One of the things that most irritates Brazilians is criticism from foreigners, something I've written about extensively and something that every foreigner in Brazil will always encounter. While suspicion of foreign intervention and dislike of foreign criticism is deeply ingrained, and while it has become something of a knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the "gringo metido," I always like to stress that there is a big difference in where the criticism is coming from. If it's from someone who knows almost nothing about Brazil, the kind of person who says, "Brazil will never be ready for the World Cup," or "Brazil is really dangerous," without any kind of actual facts or infomration to back them up, then irritation is certainly warranted. But when criticism comes from someone who knows a lot about Brazil, someone who lives or lived there and actively follows current events and geniunely loves the country as if it was his or her own, it's another story. We have a lot to say because we care, and we feel a vested interest in seeing positive change. Such is the case with me, but also with many of my gringo readers.
One reader is Adam, a former missionary and jack of all trades who spent several years living in Brazil, whose dream is to move back and work on social development projects. He wrote an interesting piece in his blog, Igneous Quill, that I think is not only very astute, but a perfect example of someone who genuinely seeks solutions for a place he loves. He was kind enough to let me share it, so here it is.
What Keeps Brazil Back - Adam Gonnerman
The few years I lived in Brazil were both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful because of the people I was with and the experiences we shared, frustrating because of the systemic problems that put a drag on the ability of people to get ahead in life. By the time I left Brazil and began my exile of sorts here in the United States I had distilled my explanation of Brazil’s systemic failure down to three points: centralism, collectivism and positivism. Despite Brazil being one of the “BRIC” nations and considered an emerging economy, this nation has a lot of reform to do before its true potential can be released. And by “reform” I mean “simplication.”
First, there’s centralism. The entire tax structure of Brazil is centralized. It’s actually called a “tribute system,” and municipal and state taxes are collected and funneled to the national capital, Brasilia. Control of so much money concentrated in one place assures that there will me massive corruption. The Brazilian federal government is unarguably too big, with far too many employees on the payroll. Most of these keep their full pay and benefits after retirement. It has been argued that such a tribute system is necessary to sustain the poorer states, and that Rio and Sao Paulo serve as the “economic engines” of the country. I say, drop the excessive and unnecessary rules and you’ll see people in those poorer states put their creativity to good work.
Read the rest of the post after the jump.
Third, there’s positivism. You’ve likely never heard of this one, and it doesn’t involve being optimistic. It’s a philosophical perspective that idealizes having an elite rank of technocrats micromanaging the country for the greater good of all. According to some accounts it’s the source of “Ordem e Progresso” (Order and Progress) on the nation’s flag, and almost certainly it supports the overactive national legislature’s “work.” The nation’s Constitution is amended on a regular basis, and almost all legal codes are federal…even the traffic code (as though road conditions in rural Amazonia were anything like downtown Sao Paulo). This characteristic, combined at times with centralism, is sometimes also described as “paternalism.” People end up continuously looking to the government for solutions, thereby further empowering an already overbearing power structure.
The people I knew and spent time with in Brazil, and most of the Brazilian immigrants I’ve met in the United States, are hard-working, incredibly creative people. No strangers to hard times, I’ve seen mothers of families spend a little change on a few ingredients and go door-to-door selling chocolate-covered strawberries, making extra cash to pay a bill or buy groceries. In downtown Uberlandia I often saw a man set up on a street corner, fixing umbrellas (we Americans just throw them away and buy new ones). Don’t tell me the Brazilian people lack creativity and drive. What hold them back, for the most part, is the system that promises them everything and yet works against them.
It may seem strange to some that have heard about Brazil’s “booming” economy that I’m aiming to move back to Brazil to work with poor and at-risk youth, teaching them useful tech skills while also working with the community to improve conditions. If Brazil’s doing so well, why bother? Simply put, for all the reasons I gave above. As Brazil rises internationally, many hundreds of thousands remain in poverty, not for lack of ambition, but for lack of access and opportunity. Though I can’t help thousands, perhaps over the course of time something can be done for hundreds.
There are a couple articles I find interesting and helpful for understanding Brazil. One, dealing with positivism, is The Ghost That Haunts Brazil. Though published in 2002 (ancient by Internet standards) it shed a lot of light on the situation for me during my first sojourn in Brazil, and still stands an accurate explanation. The other is far more recent, entitled The Brazilian Model. Here’s one gem from this latter article: “Yet Brazil suffers from two huge blocks to growth: red tape and gaping inequality. For all its recent commitment to liberalisation the Brazilian government is still a rule-spewing, incumbent-protecting monster.”
Brazil faces major challenges, and I by no means can solve even a fraction of them. If I can help at least a few lead better lives and bootstrap themselves out of poverty, that will be success for me.