Many people are discussing Brazil’s role in Africa’s development and the deepening of their bilateral commercial and political relationships over the past decade. For Brazil, Africa is seen as one of the best growth opportunities and a new frontier for investments. Many of Brazil’s largest infrastructure companies are currently operating in Africa and looking to expand their outreach in the vast African continent. For Africa, Brazil has made great strides in developing advanced technology in agriculture and tropical medicines, which, if shared, could be adapted in Africa.
But there is still much skepticism from African nations as to the real motivations for Brazil’s interest in the region. Is this is a case of market access advantage only? Or is it an imposition of soft power or even a case of reverse colonization?
The Council of the Americas hosted a panel in Washington DC earlier this year on the political and economic ties between Brazil and Africa and what may be next steps for the future. The Brazilian government strongly advocates that its relationship with African countries is different and friendlier than other countries’ (i.e., China) approaches toward Africa. Also, there are numerous commonalities between Brazil and the African countries including the language (in the case of Lusophone countries), historic background, and similar geological and climate conditions—all of which bring the two giants closer together as natural partners.
But it is also hard to ignore that the commercial relationship between Brazil and Africa at present consists largely of exploration of African natural resources by Brazilian companies and exports of Brazilian products to African countries. This is not so much a two-way partnership as it is one country with more know-how and expertise selling products to a group of countries without these advancements.
The African continent, with its growing middle class, can be the consumer-driven Brazil of future generations—and Brazil, naturally, wants to be among the early players to take advantage of this reality. This is not objectionable insofar as if Brazil does not take advantage then some other entrant will. But if Brazil claims to be the African historical partner it says it is, there needs to be a clear sense of sustainability and responsibility toward the African communities.
Brazil, with all of its economic and social accomplishments in the past decade, is now trying to raise a kid that seems to be as problematic as its own. Is it too much to handle? One would think that Brazil should be focusing on its own problems instead of trying to solve the problems of others. Brazil, itself the size of a continent, still has challenges such as extreme poverty, lack of basic infrastructure, a weak education system, and a complicated bureaucracy that hinders it from becoming a leader in its own region.
There is a well-known Portuguese phrase: “tem o olho maior que a barriga” (the eye is bigger than the stomach). The Brazilian government promises to accomplish amazing cooperative programs when it cannot even bring basic infrastructure such as clean water and cheap energy to rural areas in its northeast region.
Brazil claims to be reinventing the idea of democracy for development, with no use of sanctions or force. It may sound like a great idea, but Africa seems to be afraid that Brazil wants to impose this “new” model as a new wave of colonization.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.