What’s Holding Brazil Back?

It seems like an ideal equation. An abundance of natural resources, multiple emerging middle classes, democracy in one of its purest forms (on paper), people who can dance… So what is the problem? Why can’t Brazil forge ahead?

Here is my opinion, to which I welcome your insights and arguments. In advance, I ask your forgiveness for any generalizations.

1. No respect for the working class 

A couple weeks ago, I was standing in line at the snack bar at our club waiting to order. Next to the line was a young woman barking orders at the people behind the counter. The man taking orders called out a general request for everyone to please get into the line – aimed at her. She ignored him and shifted her demands to another employee. I called her out. She responded with a whiney stream of excuses. I told her to talk to the hand.

This is not an uncommon scene. The middle to upper classes in Brazil engage with the working class (defined for the purposes of this post as those generally in the services industry, including those people who work at the Pão de Açucar) in two ways. Either they treat them like dirt, or they offer up some condescending friendliness, later congratulating themselves on the contribution they’ve made to society. As an outcome, when someone of the working class is actually treated with respect, it is often regarded with suspicion. Combine this with the government’s attempts to give people more power and rights, and things begin to get dangerous. An expat friend of mine described the consequence of this shifting of attitudes, the coupling of being empowered with still being looked-down upon, to a tee. It results in… rage. (Yes, go ahead and picture that one chilling scene with the monkeys from the film 28 Days Later – I did.)

Why is this an obstacle? Powerful countries are built on the masses working to achieve their dreams. If people aren’t encouraged to work hard for something, a country stays stagnant.

2. Little respect for teachers 

While in most developed countries, teachers are revered as heroes (at least in the movies), my expat friends who have found themselves in teaching position have been shocked to be considered one step up from a babá (nanny). This is especially prevalent at the schools where the average wealth tends to be higher (except for the British run schools) – and where the kids will eventually have more impact on the way the country goes. But even in the Brazilian schools, it takes a lot to collect respect from students. So let me ask you this – if kids don’t respect what the teacher says, how the hell are they going to learn anything?

3. S-Mothering

I had to have a tough conversation with a professional, 30-something client of mine about what he was going to have to do to achieve his stated objectives. The next day I received an email from… you guessed it… his mother. The mother, in a typical passive aggressive way, made a series of excuses for her son and tried to turn the tables on why he couldn’t get his shit together, including a couple digs about my American tactics. This is the stuff that sitcoms are made of, yet I wasn’t totally shocked that a Brazilian man’s mother might infringe on his professional life. Brazilian mothers have a tendency to distance themselves from their kids during those troubling years – like when they are infants – leaving those kinds of upbringing nuisances to uneducated people who come from the countryside and are treated like slaves (see 1. No respect for the working class). Then, once their kids are teenagers, they forcefully inject themselves, attempting to control every aspect of their offsprings’ lives. This lasts generally until their own expiration. What kind of message does this send? I have no idea, only that it results in a serious handicapping of adults. Adults who may find themselves in charge of something important purely by nepotism. Adults who will be forwarding all their uncomfortable emails to their mothers.

4. No regard for rules

In 2013, the people of Brazil took to the streets in outrage of what the government had been doing with all the money it had collected from its citizens. Corruption, mismanagement of funds, and the breaking of rules were all on the list of complaints. Yet, as pointed out by reader Andrew Francis, this is all a little hypocritical. An average Brazilian breaks more rules than I can imagine on the typical day. Disregarding traffic laws, insurance fraud, passing points for driving infringements onto others… most never bat an eye when trying to get around or out of something they don’t want to do. The classic name for this behavior is jeitinho, and considered a cultural cuteness, but when compiled, its impact is detrimental to society. How do you control chaos when no one bothers with the rules?

5. Misplaced priorities

Did you happen to watch the Rio de Janeiro carnaval parade on TV? Maybe you sat in the Sambadrome in Sao Paulo and witnessed the thousands of people that danced along the route, dressed in costumes that would have put Marie Antoinette to shame. How nice that all those favela dwellers spend their year putting together this kind of show, gathering funds to create a world-renowned event. Did you know that one of the costumes marching behind the float in the parade, I’m not even talking the ones on top of the floats or the headliners in front, can cost more than a month’s salary of the average laborer? And its not like they are going to use it again next year – oh no! (Totally taboo.) I like a good carnaval as much as the next person, but in a country where so many sub-societies are in distress, is this the best place to be putting resources? How many public hospitals and schools could one carnaval support? Just asking.

Yes, political problems are at the top of the list as to why Brazil has been held back. But I believe that cultural issues should be seriously considered as well. Which is more easily shifted? I think it is a tie.

