From Research to Reality

As the end of our training approached, I was struck by how we had come full circle. From the Skype conference call with a former Stanford professor about international development to a lecture from a Brazilian professor on the same topic but in Portuguese, speaking about PIB (produto interno bruto) instead of GDP.But there was something in the mental jujitsu of thinking about economics in a foreign language that made me realize how reductive mainstream approaches to economic development are. Looking at development through the Human Development Index, or, even worse, just through GDP growth, ignores arguably the most important aspects.

To understand these aspects takes a little historical context. Salvador was the first great Portuguese colonial city in the New World. Africans were brought to the city to work the sugar cane plantations to extract the rich natural resources for Europe’s newly acquired sweet tooth. Salvador was ungraciously dropped (discarded?) when gold and silver was found in the south of Brazil, giving rise to the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. This was then the part of the country that tasted the benefits of industrialization at the turn of the 20th century.

Neo-liberal development economics says that Brazil should drop its trade barriers, invite foreign investment and industry to take advantage of its labor market and use its abundant natural resources for exportation. This would grow the Brazilian economy, and if managed by a mostly competent public sector, allow for investment in education and health that would increase literacy rates (or average years of educational attainment) and life expectancy. Voila! Brazil is developing! Just look at that 5% annual GDP growth!

But this isn’t what development looks like to communities in Salvador. These are the descendants of African slaves, who walk down streets of colonial architecture, reminded of the heritage of exploitation. These are mothers who send their children to barely operational public schools during the day and send them out in the evenings to juggle next to streets for spare change. Development for them isn’t about the new Bompreço (proud subsidiary of the Walmart Corp. Int.); development is about dignity.

These communities have a different vision of their development. It doesn’t look like the 21st century version of the wealthy using the labor of those disenfranchised to add to their largess. It looks like communities coming together to make their own clothes, develop their own cleaning supplies, and operate their own schools. These are all examples we’ve already seen in our short time here. And this isn’t a idea that has borne out its full potential; this is a dream that has only begun to be realized.