Emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil have drawn worldwide attention over the last decade, not least for their transition from recipients to sources of international development assistance. Some observers have suggested that the quantitative and qualitative rise of emerging powers as donors could “open the way for a paradigm shift in development cooperation” (Chin and Quadir 2012, 495; see also Woods 2008). This commentary argues that the expectations for Brazil's role, in particular, may be too high. A slowing economy and the very different foreign policy approaches of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) (2003–2010) and current President Dilma Rousseff have led Brazil to retreat from the growing role Lula claimed. This is also a reminder that the foreign policy activism and orientation of successive leaders in the emerging powers are likely to vary as much as they do in more traditional powers.

For many, Lula is the face of Brazilian foreign policy, known for his charisma and the boldness of his vision for Brazil. In numerous speeches as president, he encouraged Brazilians — and foreign audiences — to see Brazil as a large country with a newly strategic vision for itself in the world. That vision included solidarity between Brazil and other countries of the Global South, with Brazil eager to pass on lessons it had learned from successfully tackling shared problems. Annual international assistance of all types totalled US$158 million in 2005 and had doubled to $362 million in 2009. The total for the five years was $1.6 billion (Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada [IPEA] and Agência Brasileira de Cooperação [ABC] 2010). Under Lula, Brazil gave particular attention to its technical cooperation assistance programs, sending Brazilian bureaucrats around the world to offer training in growing and manufacturing biofuels, setting up conditional cash transfer programmes like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) program and the like. Lula made announcements about programs like these in almost all of his many global travels as president, with a peak of more than 80 new agreements or missions to negotiate them in 2009.

In contrast with her predecessor, Dilma Rousseff is not much of an international traveller. Press releases from Itamaraty, Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, show that in nearly three years in office, Rousseff has made only a few more trips than Lula did in his first year in office alone. She has received just a fraction of the visitors Lula did, and many were from northern countries, compared to Lula’s clear preference for South-South relations. “Little by little,” said one sharp critic of the diplomatic vacuum of the Rousseff years, “it became evident that Dilma was not Lula. The presidential diplomacy of the new incumbent retreated” (Belém Lopes 2013, 74). As Belém Lopes notes, however, this is more a statement of how unusual Lula was, as Dilma travels about as much as the presidents before Lula did.

The difference is not just quantitative. Rousseff also made qualitative retreats from Lula’s visits in both concrete commitments and rhetoric. For example, during Rousseff’s visits abroad in her first year, there were only eight announcements of foreign assistance packages, and many of those were plans to reformulate existing agreements from the Lula years that had not been fully implemented. The numbers have picked up somewhat, but are still well below Lula’s peaks. Similarly, the Ministry of Finance admitted that Brazil had been unable to keep up with its promised contributions to the World Bank’s Agency for International Development (AID) in 2011, and risked losing some of its participatory shares in AID (Ministério da Fazenda 2012, 18).

Rousseff’s foreign policy speeches also show a qualitative retreat from Lula’s striking vision for Brazil’s new role. It is telling that there is little that is quotable in Rousseff’s speeches; compared to Lula’s, the absence of rhetoric is what is most apparent. Lula, for example, made many promises about the role that the Brazilian National Economic and Social Development Bank (BNDES) would play in financing regional infrastructure development and development projects in Latin America and Africa. Among many similar statements, he told newly trained Brazilian diplomats that “We are trying to conduct, through a policy of BNDES financing, that [regional integration] which Bolívar tried to achieve with the sword; what others tried to do with struggle, we are doing with financing policies.”[1] Rousseff, in contrast, has yet to mention BNDES in any of her foreign policy speeches, even in countries that have received substantial loans from the bank. Speaking to a similar group of new diplomats this year, she instead stressed that there should be more engineers within Brazil’s diplomatic corps (Belém Lopes 2013, 80).

Both Lula and his predecessor Fernando Henrique Cardoso made promises that BNDES would fund regional infrastructure priorities in South America. Cardoso had organized the meeting of South American presidents that put together the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) in 2000; this plan identified priority projects that would literally build bridges and connecting roads in order to increase intraregional trade. Under Rousseff, BNDES’s role in Brazilian development assistance is less than Lula promised. BNDES has funded only a couple of projects of the more than 500 identified in the IIRSA. It is restricted by statutory clauses that mean it can only finance projects that involve the export of Brazilian goods and services; if no Brazilian firm is involved, BNDES cannot be either. This restriction has led to considerable disappointment on the part of other southern countries, which had hoped for new sources of financing for development and infrastructure that would be free of the conditions of traditional international financial sources.[2] Although BNDES financing is free of those conditions, it is required to put Brazilian development first, and the quantity of development assistance is correspondingly low.

Policy Implications

There has been talk of the rise of the emerging powers for more than a decade. Closer attention should now be given to more detailed and concrete data about their actual achievements. The rhetoric about emerging powers may well have outstripped reality, at least in some areas, and Brazilian development assistance appears to be one instance. Foreign policy emphases and styles should be expected to change with new leaders, especially in democracies. Foreign policy in emerging powers is as nuanced and varied as in more traditional powers. A focus on development and autonomy are some continuous elements in Brazilian foreign policy, but Cardoso, Lula and Rousseff have all brought significantly different flavours to their country’s international positions. The size of its economy and its regional dominance mean Brazil will always be important in international relations. How central its role is, however, also depends on how its inherent power is wielded. Lula used that base power to make Brazil a prominent voice in debates about international development. With Dilma Rousseff focussing internally on Brazil’s own development, that voice is muted, and other developing countries can expect less from Brazil.

Works Cited

Belém Lopes, Dawisson. 2013. “Titubeios e Tergiversações: Epitáfio para a Era Patriota.” [In Portuguese.] Insight Inteligência July-August-September: 72–81.

Chin, Gregory and Fahimul Quadir. 2012. “Introduction: Rising States, Rising Donors and the Global Aid Regime.” Cambridge Review of International Affairs 25 (4): 493–506.

IPEA and ABC. 2010. Cooperação Brasileira para o Desenvolvimento Internacional; 2005-2009. [In Portuguese.] Brasília: IPEA and ABC.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. 2002. “Discurso do Presidente Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva na cerimônia de formação da Turma ‘Celso Furtado’ (2002) do Instituto Rio Branco.” [In Portuguese.] Palácio Itamaraty – Brasília, DF, 01/09/2005.

Ministério da Fazenda, Secretaria de Assuntos Internacionais. 2012. Relatório de Gestão 2011. [In Portuguese.] Brasília: Ministério da Fazenda.

Woods, Ngaire. 2008. “Whose Aid? Whose Influence? China, Emerging Donors and the Silent Revolution in Development Assistance.” International Affairs 84 (6): 1–17.



[1] Bolívar was the nineteenth-century independence fighter who wanted a unified South American country.

[2] Interview with six members of the International Division of the BNDES, Rio de Janeiro, May 2012.

The rhetoric about emerging powers may well have outstripped reality.