International Development Committee Americas visit September 2013

International Development Committee Visit to USA and Brazil 4th-12th September 2013.

The International Development Committee (IDC) visited the World Bank in Washington DC and Brazil as part of its enquiry into the Future of Development Co-operation. Fabian shares below details of the vist and some of the lasting impressions that he gained.

We spent two days in meetings with the World Bank, the Latin American Development Bank and USAID - the US Department for International Development. The meetings were technical, important but rather dull. On Friday 6th we flew overnight from Washington DC to Sao Paulo in Brazil before taking a second flight to Brasilia, the country's capital city purpose-built and designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer just over fifty years ago. Niemeyer was one of the founders of the modernist architectural movement and died just last December aged 104.

Part of map of Brazil showing location of Brasilia, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro

Maps copyright Google Maps

Brasilia is not a very pretty place and its severe modernist style has dated quite a bit. However, there are some interesting buildings including the Parliament and cathedral which stand out and have stood the test of time.

(To learn more about Brasiliaon Wikipedia - Click Here)

We met with Parliamentarians and Ministry officials in Brasilia and discussed the future of Development Co-operation with them. It was interesting to learn of their different approach and of what the Brazilians consider to be their priorities. The Brazilian Development Bank is state owned and funded and spends about fifteen percent of its turnover on development projects outside the country, mainly in Africa. Eighty five percent of its budget is spent on development and infrastructure projects in Brazil itself, however, amounting to around $500 billion per year - a staggering sum.

Brazil is a huge country covering half of South America and has a population of 300 million. Its most famous region is Amazonia, which is also one of its poorest states. The election of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, or Lula, as President ten years ago saw a massive investment in the eradication of poverty in Brazil and whilst there are still plenty of very poor citizens, huge inroads were made. Lula's policies have been followed up by his successor, Brazil's first woman President, Dilma Rousseff - known as Dilma - although her presidency has not been without its critics as seen in the recent huge public demonstrations.

We flew from Brasilia to the former capital and world-famous city, Rio de Janeiro on Monday night and spent our last two days there seeing the Favelas, or shanty towns which surround the main city of Rio. These centres of poverty and violence have no roads or transport infrastructure or indeed services of any kind, except for the recently built cable car system which links six of the largest Favelas together and provides essential transport for their inhabitants to get to places of work.

The cable car network was part-funded by the World Bank and the head of its Brazilian office, Chilean-born Boris Utria, accompanied us on our visit. Two years ago, he told us, it would have been impossible to have visited these six Favelas because of the drug lords and the extreme violence. Now, thanks to the investment, and to the work of the famous UPP, the 'Pacifying Police', the violence has sharply reduced and the drugs almost eradicated. That does not mean that there are no more problems in these shoddily-built tin and brick shacks where there is still crime and extreme poverty, but considerable progress has been made. The six cable car stations also provide much-needed community facilities for the residents. We were told that the idea behind the cable car network came from Colombia but could be applied to many other huge cities not only in Latin America but also in Africa.

(To get an impression of the Rio cable car journey to the Favelas - Click here)

On our final day, Wednesday, we went to the Favela nearest to the centre of Rio which is set on a steep hillside in sight of the famous statue of Christ which overlooks the city. This area is home to more than 10,000 people, though nobody really knows exactly how many live there. We had the privilege of speaking (through our interpreter who was a Leeds Graduate) to some of the residents who showed us inside their appallingly cramped homes. We spoke to children and young people playing football on the hilltop sports ground, the training centre for future Brazilian International players. It was winter, but very hot and dry - the summer months are the hot rainy season.

Clearly, Brazil has a long way to go and still has many problems and much discontent. In Brasilia we spoke to one of the protestors who told us of his grievances. Corruption is still too common but huge strides have been made over the past ten years and the economy has grown at a rate which would make any EU member jealous. But the country's ability to feed itself without importing any food and the massive advances made by Biotech Brazilian companies such as Embrapa, whom we visited and where we attended a fascinating seminar, told us that Brazil will overcome many of its problems over the coming years and if it continues its current political course will see real and lasting wealth redistribution - one of the policies which is causing some of the current discontent.

This was my first visit to Latin America and a good place to start. I came away with great admiration for the Brazilian people, especially some of the community leaders like Christiana who arrived in Rio from Amazonia thirty years ago and has transformed the Favela we visited on our last day in the country through sheer force of personality and determination. WIth people like her, the country has a bright future and we in Europe could learn a lot from Brazil's experience.