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45 Responses to What’s Holding Brazil Back?

  1. Great post, indeed. Congrats. EK.

  2. #3. I’ve seen this time and time again at work. Not so much a mother calling in to complain but rather one that holds back their child from achieving more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a talented young person pass up an amazing job offer because it would make them move too far away from their mother (even if it’s for an extremely short period of time).

    1 & 2 are so clear by the insanely low salaries given to both. That at the role of a baba is crazy for the amount of pay they’re given. We had a nanny while living in the states who left the house significantly messier than it was when she came in, never cooked etc. Here we’re constantly having to tell the baba that she doesn’t need to do XYZ if it stresses her out because we just don’t have those expectations. We also often find others who ask why I don’t just make the baba do XYZ but I seriously don’t feel like it’s in her job description and if I did require those things she should get paid a hell of a lot more.

    • So true. I remember the first time I made cookies with my daughter. My Brazilian sister-in-law asked why I didn’t have the housekeeper do it and then offered to have hers do it for me next time. She did not get the concept that I enjoyed baking cookies with my daughter.

      • Risking a passionate reaction, I must denounce such behaviour as typical of a pampered high-society prevalent on São Paulo and Rio.
        You would have a hard time finding a nanny or domestic worker wearing a uniform in Santa Catarina or Rio Grande do Sul. That would mean they are different/inferior, while the tacit agreement is that it is a business relationship among equals.

        And since we are talking unspoken agreements, generally the role of nanny in Brazil is more of a household keeper than anything else. It’s very different from what’s found on the US. It’s something you should adapt to and talk over when hiring and managing a nanny here. You have to tell them what you expect them to do (some of the nanny scope might fall off of their expectation). And remember that most nannies have no qualifications whatsoever – qualified nannies are rare you’ll probably pay the premium you expected if you were to hire one.

  3. On the respect point…if societies’ leaders are seen not to obey the rules, no one further down the food chain sees the need either….

    The lack of respect for working class people and the way in which teachers are regarded…seems about the same in the U.K. to me when I visit or talk to friends still there. It seems that U.K. society has decided to keep the plebs in their place rather than have a society which takes off by using their talents.

    Misguided priorities? Or feeling, just for once, worth something?

    I enjoyed reading your post, having come over from ‘Tossing Off The Bowlines’. It gave me pause for thought and another way to look at the society in which I now find myself in Costa Rica.

  4. Spot on. Totally. We lived in Sao Paulo five years, 1996-2001, and we loved it, BUT what you wrote here is so true…

  5. I must say that the teacher issue also happens elsewhere, though it is quite special at international schools. I subbed at one, saw it first hand.

    As for the carnaval example, the communities would not be able to raise that kind of money for a social project. It is there because of the parade, the school’s status, etc. plus it is a very strong community building activity. My example of poor priorities would be the budget the culture area of the gov gets that pays for, for example, free concerts in Copacabana. Fun yes but that billion reais could be better used .

    #1 drives me nuts. Good for you for saying something.

    Don’t even get me started on 3 & 4. Seriously 😉

  6. is it possible that Facebook (social media in general, it used to be Orkut) is also responsible? you can complain about the expense of carnival costumes but if everybody just spent 30% of the time they currently spend on Facebook – ME INCLUDED! – doing something useful for society (clearing trash, volunteering, teaching skills to less educated people, painting their houses, studying) think how much better off we would be. This is a global problem but particularly bad in Brazil as they say Brazil has the highest social media penetration in the world.

    • This is a very good point! Me included as well. However, because we all share and like posts about social issues, we all feel like we are doing something useful for society. But are we….?

    • tropicalsmog says:

      Social media has actually been a very useful tool in organizing people and sharing information, especially when regular media outlets have been unreliable (the recent protests in Venezuela and 2009 Iranian elections come to mind). Definitely there are people who just complain online and don’t do anything, but I doubt not having social media would suddenly compel people to volunteer their time. Before Facebook, there were other scapegoats for being idle, such as TV.

      • You are totally right – social organizing is incredibly valuable but probably represents less than 1% of all usage here in Brazil – the novela was just as bad if not worse, now we have not only social media but all the reality shows (Big Brother, The Voice etc)

        • I believe that social media makes us “feel” like we are making contributions to society, and in some sense we are. But the real interaction involved in getting out and volunteering must be taking a hit.

