New Regionalism & Brazil-PALOPs development cooperation


by Ana Beatriz Ribeiro


Abstract: Via historical and international relations lenses, the present article briefly explores aspects of the legitimized status of Brazil as an emerging donor. The case study here concerns the former Portuguese colonies, the so-called PALOPs, with which Brazil entered into a Commonwealth-type community (CPLP) in 1996. I argue that the Brazilian state’s pragmatic focus has changed from maintaining a close discursive alliance with Portugal and the Western powers, as well as its own immediate region, towards promoting Brazil-led development cooperation in Africa. The text provides a New Regionalism reading that can be used to frame the construction of a transregional development network based on states’ interests and priorities related to capital expansion, beyond the constraints of geography, in the present (constructed) world order.

Capoeira in Montmartre 9 HDR

Capoeira, one of the Afro-Brazilian exports, performed in France. (Photo: Japrea, license CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

From Portuguese colony to pragmatic South American regional leader

States formerly under Portuguese colonial control began their relations in the Atlantic trade system of slaves and merchandise, before they were states. In the 19th century there had been talks of Angola and Mozambique joining up as colonies of Brazil as it secured its independence from Portugal.1 Such a process also catalyzed the transfer of dissident ideas via trade routes.

Mozambican historian Aurélio Rocha writes that Rio de Janeiro newspapers found their way to Africa, accused by the Portuguese of spreading revolutionary ideas. News of Brazil’s independence process in the first half of the 19th century inspired what Rocha considers the first anti-Portuguese demonstrations in the soon-to-be consolidated Portuguese colonies.2 Rocha adds that in considering joining up with Brazil, movements in Angola and Mozambique discussed the advantage of having intensive trade relations back then with the budding South American state and “the greater proximity, the greater similarity or identity of customs and other conveniences” with Brazil than Portugal.3

The idea involving a political bloc with those countries was also harbored by Dom Pedro I – the Brazilian-raised heir to the Portuguese throne who would declare Brazil independent in 1822 – and others in Brazil’s liberation movement.4 But as one of the conditions for its independence to be recognized by Portugal, the Brazilian state agreed to a clause in the related 1825 treaty not to accept propositions from the colonies to join it.5 Discussions on the formation of a community would resurface over time, also including Portugal.

However, it would not be until 1996 that the political and cultural bloc known as the Community of Portuguese Language Countries (CPLP) would come to fruition, with all its members being sovereign states by then. Brazilian government representatives were at the forefront of the process of finally establishing the organization.6

Unlike the African Countries of Official Portuguese Language (PALOPs)7, Brazil did not have to undergo a long, violent independence struggle. The Brazilian state could thus already harbor geopolitical ambitions in the 20th century. Sometimes overtly and at other times between the lines, Brazil’s kinship with Portugal had often been tinged by nationalist stirrings and a growing sense at the state level that Brazil had the potential to become a great power.8

The changed international system of the late 20th century made interactions more flexible between geographically expansionist powers and the so-called subaltern. A more dynamic system of (inter)dependency of the ruling economic and political echelons emerged post-Cold War, found in both “developed” and “developing” states. The increased fluidity of trade, finance and transnational exchanges in technology, culture and labor happened concurrently.

Consequently, some of the constraints of alliances and constructed borders have been erased, allowing for greater — or at least faster — hierarchical mobility among state actors. States have more room to pursue their own regional projects, as interactions are not as strictly bound by geography or geopolitical arrangements. One of the products of liberalization in South America post-Cold War was the birth of the Mercosul trade bloc in 1991 with Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay as its founding members. Brazil, for the extent of its economic and political clout, as well as resources and territory, took the leading role in the organization. Venezuela joined in 2012 and Bolivia is in the process of becoming a full member, pending ratification at the national level.

Gustavo Ferreira:Brazilian Ministry of External Relations

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva receives Mozambican President Armando Guebuza in Brasília, 2009. (Photo: Gustavo Ferreira/Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0 license)

Despite the vertiginous ups and downs related to its economic growth and political stability, the Brazilian state can presently be considered an established regional leader in South America. It has also actively reached outside the region to seek out political and economic capital expansion that could lift it from its status as a perpetual emerging power to a major player in world affairs. One of its target areas for the provision of development aid has been the PALOPs in Africa. Under President Lula da Silva (2003-2010) the Brazilian state had also invested considerable energy into trying to construct the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and later South Africa – as a political group beyond the overhyped investment label crafted by Goldman Sachs in 2001.

