Brazil and the UK's golden opportunities

September 2016

In Brazil 2016 has seen the success of the Olympic Games and the impeachment of the President. Eyes are on how the new government will deal with the economic crisis. The British Council’s Director in Brazil, Martin Dowle, argues that - as the Olympic hand-over cultural programme has already shown - there are many opportunities through which the two countries can forge a golden future relationship.

The impeachment of Dilma Rousseff closes a chapter on 13 years of domination by Brazil’s Workers´ Party, and the influence of the charismatic leadership of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who aimed to lift millions of Brazilians into an age of prosperity (but who now faces possible trial for corruption). Now eyes are fixed on Rousseff’s Presidential replacement, Michel Temer. But how will this affect Brazil’s relationship with the UK?

Its long term strategic importance makes Brazil a vital partner for the UK

The remaining 2.5 years of the presidential term will focus on reigning in public spending, eliminating the deficit, and tackling pensions and labour law reform. Indeed it will be some time before Brazil overcomes its financial difficulties, but it may at least have started to do so, with growth likely to return in 2017. This and its long term strategic importance make Brazil a vital partner for the UK.    

Recently Brazil has gained fame as the ‘BRIC’ that failed to meet its promise to be 5 – 5 – 5: the world´s fifth largest country economically as well as demographically and geographically.

Yet Brazil will continue to be amongst the world´s top ten economies. It has also been described as a crucial global ‘swing state’, with a disproportionate long-term influence (Global Swing States, German Marshal Fund, 2013). Its long-term economic prospects look good. It is already seeing an export-led recovery and an appreciation of its currency. Brazil a GDP of US$1.8 trillion and 206 million people, including a growing middle class – providing a huge potential market for British goods and services. It has a growing demand for English language and education: which are critical enablers of future demand for British culture and products. 

If the UK is to maintain and grow its status as a globally influential nation, then a close relationship with Brazil will be increasingly important. Education and culture are two sectors ripe for expanding ties between the countries.

Educating Brazil

In Higher Education we will likely see the return of an improved version of the Science without Borders mobility programme.  This scheme aimed to stimulate Brazil’s science and research capacity.  Some 100,000 science students studied overseas from 2011-2015 - roughly 10,000 of them in the UK. The programme was suspended in 2015 due to a lack of funding and a feeling of insufficient focus. Now a slimmed-down version is now being formulated, for around 10,000-15,000 scholarships a year. The focus will be on top-level universities in North America and Western Europe. This is important for the UK as Brazil, after China and India, is perhaps the third most important country to its universities.  The scheme offers the British university sector opportunities on which to build broader, longer-term partnerships with Brazilian counterparts, particularly at the top-end PhD research level. 

The new Education Minister, José Mendonça Filho, has also set improving secondary education as a key priority. In his view, it requires a ´new architecture´ to stop more than half of school children dropping out of the system between 12 and 16. The UK is in a position to assist.  British initiatives such as encouraging school leadership as a lever to improved standards are now being examined.

There is also an intention to make English compulsory at primary and secondary levels. This could create a major impact since only an estimated 5% of the population currently speak English, with important implications for Brazil’s cultural and economic engagement with the UK.  Such an ambition will come up against the formidable barrier of the majority of the 140,000 English language school teachers currently being unable fluently to speak the language. Great opportunities could arise for the UK to help in the spheres of teacher training and distance education as a consequence of such a policy. If the UK sector can support Brazil with English language training, the UK could reap rich rewards on the back of it, as well as through increased future trade and influence. 

Transforming Our Cultural Relationship

In the world of culture, the transition of power from Dilma to Temer has been painful. Temer´s closure of the Ministry of Culture met with a swift backlash from the cultural sector. Within two days, the decision was reversed and a new minister appointed.  

One of the priorities of the Ministry will be encouraging capacity building through training in cultural management and technical skills. A study undertaken this year by the British Council amongst arts professionals in six large Brazilian cities has shown that the sector’s development in the past 15 years has not been matched by increased know-how or capacity to develop arts professionals.  The sector faces other challenges, including the drastic reduction of funding and donations as a result of the down-turn, leaving cultural institutions struggling financially. The immediate future will no doubt be a period of retrenchment after years of relative plenty. 

There has already been much fruitful cultural exchange between the two countries thanks to the Olympic handover legacy through the Transform programme

However, this may provide impetus to the Brazilian culture sector to look outward for other opportunities and again the UK is in a position to assist. There has already been much fruitful cultural exchange between the two countries thanks to the Olympic handover legacy through the Transform programme.  Over the last four year Transform has connected artists, arts organisations and governmental bodies from the UK and Brazil with projects supporting training for arts professionals and new talent. To date, Transform has directly involved 200 arts organisations and 20,000 artists and producers from both countries in projects in 28 cities across Brazil.

There is a clear opportunity for the UK to build long-term engagement on the cultural ties arising from programmes like Transform, and it would be a mistake to let these wane as the Olympic spirit moves on.  And in the long-run Brazil is destined to become a major cultural as well as economic power.  The UK should now make the most of opportunities to engage with Brazil if it is to gain as a valued partner from its future rise. 

As the UK raises its eyes beyond Europe in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Brazil definitely deserves a second look.


Martin Dowle, Country Director Brazil, British Council