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A Brazil-EU partnership for development cooperation: opportunities, challenges and ways forward

Development professionals and academics working on international development and Brazil-EU relations met in Brussels last week to discuss future priorities for the Brazil-European Union strategic partnership, including in the area of development cooperation. The event was part of a work package of the European Development Cooperation to 2020 research programme on 'new actors in international development', the main purpose of which is to map engagement with key 'new' actors and outline the resulting issues for European development cooperation.

There are good reasons for the EU to be interested in Brazil. The country is an emerging power in the world economy and international affairs, and an important trading partner and source of agricultural products for the EU. Brazil is also rapidly expanding its development cooperation with developing countries, gradually becoming a key source of technical expertise on a number of fronts, from agricultural research to bio-energy or social protection.

In this context, what are the opportunities for the EU to engage with Brazil for the effective delivery of development cooperation in third countries? And what are the challenges?

Brazil is not a newcomer in development cooperation, having been a source of technical assistance to poorer nations for many years. However, Brazilian development cooperation has recently been given a distinctive boost, which cannot be dissociated from an extremely dynamic foreign policy agenda pursued under former President Lula da Silva. The country provides bilateral development cooperation (especially technical cooperation), humanitarian assistance and makes sizeable contributions to international organisations, including regional banks.

Traditionally focused on South, Central America and the Caribbean as well as Portuguese-speaking Africa, Brazil is now expanding its cooperation portfolio worldwide. In line with its all-embracing diplomacy, the country is venturing into non-Lusophone Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and its approach to cooperation remains marked by a policy of non-interference in other countries’ sovereignty. It also claims to be demand-driven and offer a horizontal partnership with mutual benefits.

For Brazil, beyond altruistic claims, development cooperation is essentially an instrument of foreign policy, with economic interests playing a role too. This is not unique to Brazil – geopolitical and commercial considerations count also for many OECD donors, although these are perhaps less candid about it. For developing countries, it gives them direct access to a menu of successful Brazilian experiences and to technology and skills which are well suited to their socio-economic and institutional realities. Cultural and, in some cases, language affinities make the exchange particularly smooth.

At present Brazilian assistance consists mainly of small-scale in-kind transfers of know-how, but there is scope for scaling up successful initiatives and adding a financial element to allow for complementary investments. For example, trilateral or triangular cooperation is a modality already in use by some EU countries (e.g. Germany and Spain) to explore synergies with Brazil in development cooperation with third countries. Although the effectiveness of trilateral cooperation and advantages offered to developing countries still needs to be tested empirically, this modality potentially constitutes a means for strengthening Brazil-EU relationships.

There are, however, challenges to effective interaction on both sides.

On the Brazilian side these relate to the political motivations and institutional set-up of its development cooperation. Firstly, as argued elsewhere in ODI research, the strong subordination of development cooperation to the whims of foreign policy compromises the development of a long-term cooperation agenda and the effective deployment of human and technical resources for the management and delivery of development assistance. It may also weaken incentives for accounting for impact or sustainability as the apex of development cooperation affairs seems to be the moment when the partnership is formalised via diplomatic channels.

Linked to this, development cooperation is not yet a policy issue in its own right in Brazil as it struggles to find legitimacy beyond geo-strategic and commercial interests. Brazil still has internal socio-development issues to handle and there lacks a domestic constituency interested in international development or pushing for a more effective, transparent and pro-poor development cooperation agenda.

Finally, there is some reluctance by Brazil to engage with traditional aid systems and debates on aid effectiveness, as doing so would undermine the alternative character of its cooperation. And although trilateral partnerships involving Brazil and ‘Northern’ countries have been rising, concerns remain on the Brazilian side that these arrangements may compromise the country’s core values and visibility in the aid relationship with developing countries. As a result, the international community misses out on learning from Brazil’s experience, while Brazil and its beneficiaries miss out because Brazilian aid could be more effective if internationally agreed good-practice criteria were observed, namely on transparency, accountability and a results focus.

So what kind of actions might help address these challenges?

It has been argued that the trilateralisation of aid helps to delink assistance programmes from the providers’ national politics, making it easier to have a genuine commitment for development. This may be simpler to pursue bilaterally by EU member states than through the EU itself (a multilateral body with its own institutional snags).

Beyond this, there are areas where the EU could play an important role, including via diplomatic relations – for example, Brazil is still to have an active presence in international dialogue on aid effectiveness. The 4th High Level Forum in Busan is a key milestone in 2011, although Brazil may remain reluctant to engage constructively with what it sees as an OECD/DAC-driven process. At a more operational level, there may be a role for the EU in building the capacity of Brazilian institutions to strengthen their role as development actors.

And finally, there is plenty of scope for promoting debates on Brazilian development cooperation policy and practice within the country itself, and to inform these by in-depth analyses of performance and impact on the ground that take into account the voices of recipients. The debate in Brussels is a good step towards discussing the most effective ways for the EU and Brazil to work together for the benefit of developing countries. It is now to important locate the debate inside Brazil and in countries that are supposed to be the ultimate beneficiaries of such types of partnership.