Beyond China and Africa: a focus on Brazil.

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LogoIn the first of our ‘beyond China and Africa’ series, Danilo Marcondes de Souza Neto and Adriana Erthal Abdenur take a look at the ambiguous relationship between Brazil and the continent. Danilo is a DPhil candidate at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. Adriana is  General Coordinator of the BRICS Policy Center and professor at the International Relations Institute of PUC-Rio.


Over the past ten years, Brazil’s foreign policy makers have made cooperation with Africa one of the country’s top priorities. The government not only views the continent as a promising market for Brazilian exports, it also sees African states, like other developing countries, as useful partners in its quest to become a global political player. Therefore, President Dilma Rousseff’s government (in power since January 2010) is building on the efforts of previous administrations, particularly that of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to strengthen economic, political, and defense partnerships with Africa. These efforts have included a vast South-South cooperation program surrounded by a rhetoric of solidarity and horizontality, and with a strong thematic focus on sharing Brazil’s public policy innovations in agriculture, education, health, as well as military cooperation with African countries along the South Atlantic.

Brazil’s cooperation with Africa has raised less concern amongst western donors than China’s overtures to the continent. Partly, this reflects the smaller scope of Brazil’s activities, but western anxiety is also quelled by the fact that Brazil participates in triangular cooperation initiatives with OECD donors. Nonetheless, there is growing interest in Brazil’s impact on democracy and human rights in Africa.

Critics question why a country with a consolidated democracy and a constitutional commitment to human rights within its foreign policy has become cozy with regimes in Africa, and beyond, that are often condemned for human rights violations. Such critiques surrounded President Lula’s frenzied presidential diplomacy in Africa, and arose again as President Rousseff, who had claimed that human rights would play a central role in her government’s foreign policy, gamely shook hands with dictators in Africa.

In the UN, Brazil’s actions have arguably been more positive: the state supported the creation of the UN Human Rights Council in 2006 and the expulsion of Libya from that Council in 2011. However, in an earlier vote at the UN Security Council, Brazil aligned itself with fellow BRICS countries, who largely abstained on the 2011 resolution supporting military action in Libya. 

Defenders of the Government claim that there is a distinctly Brazilian way of dealing with these countries, one that involves diplomatically nudging them towards democracy, rather than a Western approach of ‘naming and shaming’ or staging military interventions. To many, though, it seems that realist self-interest is increasingly driving Brazil’s policies. Any ‘solidarity’ with Africa seems to be with the continent’s current regimes, not their constituencies.

Thus whilst Brazil carries out democracy promotion programs through the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP), examples abound of Brazil’s reluctance to highlight or condemn human rights violations and, conversely, its willingness to support undemocratic regimes through technical and military cooperation as well as commercial relations. For example, the country has recently strengthened its ties with Equatorial Guinea and supported the country’s interest in obtaining full membership status within the CPLP– a decision highly contested by civil society movements in Brazil and Portugal due to the country’s poor democratic and human rights credentials.

Where positive links are made, they are also in-line with the interests of African states. In April 2012, as part of a drive to devote more attention towards African nations in the Sahel and North Africa, Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota visited Mauritania, to which Brazil offered technical cooperation support and donated US$ 300.000 for the UN to support Mauritania in assisting refugees from Mali. The trip also included a visit to Tunisia, in which Brazil offered assistance in the country’s transition after the Arab Spring events.

Where crises have emerged, Brazil has strongly favoured action by local and regional actors like the African Union, as its reaction to complex emergencies in the Ivory Coast, Sudan, and Mali has demonstrated. The UN, it insists, must act to support the work of the AU. In part, this is a reflection of its own desire to keep non-regional actors out of the South Atlantic. In terms of peacekeeping missions in Africa, Brazil’s last contributions with troops were in Mozambique and Angola in the mid-1990s, but the country has observers in almost all UN missions in the continent. Since 2007, Brazil had also chaired the Guinea-Bissau configuration in the UN Peacebuilding Commission, and it has bilateral cooperation initiatives to strengthen institutions in the country by training the police and the judicial system.

Outside the borders of official cooperation, the picture is more positive: a robust and well-articulated civil society within Brazil has forged global links with others across Africa to share the successes of democratization in their respective countries, gain solidarity to tackle the challenges that remain, and monitor the behavior of domestic actors from Brazil in Africa. For example, Brazilian NGO FASE has partnered with Mozambican groups to question the wisdom of implementing the Pro-Savana project. This project, driven by Brazil and Japan, is intended to boost agricultural productivity in the Nacala corridor. The groups are arguing that the experimental endeavour will benefit a narrow elite, boosting monoculture and causing widespread social displacement in the name of export commodity production. Elsewhere, Brazilian trade unions have been collaborating with their Mozambican counterparts to look at allegations of human rights violations by Brazilian multinationals operating in the country. Meanwhile, the Instituto Políticas Alternativas para o Cone Sul (PACS) is working with civil society actors in Angola and Mozambique to examine the impact of the growing Brazilian presence in the two nations, and the São Paulo-based human rights NGO Conectas is joining forces with South African and Nigerian NGOs to strengthen their position in human rights and foreign policy debates.  These connections exist alongside ongoing efforts by Brazilian civil society to make foreign policy making more transparent and inclusive (so far, with very limited results).

In conclusion, Brazil’s growing visibility in recent years has increased its presence and its economic weight on the global stage. With this, calls for greater evidence of a foreign policy that supports human rights promotion worldwide have increased. Brazil’s commitment is particularly important when it comes to Africa, not only because its ties with the continent have grown and diversified so dramatically, but also because, in Africa, Brazil is often held up as an example of economic success and social justice.

To date, however, Brazil has relied upon discreet, back-stage diplomacy that has produced few concrete results. Trying to balance its commitment to human rights and the principle of non-intervention, Brazil has failed to find a consistent position on either. Some believe that Brazil’s growing ties with non-democratic emerging powers, particularly through BRICs connections, may push it to defend unconditional sovereignty. On the other hand, Egypt’s recent request for Brazilian assistance with its post-Arab Spring transition to democracy may present a chance to strengthen Brazil’s role in building African democracy. In coming years, Brazilian policy makers will have to forge their own path, which involves not accepting the Western positions on democracy and human rights in international issues uncritically, but also not siding, by default, with regimes that reject those themes altogether.

One thought on “Beyond China and Africa: a focus on Brazil.

  1. Good article missing an over 900 million dollar forgivness of some African countries debt to Brazil. New credits through brazilian engineering companies,like a construction of railroad in South Sudan, almost 500 million USD ( Brasil is not producing rails, nor controlling systems for railroads , so the equipment cme from third countries), and commanding position of UN forces in Africa. 34 embassies with very highly qualified diplomats but with very small number of them. You didn’t mentin the Vale disaster in Guine Equatorial and is fine that you mention Vale awerness with HR in Mocambique. And dont’t forget strong military presence in Namibia.

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