  7. PTRio says:

    1. Have you ever seen a Wall Street banker in a strip club? This isn’t a trait unique to Brasil, it is a characteristic of those who believe money is the be all and end all of human existence. Congratulations to you for saying something, most lack the courage and strength of character to do that.
    2. With you all the way on this one. Education is the future for any developing nation, no matter how you define “developing”. Brasil needs full time schools, education is a full time/life time proposition and anything less only produces more of the issues in #1 above.
    3. I don’t know what the “S” in front of Mothering means, but my experience with Brasilian families has been quite positive in terms of family cohesiveness. I have read enough of what Rachel has written over the past couple years to realize Mothers in Brasil often tend toward overbearing, but isn’t one reason the fact there are a lot of fatherless or frequently absent Father households and fulfilling the role of both Mother and Father is no easy task. Ask my Mom….second thought, please don’t!
    4. It is very true that for Cariocas, rules exist to be broken, avoided, subverted, ignored, bent, twisted, or simply applied to others and not yourself. But, have you ever tried to read the code laws of Brasil? An utterly incomprehensible library of rules. Even those who try to comply often find themselves violating several. Brasil is one of the leading nations on Earth in terms of the time it takes a business to comply with all the various rules imposed on them. Starting a new business? I have talked at least a half dozen US and European friends out of doing so, just by providing them with some factual data on taxes, duties, labor laws and other assorted impediments to success. When you have such a mass of rules, people tend to throw their hands up. That is what the “informal economy” is all about. I currently makes up about 40% of the total economy in Brasil! All because of people ignoring rules. Not collecting tax. Not paying tax. Make the rules simple, easy to understand and comply with, and mandatory for all, and Brasil would prosper because of it. Yes, I love the fruit and vegetable feiras as much as the next person, but when you realize these contribute nothing, and require garbage cleanup and other services paid for by “formal” economy businesses, well, it just isn’t fair.
    5. As much as I agreed with you on teachers, I disagree on Carnaval. Carnaval in Rio, especially, is an industry. It employs carpenters, mechanics, engineers, designers, models, seamstresses, musicians, song writers and on and on and on. Some are volunteers, others paid year round. I read that Carnaval generates over $1 Billion US to the economy of Rio, which in turn employs hotel workers, restaurant workers, taxi drivers, guides, airline workers, and on and on. Carnaval makes a mess, this year especially without the gari’s working, but it also teaches young people about how important it is to meet deadlines and commitments and how acquiring skills results in better work and better pay. There is ALWAYS a job at a samba school, you only have to ask. I have followed the Unidos da Tijuca group for the past 8 years, and seen myself (along with its supporters) how important quality leadership is to an organization like that. That sort of lesson is easily transferred to business, to education, to life in general. If this is how Cariocas learn about life, and how sometimes despite your best efforts things don’t turn out as you hoped, I am all for it. And, most of the samba schools recycle a good deal of the materials, which go into their floats and costumes. Sure, you will see some discarded costumes following the big parades. Those could in fact be from foreigners, who are able to buy a costume from a school and parade without ever attending a practice. All the above, and I have not even mentioned the great pride that comes from completing a parade down Sapucai the Sambodromo, it is not easy. And, the feeling of accomplishment whether your group won or not. Hospitals and schools are always a priority, but so is pride in being a part of the unique culture which exists in Rio and within which Carnaval plays a very important part. Perfect? Never. But it wouldn’t be the same if it was. Rio is to me the most perfectly imperfect City anywhere.

    • 1. First, yes, I have seen a Wall Street banker in a strip club. Not clear on what it has to do with this post, but give me some time and I’m sure I will figure it out.
      2. I agree. The US needs to work on education as much as Brazil, only different aspects. Should be priority #1 for all countries that hope to produce intellectual assets.
      3. S in front of mothering means smothering… or, to suffocate. You have a point in that diluted cultures have little understanding of family cohesiveness. But I don’t think, in a professional scenario, an email from a mother is in order.
      4. I absolutely understand that the bureaucracy of the Portuguese has handicapped social systems in Brazil. But when do we stand up to it?
      5. Carnaval is emotional. I honor and embrace cultural pride. I love that Brazil is a country that is still deeply entwined with its culture. But I have to note the contradictions in suffering pubic services and extreme exposition for the sake of culture.
      Thank you for your comments! Good points!

      • PTRio says:

        The Wall Street Banker in my example is like the Brasilian you spoke of because he believes having money makes him or her a better person.

  8. leledacuca says:

    I’m a Brazilian who moved to US in 2000. In 2011 I went back to live in Brazil for work. Two years in Brazil was more than enough to understand there is no progress going on in Brazil but a clear manipulation of data. Business is beyond difficult for american standards. And I totally agree with you comments, cultural issues play a huge role in holding Brazil back.