Regional leaders from different sides of the world have banded together to work on ambitious international projects with the stated aim of changing the balance of power in favor of the “Global South,”. Within this context the BRICS have been setting up their own joint development bank in Africa. At other times, the larger geographic region is included in inter-regional interactions and projects. One example has featured South American and African countries engaging in summits as two regional blocs to negotiate development cooperation and financing schemes.9

In writing about transboundary relations of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for a collection of works on New Regionalism, scholars Ulrike Lorenz and Scarlett Cornelissen state that “understanding ‚region‘ as a relational arena produced through interactions between various actors beyond fixed geographical, political, economic or any other boundaries… is [where] we see the most innovative potential for empirically informed theory-building on regionalism as part of understanding ongoing processes of emerging global orders.“10 A mark of the present global order is the international discursive recognition of the BRICS and other emerging powers as fellow players alongside the Western powers in the provision of development aid.11 This has helped widen the emerging powers’ field of capital expansion intercontinentally. Without the erstwhile Cold War focus on globalizing or curbing one ideology over another, states – most now converted to neoliberalism – can focus more on globalizing their own profit.

Current and future developments in relational region-making could represent a joint project of capital expansion among the countries of the “Global South” group – a so-called “South-South Cooperation” region. States that share pragmatic ideas of profit- and power-building do not need to share ideology in order to cooperate; hence the BRICS with Africa.

Brazil as an emerging development donor and the PALOPs

The label of “developed country” carries with it connotations of wealth, power and greater civilization as defined by long-ingrained Western traditions and modernization standards.12 Being able to provide development aid is a sign of status, a power-building tool in terms of discursive recognition by other states. It is also a way to open ground via infrastructure and political connections for the expansion of multinational corporations.

Brazil’s development aid brand largely concerns technical cooperation, meaning the provision of training and equipment to states of the “Global South” in increasing productive and administrative capacity in priority areas. The Brazilian state’s official discourse on technical cooperation excludes the involvement of cash or profit-seeking on the part of Brazil via the modality.13 It is carried out under the auspices of the foreign ministry and the closely connected Brazilian Cooperation Agency (ABC), with direct logistical support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).14

The founding of ABC in 1987 coincided with the process of liberalization and democratization in Brazil15 as well as with the onset of structural adjustments in the “Third World.” By 1982, the Brazilian dictatorship had already begun the process of opening up. The state and its companies had won cooperation contracts in Mozambican agriculture and Senegalese construction, and its ethanol technology was being sold to a new plant in Zimbabwe.16 The Brazilian diplomatic corps, which retained a degree of autonomy from the national government, had spent the previous decade building a presence in Africa that included staying through civil wars.17

In 1986, José Sarney, Brazil’s first post-dictatorship president to exercise functions18, visited the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde for his first trip outside the Americas. During Cape Verde’s National Popular Assembly, Sarney expressed his firm support for the budding African states — especially the PALOPs, claiming cultural, social and political bonds with them — and against apartheid.19 This represented a break with the previous Brazilian waffling between allegiance with Portugal and solidarity with the PALOPs during decolonization. The Brazilian state also no longer had to choose between openly supporting the Western capitalist powers and openly pursuing economic interests in the socialist African states. But by then, of course, it was easier to express unequivocal support or solidarity, since the Brazilian state no longer had to pick between metropole and periphery – it could safely portray itself as a bridge between the two.

At the end of the 20th century, new regional impulses had begun to take root internationally under a combination of globalized discursive tenets such as lowering trade barriers and promoting democratization and the desire to band together to counter-balance hegemonic power and build greater autonomy. It was under this context that in 1996 Brazil, Portugal and the PALOPs signed the declaration in Lisbon establishing and joining CPLP, their version of the Commonwealth. Under its charter, members committed to respecting each other’s sovereignty while promoting their “common cultural identity” and Portuguese language. They also agreed to support each other’s economic and social development, welcome each other’s entrepreneurs, technicians and students, and attempt to establish a collective political voice. Finally, they were to be a collective part of the globalization project by implementing and promoting the liberal discourse of sustainable development and human rights.20 From then on, Brazil began to carry out development projects in the PALOPs under the CPLP framework, taking a leadership role in the organization. It was now a bloc leader both continentally via Mercosul and intercontinentally via CPLP, although the (lack of) strength of both organizations has been a subject of debate.

