Brazil has acquired a new role in the 2000s: offering assistance to other countries in their national development efforts. In the climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, for example, former President Lula da Silva said that Brazil not only would shoulder its own costs of emissions reductions, but might even give resources to poorer countries to do so. This commentary examines Brazil's experience as an environmental donor, placing it in the context of its emerging donor profile, and arguing that implementation of the promises is still incipient.
Brazil self-consciously approaches its development assistance from the perspective of a recipient, endorsing an egalitarian "solidarity diplomacy" that stresses passing on Brazil's own recent experiences with solving development challenges in inauspicious conditions. Under Lula, Brazil's annual international assistance totaled $158 million in 2005 and had doubled to $362 million by 2009. The total for those five years was $1.6 billion. Recipient demand drives the choice of projects, with Brazil responding to particular requests for its expertise and action.
Three-quarters of the $1.6 billion total consisted of Brazilian contributions to international organizations and regional banks, including line items like support for peacekeeping operations in Haiti, donations to the World Bank's International Development Association, and a fund that promotes competitiveness within Mercosur. The fastest growing category of Brazilian international assistance was bilateral humanitarian aid, mostly in the form of direct donations of food and medicines for hemispheric neighbors who suffer natural disasters. The best-known initiatives are Brazil's technical cooperation projects, which come closest to embodying Brazil's "solidarity diplomacy" vision.
With more than 300 assistance projects underway or recently completed, the range of sectors covered by Brazilian technical cooperation is unsurprisingly large. The common thread in all these projects is the effort to pass on Brazil's own developmental innovations—its AIDS strategy, the conditional cash transfer program Bolsa Familia, and so on—to other Southern countries. Most Brazilian environmental assistance falls in this category. Here, Brazil focuses on disseminating the knowledge and technology that have made fossil fuel-based energy sources just 53 percent of its national energy matrix, versus a developed-world average of 93 percent. Since the Copenhagen meeting, most Brazilian environmental assistance has introduced its biofuel technologies around the developing world or involved broader research and exchange agreements, mostly in the Americas. Brazil has been developing its sugar-cane–based biofuel since the 1930s.
The biofuel projects are primarily in Africa, where Brazil has written cooperation agreements with Guinea, Mozambique, Zambia, and the eight West African countries of ECOWAS (Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo) to study and/or support the introduction of bioenergy and biofuels. Brazil has also signed broader agreements with Kenya, Liberia, and South Africa that cover larger parts of the energy sector. Biofuels were also the focus of agreements with Argentina, Nicaragua, and Surinam, and have been discussed in preliminary meetings with Nepal and Sri Lanka. In March 2010, Brazil even signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States on climate change that highlights their shared expertise in topics like biofuels and energy efficiency—which is a pioneering move in South-North international cooperation for Brazil.
At the end of the 2000s, however, a backlash questioned whether biofuels and bioenergy contributed to global public goods at all. The journal Science published two articles in 2008 that argued that many biofuels, including those of Brazil and the US, had greater environmental costs than fossil fuel alternatives. The crisis in global food prices in 2007 also drew attention to the ways crops grown for biofuels could displace food production and create new problems of food insecurity.
Brazil has again teamed up with the United States to respond to the criticism. The two funded studies of the feasibility of biofuels in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, and Senegal. UNEP signed on to the studies' methodologies for evaluating sustainability and to the final feasibility reports. Brazil met the food security critique head-on, by hosting a policy dialogue on food security with African states in May 2010. Beyond international policy advocacy, Brazil considers its strongest response to be its own developmental experience of the 2000s, when Brazil demonstrated that it could make gains in biofuel use, hunger, economic growth, and deforestation all at once.
Critics of biofuels are almost as undiscriminating as its cheerleaders have been. The environmental and social costs and benefits of biofuels vary a great deal by their source crops and where and how they are grown. Brazil's sugar cane is among the best of the source crops currently commercialized on a large scale—but not nearly as good as some of the second generation crops. Brazil should move on from defending sugar cane to using its considerable agricultural innovation capacity to develop that next generation. The social costs are more complicated to resolve, because they involve increasingly global food and energy systems.
Kathryn Hochstetler is CIGI Chair of Governance in the Americas in the Balsillie School of International Affairs and Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo. This piece is based on her larger CIGI policy brief, "Brazil as an Emerging Environmental Donor."