  9. I think 1,2,3,4 are reprehensible, with 5 being the expected and perverse consequence. It seems 5 (misplaced priorities) affects the upper classes by keeping them from achieving their full potential, and hence providing the nation with greater capital and jobs. Regarding the working class 5 plays out more like a psychological hindrance. After all if someone must endure such an excrutiating existence then spending an above average amount of his or her income on a costume which briefly transports them to world of fantasy and self-esteem is quite understandable. This, of course, is not a solution for the distress they suffer during the rest of the year. Funny how it happens to be the most popular carnival march of all time which states this so clearly – “é carnaval, é a doce ilusão, é promesa de vida no meu coração” (with the operative word being ilusão).

    • Nina says:

      I think your views aim at the mundane Brazilian life and extends to a bigger umbrella. I think we’re in such materialistic time driven through media fed by greed. Money. I think all countries don’t have their sh*t together. I think that’s the only way rich white
      Men can keep stealing. Not that it’s only them, but mostly them. The Internet is a big player and other tech. The mundane is what’s left for us to change if we are not policy makers or control certain percentage if wealth. I love brazil, there’s a point where u see overbearing mil in every culture and then there’s certain extremes of many Brazilian Mils. I think having a housekeeper is a blessing, but then again in brazil extremes are taken by the middle class wanting so badly to be the 1%. There are things Americans pride themselves and don’t need to be like our 1%. I think most Americans don’t want to be in either Side of rich or poor most want to be middle class. I really think the us is so lucky that brazil wastes so much money otherwise we would have a real threat to hording the worlds resources. But maybe that’s the plan.

    • Very good point – they work all year to be able to live this “fantasy” instead of implementing a longer term strategy for a sustainable “better life.” This is definitely imbedded in the Brazilian culture as decisions are mostly made with regard to the short term.

  10. anon blog fan says:

    Why do you think the British-run schools are different in terms of respect for teachers (when I assume they still have the same majority Brazilian upper SES clientele). Do you think they expect more in terms of behavior than, say, an American-run school and so the kids rise to the expectations? Or do you think that the kids who get sent there come from families who hold teachers in higher esteem?

    #3 is crazy- but is apparently becoming quite common in the US too (parents interfering in their post-college child’s career). I guess it’s not unusual (in certain sectors of the population) for parents to show up at job interviews with their kid or email the boss wanting a ‘progress report’ on little johnny! Ridiculous.

    It’s good to see you blogging again- you always write about such interesting things 🙂

    • Thank you! It is good to be back. Funny you ask, I actually changed my post regarding teachers just last night because I had some teachers over. We discussed this issue and it seems that the British schools are able to demand respect (possibly the American schools too). I think it is the culture that is predominant across the faculty members, but I also think that because getting into one of these schools in Brazil is extremely competitive, so the Brazilians who want their kids to go there are subject to the demands and regulations. But the schools that maintain the Brazilian “education culture” do not develop an effective learning environment and a sense of respect for teachers. However… every city is probably different. The kids subjected to #2 eventually become #3. HA.

    • anna says:

      i have friends who went to the british school (st pauls) and friends who went to american schools (graded and chapel). and from what they told me the british school was very rigorous but the american schools were way more laid back.

  11. brasil61 says:

    you missed the roots

    1) Brasil’s heart is with Che and Fidel and from that deeply held belief in govt a byzantine monstrous and ineffectual govt has ballooned..and controls.. all sides (rich poor and middle) believe govt has the ability to do what they claim..(they can’t )and so it becomes the great expectation that somebody else can solve the problems – and when it is everyone’s responsibility it is no ones..and of course you have propaganda and if you keep repeating its a success and the idiot press repeats what some bureaucrat says ..like Project Fome is a great success (I guess..hmmm.. if you throw 10 dollars to get 2 dollars of result it is fantastic.. for votes).. you have an echo chamber of high priced ineffectual nonsense.. Cardoso saved and built the foundation of Brasil’s potential.. not Lula or Dilma who have squandered that advantage at every turn..(Brazil nuclear sub program..lol Lula..and then the two idiots at the central bank and finance..Tombini and Mantega) instead of using Brasil’s fx advantage to bring the jurassic labor laws into even the 1980’s mindset.. or financing international debt for infrastructure cheap the scare the hell out of capital markets with ad hoc idiocy.. and education ..ill stop that could be a book ..lets just say ..A big JOKE.. I lay this all at the feet of Fidel and Che.. dont look at Venezuala or Argentina..as there is no corporate or rich bogey men to blame..