CEHA derivative work, Jonaspv

This map shows that countries other than the ones of official Portuguese language have expressed interest in joining CPLP. (Source: CEHA derivative work, Jonaspv, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license)

The CPLP initiative, put in motion during previous Brazilian presidencies, managed to find ground amid President Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s (1995-2002) simultaneous focus on neoliberal alliances and South American regionalism. His was what Brazilian scholars Tullo Vigevani and Marcelo Oliveira referred to as “a logic of autonomy through integration [maintaining] that Brazil would be able to confront its problems and secure more control over its future if it actively contributed to elaborating the norms and guidelines of the administration of the global order”21. To South African Eduard Jordaan, however, emerging powers such as Brazil on the global stage merely advance the interests of the ruling echelons and tend to favor the maintenance of the unequal status quo, regional powerdom being a middle manager position in the global hierarchy.22

It was under Cardoso’s successor, President Lula, that Brazilian diplomat Patrícia Soares Leite suggests Brazil managed to strike a balance between maintaining cordial relations with the “developed” powers and intensifying “relations with the countries of the South, particularly Arabic, African and [with] China, universalizing Brazilian foreign policy, with bilateral and multilateral objectives”23. At his height and before the shadow of ongoing political scandals in Brazil, Lula publicly called for a more inclusive, multilateral world order with the BRICS at the forefront; gave greater priority to relations with Africa in foreign policy; and was widely credited in international academia with solidifying Brazil’s external image as an emerging power and one of the leaders of “South-South Cooperation”.

Brazilian development discourse maintains that Brazil has a debt of gratitude to the Africans who built its society through slave labor, whose countries Brazil has come into a position to help develop economically. Brazilian diplomats have contended that since their country still has some of the problems of a developing country and similarities in (tropical) climate and soil, it can relate well to what the recipient countries need. It is a discourse whose genesis dates back to the Brazilian state’s brief initial rapprochement with Africa in the early 1960s.24 A favorite adage among Brazilian diplomats has been this: “To every African problem there is a Brazilian solution,” or “Para cada problema africano existe uma solução brasileira”. Meanwhile, major Brazilian companies are involved in funding development projects and expanding their own capital in the PALOPs. Some of them are partly owned by the Brazilian government (i.e. Petrobrás and the mining giant Vale), or closely connected to its interests. In spite of that fact, Brazilian government representatives have insisted on the importance of differentiating between the commercial interests of Brazilian companies and the Brazilian government’s “altruistic” desire for development cooperation.25

José Flávio Saraiva – a renowned professor at the University of Brasília, representing perhaps a cross between scholarship and diplomacy – has been a strong supporter of what he has referred to as a “pragmatic” discourse involving the repayment of a “historical debt” to Africa. He describes it as indeed having an “altruistic” vein while (paradoxically) taking into consideration Brazil’s interests — namely “oil and power” — as well as Africa’s development priorities.26 Saraiva writes that African diplomats in Brazil as well as members of the Afro-Brazilian community had been critical of the enduring “culturalist” discourse of “lusophone” affinities and “racial democracy” – known as lusotropicalism – and its gaping contradiction to the maltreatment of blacks in Brazil. He adds that “the news in the discourse of the redemption of a historical debt is the rupture with the cynicism of the culturalist discourse… This language is a lot more palatable for the African leaders. It is also closer to the quotidian reality of the African descendants in Brazil. The rupture with the culturalist discourse proposes a meeting of equals, horizontal relations between partners, in a common effort of overcoming social and economic difficulties of the most weakened on the two sides of the South Atlantic.”27

Nevertheless, the Brazilian development discourse does not tend to portray the state as an equal to African states when it comes to development cooperation. The nature of development automatically assumes a donor-recipient relationship, which implies superiority in terms of techniques and level of development on the donor side. Despite the “partnership” terminology, it is often about teaching recipients how to develop by Western standards, via “Brazilified” techniques.

There is also the question of how viable CPLP can be in the long term as a common space of language and cultural bonds, in African countries where large segments of the population reject or do not have access to learning fluent Portuguese. However, the organization does represent a look beyond continental geography and towards new ways of forming what some would call blocs, and others would consider regions, based on perceived shared interests — and/or bonds. As previously mentioned, it was a project dating back to the 19th century and colonialism, but which could only be realized once the new phase of liberalization had taken off at the end of the 20th century.

