Brazil dispatch

Steve Kelman offers five observations from Latin America's biggest economy and democracy.

steve kelman

I'm in Brazil this week, mostly in Sao Paolo (Brazil's largest city and economic powerhouse, though less good at samba and Carnival than Rio), to prepare for a one-week program that will bring 32 Brazilian state and local government civil servants to Harvard next February. This is part of an ambitious and very inspiring effort to work to change the culture of the Brazilian civil service by bringing in groups of hard-working, educated, public-spirited, honest, and results–oriented young people into the Brazilian government, where the civil service culture is not necessarily known for these features. The effort is sponsored by a Brazilian nonprofit called the Center for Public Leadership, and is an important effort in Latin America's most-populous country and important economy.

This is only the second time I've visited Brazil. A few very random impressions:

1) One of the main financial sponsors of the government civil service reform effort is Jorge Paolo Lemann, billionaire builder of the world's largest beer conglomerate, InBev (which bought Budweiser a few years ago). Lemann, the son of Swiss immigrants to Brazil, is reportedly a "fanatic" for performance measurement in his own businesses, and for application of performance measurement to improving government performance in Brazil. He follows the major metrics for his companies on a daily basis and, I was told by a Center for Public Leadership official, "even has performance metrics for his maid."

2) My first impression of Sao Paolo was the highway from the airport. I was amazed at just how much better it was than the one in Mexico City, where I travelled recently. Basically, it looks like an American interstate, 5 lanes in each direction, smooth pavement with no bumps, nice landscaping. Sao Paolo is the richest city in Brazil, but the airport road coming in to Belo Horizonte, another city I visited, was almost as nice.

3) Sidewalk building and maintenance in Sao Paolo is the responsibility of the property owner for the abutting building. The result is a patchwork of pavement styles and quality of maintenance. The sidewalks don't have the same grade, which means you have to be careful walking the streets or you will stumble.

4) The standard form of address in Brazil is a title followed by a first name, not a last name. When a front desk attendant first addressed me as "Professor Steve," I thought the hotel had just gotten my name wrong, but then was told this is how it's done. I even saw a road named something like "Professor Joao Road," with the full name only listed underneath the main sign.

5) Brazil spent much of the last century alternating between longish periods of dictatorship/military rule and shorter intervals of unstable democracy. Since the mid-l980s, democracy in Brazil has stabilized and become institutionalized – making Brazil one of a small group of countries in recent decades (the most-prominent other examples outside the former East Europe Communist bloc are Korea and Taiwan) that have successfully and peacefully moved from long periods of dictatorship to functioning free societies.

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