Brazil in Africa: Bridging the Atlantic?


brasil africa

On Wednesday I'll participate in a debate about Brazil's growing role in Africa at the 7th International Turkish - African Congress in Khartoum (Sudan). Turkey - another emerging power with growing interest in Africa - seems eager to study China's, India's and Brazil's activities there and learn from them. China's role in Africa is now widely scrutinized (the best book on the matter is probably Brautigam's Gift of the Dragon). India's presence in Africa is still a fringe topic, but a growing group of analysts have begun to study India's presence systematically (Mawdsley's and McCann's India in Africa is highly recommendable). Brazil, on the other hand, is the new - and fairly unknown - kid on the block, but its activities in Africa are arousing a growing interest around the world. Considering that Brazil does not need to import energy nor food (important motivating factors for both China and India), what are Brazil's interests in Africa?

Aside from having been united by geography millions of years ago (Brazil and Africa formed the single continent Gondwana, as the shapes of both Brazil's and West Africa's shorelines attest), the transatlantic slave trade (which ended in 1850) created a strong and irreversible cultural connection between Africa and Brazil - more slaves were brought to Brazil than to any other country in the Western Hemisphere, including the United States. While President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) set the stage for diversifying Brazil's partnerships after the end of the Cold War, it was President Lula (2003-2010) who made Africa a strategic priority (as part of grand strategy to strengthen South-South cooperation). While some of his countless trips to Africa may have produced few tangible benefits, they served the larger goal to position Brazil as a leader of the South - and even Lula's critics admit today that Brazil's standing in Africa has received an unprecedented boost. As a recent World Bank -IPEA report points out, Lula made 12 trips to Africa, visiting 21 countries. In the opposite direction, Brazil received 47 visits of African kings, presidents, and prime ministers from 27 nations. Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorim made 67 official visits to 34 African countries during his time with the Lula government. Brazil now has 37 embassies in Africa, up from 17 in 2002.

Yet what can Brazil offer Africa that other emerging actors such as China and India cannot? The first thing that comes to mind is Brazil's expertise in tropical agriculture. Not only is Brazil's agriculture among the most productive in the world, but similar soil and climate conditions have allowed Brazil's Agriculture Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) to help African nations boost agricultural development. In addition, Brazil's innovative social policies (such as Bolsa Familia) have been replicated in seveal African countries. Brazil is not only attractive to Africa in that it is the only BRIC country with a considerable African population, but also because it is the only emerging power that is able to reduce socio-economic inequality at home, thus enhancing social stability.

Brazil: The new China?

The similarities between India's and China's Africa strategies probably outweigh the differences - both driven by, among other issues, their need to secure access to commodities to fuel their rise, and both are keen to use Africa's agriculture to provide food security at home. What about Brazil? South America's emerging giant is often aligned with China and India on important issues such as non-intervention and their refusal to adopt a 'Western approach' that stresses the importance of 'good governance'. Yet, Brazilian companies in Africa have sought to distinguish themselves from their Chinese counterparts - for example by hiring and training local workers. Odebrecht, for example, is Angola's largest private employer, despite many large Chinese firms in the country. Yet while Brazil’s trade with Africa increased between 2000 and 2010 from US$4 billion to US$20 billion, its presence remains much smaller than China's (whose trade with Africa in 2011 exceeded US$110 billion), making meaningful comparisons difficult.

While Brazil's strategy of focusing first on Portuguese-speaking Africa (Angola and Mozambique, among others) is often portrayed as a shrewd idea, it may also be Brazil's greatest weakness as it seemingly reduces companies and the Brazilian government's need to adapt to non-Portuguese speaking countries - and hire staff that speaks English, French and Arabic. When a Brazilian Ambassador recently pointed to language barriers Brazilians faced in countries such as Sudan or Côte d'Ivoire, I could not help but note how little China seemed to care about these limiting factors, having established a major presence in all countries despite significant language barriers and the almost complete lack of cultural ties between Africa and China.

Intertwined with Brazil's growing economic presence in the African continent is its newfound role as an aid donor, yet similar to other emerging donors such as India and China, Brazil seeks to transcend the traditional interaction between donors and recipients and envisions an exchange between 'equal' actors, with mutual benefits and responsibilities. Since 2005, Brazilian development projects are an essential part of the country's Africa strategy. After a brief period of both receiving and sending aid, Northern donors are now ceasing to provide aid to Brazil, suggesting it is no longer seen as a developing country.

Will Brazil (along with India and China) seek to merely change some of the rules – say, dilute conditionalities – of the international aid regime? Or will it seek to undo the most basic organizing principles of today’s development aid regime? Will emerging donors come around to eventually adopting the OECD’s position, or may we, as Ikenberry puts it, “see emerging powers using their newfound status to pursue alternative visions of world order”? When trying to understand whether emerging donors such as Brazil pose a serious challenge to the existing aid regime – a regime they often describe as unfair, outdated and dominated by former colonial powers - the evidence seems inconclusive so far. Brazil is eager to assume more responsibility in institutions such as the World Bank, but it rejects key pillars of the aid regime such as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. At the same time, it has signed the Good Humanitarian Donorship Initiative, unlike most 'emerging donors'. More research is necessary to gain a better understanding what Brazil's strategy will be as it emerges as an important player in the global aid (including humanitarian aid) regime.

In the meantime, Brazil must seek to overcome practical obstacles that keep Brazil-Africa ties from prospering. Brazilian investments in Africa are overly focused on mining, oil and gas, and infrastructure, led by a small number of large players, namely Andrade Gutierrez, Camargo Correa, Odebrecht, Petrobras, Queiroz Galvão, and Vale. These companies have direct access to governments and have the capacity to deal with bureaucratic hurdles, whereas small and medium sized firms are kept out.

Logistics also matters: there is only one direct flight connection between Brazil and Africa (between São Paulo and Johannesburg), but most Brazilian travelers en route to Central, West or East Africa must go to Paris, Frankfurt, Istanbul or Dubai first. Yet a direct flight from Lagos to Recife would take no more than 4.5 hours. The government's decision to boost its diplomatic presence in Africa has greatly helped Brazilian companies investing there (a strategy Brazil has strangely failed to pursue in China).

As Brazil's economic presence in Africa grows, the way Africans see Brazil will inevitably change. While its presence is still much smaller than that of India or China, Brazil must be careful to avoid some of the mistakes made by China, which runs the risk of facing a regional backlash. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Brazilians are well-liked across Africa. Now the challenge is to assure that even despite ever greater investments, such as Vale's recently signed US$ 1 billion deal to build a railway in Malawi to transport coal from Mozambique, Brazil will continue to be seen as a partner, and not a new colonizer who merely seeks to exploit Africa's resources.

Read also:

Why Africa matters to Brazil

Com Brics, africanos deixam de ser ‘coitados’

Book review: “Africa, Partner of Atlantic Brazil” by José Flávio Sombra Saraiva

Does IBSA matter?