Proposed framework for analyzing an international development region

It is this perspective of regions as not necessarily geographically bound that informs the idea of a possible development network being formed among Brazil and the PALOPs in major projects, e.g. in agriculture and health. Different Brazilian government agencies are tasked with implementing the projects, such as Embrapa for agriculture and Fiocruz for health; their actions in the PALOPs and beyond are helping spread norms and development models under a hybridized brand of modernization. These norms and models are likely to be modified and appropriated locally and can be further transmitted along the “development network” – a learning process in technical cooperation that will likely affect other projects in further development-related interactions.28 If one thinks of a development network in terms of Manuel Castells’s “network society,” one can imagine flows being generated by “hubs” and “nodes” and moving from one to the next during the different stages of the intellectual, productive and distributive processes spread out to different points of the globe as part of the same product chains.

The “nodes” here represent the places where the flows are generated, regulated, processed and/or relayed towards the making of a “new region of technical cooperation.” 
These include government agencies, universities and other relevant institutes in Brazil and the PALOPs. Besides the relevant places, it would be important to look at the groups (elites) that might be trying to advance and control this particular “development network society,” and why. Thus, the products of bilateral development relations and the actors and connections involved could constitute a larger development network (of other bilateral relations) whose spaces would be defined by the resulting modified practices, with groups attempting to appropriate it in different ways.


This article offered a brief incursion into the establishment of Brazil as a possible transregional development leader, taking into consideration shifting national interests and the fluidity of states’ alignments over time. It sought to begin exploring what could be the construction of a “development cooperation network” between Brazil and the PALOPs.

The transregional connections among state and non-state actors involved in international development projects could mean the formation of a region or bloc based on constructed shared norms and priorities, aided by the historical evolution of world orders, cultural relations and domestic agendas alike. Naturally, much additional research has to be done to compose a fuller picture.

Ana Beatriz Ribeiro is a Brazilian-American researcher currently based in Leipzig, where she pursues a PhD on the topic of Brazilian development discourse with a focus on relations with Mozambique (Centre for Area Studies, Uni Leipzig). She is the founder and editor-in-chief of the regularly published webzine The Leipzig Glocal.


Citation: Ana Beatriz Ribeiro, New Regionalism & Brazil-PALOPs development cooperation, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 12.09.2016,