    2) Brasilian culture is intellectually lazy and lacks discipline..b/c the poor vote for the Che team everytime

    Finally the most interesting aspect is that you and others seem to feel you are “expert” offering prescriptions to cultures and countries as large and diverse as BRASIL. It is a sort of immature child like arrogance that at first is endearing b/c you think wow there is some intelligence and care in there..but then you realise ..yes but along with that care and intelligence comes half baked ideas from people who are actually tourists on an unearned power trip .. that develop voting blocs of bad policies..

    dont believe me.. ?

    1) You have not lived in many areas of Brasil.. and certainly not long enough..to know..anything in depth.. period

    2) Have you ever been responsible and led 500 people or more in some capacity ? and more so achieved economic results for a long period.. have you built anything from the ground up..on your own.. or have you been a lucky dependent on someone else’s sweat hard work and largesse .. do you just latch on to the structure in place.. proclaim yourself manager..b/c it is easy to see manager is better than worker.. in other words.. Id bet a large amount of money.. your valuable insights are unearned and have no foundation from experience.

    3) Have you studied history, culture, history of development ..economics ..law.. and how they intertwine to create a successful society/culture..

    I could keep going..but I’d like to say for the few of us who have done these things.. just because you put the Capt’s hat on doesn’t make you a Capt.

    • First, thank you for your comments. Second, Brazil is a democracy. Sometimes people don’t like how the masses vote, but you can always pick your favorite dictator and relocate to that country. Assuming they will have you. Finally, you don’t know anything about me or my education or my experience. Do not assume that because I put my opinions (clearly stated that my words are opinions) on a blog that I have not led people, achieved economic results, nor studied economics and history and culture – because I have. Your insights and arguments regarding the topics I address are appreciated and valued, but please hold off on making ignorant accusations here.

  12. Nice post. I tend to agree, and have a few more ideological reasons that I think Brazil has difficulty progressing. I blogged about it a few years ago: http://www.adamgonnerman.com/2012/01/what-keeps-brazil-back.html

  13. Fred Wilds says:

    Reblogged this on Doing It The Brazil Way and commented:
    Very interesting article. Would enjoy comments.

  14. Marcia Cunha says:

    Reblogged this on Incubare & Sucubare.

  15. Type1 says:

    I have experienced the attitude in #1. I was in college a couple of years ago and I got to interact with international students from Brazil and their attitude was horrible! Btw, I also met some Venezuelans, Argentines, Mexicans, and Colombians they were also horrible. I guess it’s a Latin American thing and it made me understand somewhat why their respective countries are not developed. They were smug all around, one individual even used the word “peasant” to describe somebody he didn’t like. Note these were all international students and I also have met people from those countries who immigrated here permanently and actually went to high school here in the US and they didn’t have that attitude. My college was not that expensive, so I don’t know the income level of those international students in their respective countries. But I do know that they were not the wealthiest, so I can’t even imagine the attitude from someone who is actually wealthy from those countries.

    • They were probably part of the emerging upper-ish middle class, emulating the upper classes and attempting to mimic their behavior based on what they themselves experienced. Too bad they felt the need to isolate themselves that way – I bet their parents, who were most likely struggling to try and provide them with an international experience, wouldn’t be happy about it.

  16. Philip says:

    I agree with pretty much all your insights, with perhaps a caveat on #1. I agree the disdain for the working-class is obvious and unjustified (from our cultural view), but also feel they are used politically, and a wedge between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ (the line between the two is blurring) is rather intentionally interjected in the rolling narrative of the governing party, My experience is the same as yours, but that I see it in the comments in board rooms, where there is a near total dismissal of 1/3 of the population. As for following rules, I live in Rio, where there is zero respect at all levels. Neighbors complain about the poor who come to the beach and little, but then are up-in-arms when their cars are towed because the park the Range Rover on the sidewalk to go into Padaria.

  17. Cristiane Rodrigues says:

    “… Brazilian mothers have a tendency to distance themselves from their kids during those troubling years – like when they are infants – leaving those kinds of upbringing nuisances to uneducated people who come from the countryside and are treated like slaves (see 1. No respect for the working class)…”
    As brazilian living in Europe I must say that you are partially right on most of your views.
    You just wrong about this very specific point.The view you expose is valid just f you refer to middle and upper class, that usually most expats, specially from North America-Europe-Australia have contact with.
    The lower classes and the majority of the population are exactly the opposite: they often have a severe education, sometimes even with violent punishment. Although the maternal figure is very important as you pointed out, in all economic levels,
    Brazilian society structure still reminding colonial times in many ways, no wonder we was the last country on the world to abolish slavery.
    Hope you´re having a great time there besides the differences.

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