success dominating on the African side and a somewhat outdated and romanticised image of African on the Brazil side.

Cooperation activities in the agricultural domain make an interesting case to deconstruct the affinities discourse and illustrate the extent of the knowledge gap. Physical similarities between agro-ecological environments in Brazil and many countries in Africa seem unquestionable. Yet, in order to ensure a successful transfer and adaptation of technologies and expertise, local institutions and socio-political context need to be accounted for, namely in terms of absorptive capacity and compatibility with local knowledge systems. There is little evidence that these dimensions have been sufficiently integrated into ongoing Brazilian agricultural development cooperation initiatives in Africa. Nonetheless, Brazil’s engagement in agricultural cooperation for development is, with the affinities claim that goes with it, a useful reminder of the importance of diligent adaptation when exporting remedies and successes across countries, which needs to cater for local context and local appropriation.

Furthermore, understandings of Brazil’s model and experiences need some refinement. Brazil’s agricultural success is typically associated with the expansion of profitable agribusinesses, dealing with high-value and export-oriented commodities, as well as the Embrapa-led “cerrado miracle”. But this is not the entire story. On the one hand, the extent of success is debatable as there has been a great deal of contestation of the agribusiness model on the basis of environmental sustainability and social justice considerations. Some concerns have already started being voiced within Africa, namely in relation to ProSavana, a programme that aims to reproduce Brazil’s transformation of the cerrado into one of its most productive regions, especially of soybeans.

On the other hand, Brazil’s agricultural development cannot be reduced to the often caricatured and demonised model of large-scale capitalist production. Brazil’s agricultural development trajectory over the recent past has also stories about a vibrant family farming sector, some having linkages with agribusiness, about advances in sustainable farming practices, about improved food security, and about rural social movements claiming space in the policy realm and pushing for policies catering for their needs. The breadth of Brazilian experiences is of great relevant to contemporary agricultural debates and challenges in Africa. Some of them are already filtering across via agricultural cooperation projects, as many Brazilian agricultural players, besides the much marketed Embrapa, are now actively engaging in development cooperation.

African countries can benefit from being exposed to the diversity of Brazilian actors representing contrasting visions and experiences of development. But they must lead the selection of the most suitable combination of options on the menu. And they need to be wary of the inherent contradictions on that menu.

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