How should universities train Brazil’s future political leaders?

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Today I participated in a conference organized by the School of Public Policy and International Affairs (SPPIA) at Central European University in Budapest on the future of public policy schools in the 21st century. SPPIA, which is set to open next year, invited scholars from universities from across the world to identify the key challenges they face when training future public policy makers, and develop strategies of how universities need to adapt their programs given current global trends. Leading figures such as Anne-Marie Slaughter from Princeton University, Lan Xue from Tsinghua University and George Soros offered their points of view.

One of the most interesting themes discussed was the dichotomy between policy and politics: Should schools train future policy makers merely in actual policy making (‘hard skills’ such as administration, finance, economics, statistics, etc.), or should they also attempt to teach the politics of it – something US schools try to do in courses on leadership, political philosophy, ethics, public speaking and so on. For example, how should universities prepare future bureaucrats or political candidates to behave in environments where corruption is rife? How to deal with the dilemma between creating alliances with shady political actors and fighting for the larger goal of having an important legislation passed? How to make the public sector more attractive for young talents?

Hard skills are, without a doubt, important, and emerging countries such as Brazil struggle to build up the intellectual capacity to back up their newfound political weight in global affairs. To articulate good public policy, universities need to produce first rate  graduates in adminstration, economics and statistics, education policy public health policy, climate policy and so on. Without the expert knowledge, decision makers cannot create sound public policy.

Yet this is far from enough: The main problem in Brazilian politics does not seem to be the lack of hard skills. Policy analysts agree what kinds of reforms need to take place – such as pension reform, tax reform and education reform. How to implement these issues given a complex and somewhat dysfunctional political system is much more difficult, and public policy schools do little to prepare students to navigate the politics involved in pushing through these reforms. How should policy makers deal with political deadlock? How do they communicate difficult decisions to the public and the media? How do they deal with the ‘rise of the individual’ in international affairs? How do they mobilize uninvolved citizens? How do they team up with actors outside of governments, such as civil society movements?

Assuming then that universities need to teach both the policy and the politics, the question is how to connect teaching policy and politics. Should economics students be obliged to take a class on ethics? If so, how should it be taught? What should be the balance between pure academics and practitioners?

On the international level, universities in emerging powers such as Brazil and India have a daunting challenge ahead: The United States, for example, has more than 30,000 people working for the State Department, 12,000 of which are full-time diplomats. India, a major player in the 21st century, relies on a mere 400 diplomats. In the same way, the number of Brazilian diplomats is far too low to project the diplomatic power Brazil aspires to have. While there are less than 10 diplomats at the Brazilian embassy in New Delhi, there are more than 500 diplomats at New Delhi’s US embassy. As Brazil’s and India’s foreign ministries are unlikely to expand fast enough, universities need to churn out internationally sophisticated “informal diplomats” to help articulate their countries’ interests and positions: In NGOs, the private and public sectors and academia. Until this shortage can be addressed, emerging powers’ capacity to articulate alternative narratives and set the global agenda remains very limited.

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