By Tolu Ogunlesi
I’m in Brazil for two weeks, on a reporting fellowship sponsored by the International Reporting Project of the School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. Over the next two weeks we — there are ten of us; journalists and bloggers from the US, India, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa — will be visiting Sao Paolo, Recife and Rio de Janeiro.
Before I left Lagos, every time I mentioned to people I was coming to Brazil, they assumed it was to do with the World Cup. Understandably, considering that kick-off is only two months away. But no, this is not a World Cup trip; instead it’s to explore and better understand Brazil’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) progress. Brazil’s MDGs performance has been a remarkable one. The MDG Progress Index assigns values to low- and middle-income countries, and Brazil has consistently performed well above the average for middle-income countries. (Nigeria on the other hand has had a lacklustre performance).
I will be writing about the trip in the coming days, but I thought I should start with my first thoughts about Brazil, a country I’m visiting for the first time, but which has for a while occupied space in my imagination. A lot of my interpretation of Brazil will be happening against the backdrop of Nigeria, my home country.
- English is hardly spoken in Brazil. I didn’t quite realize this until I got here. For English speakers this sort of culture shock is a welcome prick of the arrogant Anglospheric bubble. You can speak English fluently and yet still be an ‘illiterate’ traveller (or something like that).
- Brazil’s transformational story has a lot to do with the Constitution developed in 1988 (updated several times since then); three years into its experiment with democracy, after 21 years of military rule. “it was pretty much a social democratic constitution,” says Sergio Fausto, one-time presidential adviser and now Executive Director of a think-tank and presidential library named for the doctorate-wielding (Sociology) former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The constitution, according to Ana Borges, an Assistant Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paulo, deemed health “as a citizen’s right and the state’s duty.”
- If 1988 was an important date, 1994 was equally important. That year marked the launch of the ‘Plano Real’ (Real Plan), the economic programme that helped end hyperinflation. It was also the year Cardoso was elected President. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s Brazil experienced hyperinflation, rising in excess of 1,000% in 1989 and 30,000 % in 1990. Sanity returned in 1995, dropping to double-digits from the 2,000% rate the year before.
- Brazil has achieved remarkable success in human development indices — health and education especially — in the last two decades. The Primary Health Care system is well-developed, and forms the foundation of the advances in health outcomes in the last two decades. Adult HIV prevalence in Brazil is currently 0.4%, amounting to less than one million persons living with HIV/AIDS. Compare that with Nigeria’s figure in excess of 3%. Brazil experienced its last case of polio in 1990, while Nigeria is still struggling to eradicate polio. In 2014 Brazil launched a vaccination programme to protect young girls (11–13) against the STD- and cancer-causing Human papillomavirus (HPV). More than half of all girls in the country now vaccinated. The country is full of these kinds of ambitious health management stories.
- Brazil has an extensive Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) programme (“Bolsa Familia“) that is widely seen as a model for emerging economies. The scheme transfers cash sums to beneficiaries — drawn from the poor segments of the population — on monthly basis, tying receipt of payments to the fulfillment of any number of conditions/commitments e.g. school attendance, medical check-ups, immunization, attendance at antenatal clinics, etc. Bolsa Familia, while far from being perfect, is a safety net that ensures that millions of Brazilians can live above poverty. In terms of the fiscal burden of Bolsa Familia, Fausto says that the CCTs amount to less than 1% of GDP, and that public pensions are a much bigger drain.
- Inequality is still a major problem. “The poorest Brazilians are the poorest in the world. The richest Brazilians are almost as rich as the richest Americans,” says Alexandre Chiavegatto Filho, a Professor of Public Health at the University of Sao Paolo.
- There are state and regional differences in the development indices of Brazil. The North East is the poorest region, and the one with the highest national rates of infant mortality (maternal and infant mortality generally correlate with poverty). But it also saw the most impressive decline in infant mortality — an almost 50% decrease — between 2000 and 2010.
- Race also plays a crucial role in Brazil, and has to be taken into account when interpreting social data. For example, AIDS mortality rates are almost twice as high for black people as they are for white. Poverty is also often closely allied with race, the bulk of extremely poor Brazilians are black. [It should however be pointed out that centuries of intermarriage mean that the terms “black” and “white” exist at the ends of a continuum. “Most of the Brazilian population [exists] in-between, so it is very difficult to know who is black or white,” Fausto says].
- There are affirmative-action (“quota”) programmes in Brazil, based on race and social factors like poverty. These guide everything from allocation of University spaces to government recruitments. It appears that there is much debate and controversy surrounding these schemes.
- Brazil’s economic progress has slowed in recent years, marked by slowing growth, rising inflation, a currency devaluation, and a diversion from investing in critical public infrastructure to focus instead on the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016). The country appears to be at a crossroads, wondering if there’s a new prosperity model to be unlocked, or if instead its fate will be stagnation or regression. It must be like 1994 all over again.
Tolu Ogunlesi © 2014