  1. Newitt, M. D. D. A History of Mozambique. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995; Rocha, Aurélio. “Contribuição Para O Estudo Das Relações Entre Moçambique E O Brasil – Século XIX.” STVDIA (Lisbon) (Text personally handed to me by Rocha during a chat with him in Maputo, February 2012), no. 51 (1992): 61–118. []
  2. Rocha, “Contribuição Para O Estudo Das Relações Entre Moçambique E O Brasil – Século XIX.” []
  3. Ibid., 99, my translation from the Portuguese. []
  4. Cervo, Amado Luiz, and José Calvet De Magalhães. Depois Das Caravelas: As Relações Entre Portugal E Brasil, 1808-2000. Coleção Relações Internacionais. Brasília, DF: IBRI : Editora UnB, 2000. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Santos, Luís António. “Portugal and the CPLP: Heightened Expectations, Unfounded Disillusions.” In The Last Empire: Thirty Years of Portuguese Decolonization, edited by Stewart Lloyd-Jones and António Costa Pinto. Bristol, UK ; Portland, OR: Intellect, 2003. []
  7. The term is more appropriate than “lusophone” countries, which would imply Portuguese cultural and linguistic dominance. The PALOPs are Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe. []
  8. Saraiva, José Flávio Sombra. África Parceira Do Brasil Atlântico: Relações Internacionais Do Brasil E Da África No Início Do Século XXI. Coleção Relações Internacionais. Belo Horizonte: Fino Traço Editora, 2012. []
  9. This project is named ASA, which stands for Africa-South America (Summit). []
  10. Lorenz, Ulrike, and Scarlett Cornelissen. “Regional Organisation, Regional Arena: The SADC in Southern Africa.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to Regionalisms, edited by Timothy M. Shaw, J. Andrew Grant, and Scarlett Cornelissen. The International Political Economy of New Regionalisms Series. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011, 81–82. []
  11. OECD, UNDP, EU, and AfDB. “African Economic Outlook: Africa and Its Emerging Partners.” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, United Nations Development Program, African Development Bank Group, Economic Commission for Africa, European Union, Development Centre, 2011; OECD. “Welcoming New Partnerships in International Development Co-Operation.” OECD Development Assistance Committee Statement, April 6, 2011, accessed 5 August 2016 ; “The Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and Accra Agenda for Action.” Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 2008 2005. []
  12. Rist, Gilbert. The History of Development: From Western Origins to Global Faith. Translated by Patrick Camiller, 2014, accessed 5 August 2016; Ipea. Cooperação Brasileira Para O Desenvolvimento Internacional 2010. Edited by Renato Baumann. 2nd ed. Brasília: Secretaria de Assuntos Estratégicos da Presidência da República (SAE/PR), Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea), Ministério das Relações Exteriores (MRE), Agência Brasileira de Cooperação (ABC), 2013. []
  13. Puente, Carlos Alfonso Iglesias. “Introdução.” In A cooperação técnica horizontal brasileira como instrumento da política externa: a evolução da cooperação técnica com países em desenvolvimento, CTPD, no período 1995-2005. Brasília: Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão, 2010. []
  14. Cabral, Lídia, and Julia Weinstock. Brazilian Technical Cooperation for Development: Drivers, Mechanics and Future Prospects. London: Overseas Development Institute, 2010. []
  15. Brazil has been a military dictatorship from 1964-85. []
  16. Forrest, Tom. “Brazil and Africa: Geopolitics, Trade, and Technology in the South Atlantic.” African Affairs 81, no. 322 (1982): 3–20. []
  17. Dávila, Jerry. Hotel Trópico: Brazil and the Challenge of African Decolonization, 1950-1980. Durham [NC]: Duke University Press, 2010. []
  18. The president-elect had died soon after inauguration. []
  19. Sarney, José. “Discurso Do Presidente Da República José Sarney, Por Ocasião Da Sessão Solene Da Assembléia Nacional Popular, Cabo Verde.” FGV/CPDOC, 1986. MMM 1986.02.07. []
  20. Declaração Constitutiva.” CPLP: Comunidade Dos Países de Língua Portuguesa, 1996, accessed 17 August 2016. []
  21. Vigevani, Tullo, and Marcelo Fernandes Oliveira. “Brazilian Foreign Policy in the Cardoso Era: The Search for Autonomy through Integration (Translated by Timothy Thompson).” Latin American Perspectives 34, no. 5 (2007): 58–80. []
  22. Jordaan, Eduard. “The Concept of a Middle Power in International Relations: Distinguishing between Emerging and Traditional Middle Powers.” Politikon: South African Journal of Political Studies 30, no. 1 (2003): 165–81. []
  23. Leite, Patrícia Soares. O Brasil E a Cooperação Sul-Sul Em Três Momentos de Política Externa: Os Governos Jânio Quadros/João Goulart, Ernesto Geisel E Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva / Patrícia Soares Leite. Brasília: Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão, 2011,169, my translation from the Portuguese. []
  24. Ribeiro, Ana. “Aspects in the Construction of Brazil’s Transcontinental Lusofonia.” Journal of Critical Southern Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 2014): 58–94. []
  25. Puente, Carlos Alfonso Iglesias. “Introdução.” In A cooperação técnica horizontal brasileira como instrumento da política externa: a evolução da cooperação técnica com países em desenvolvimento, CTPD, no período 1995-2005. Brasília: Fundação Alexandre de Gusmão, 2010; Lessa, Elga Almeida, and Elsa Sousa Kraychete. “O Discurso Brasileiro Para Cooperação Em Moçambique: Existe Ajuda Desinteressada?” ASTROLABIO: Nueva Época, no. 10 (2013). []
  26. Saraiva, África Parceira Do Brasil Atlântico, 113. []
  27. Ibid., 112, my translation from the Portuguese. []
  28. Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Chichester, West Sussex; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, accessed 17 August 2016.2016; Behrends, Andrea. “Introduction: Travelling Models in African Conflict Management.” In Translating Technologies of Social Ordering: Travelling Models in  African Conflict Management, edited by Andrea Behrends and Richard Rottenburg, 2011. []

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