Why not Brazil?

24 February 2016

Marina Silva was born in a village in the Amazon rain forest. Until the age of 16, unable to read or write, she worked as a tapper on a rubber tree plantation. Sickness took her to the state capital, where she found her way to a convent, and education, in return for cleaning. There she connected to the Liberation Theology movement, and by the age of 26, was leading demonstrations against deforestation. At 36, she was elected to the federal senate, where she became the champion for sustainable development in the Amazon region. Nine years later she was named minister of the environment in the Lula government.

Marina (Brazilians call their politicians by first name) has run for the Brazilian presidency twice, in the hope of being the first black woman of poor origins to attain that office. In the last election, she garnered 22 million votes, but lost to Dilma Rousseff, who has since been mired in scandals. Marina has become something of a legend in Brazil, with views that break with the traditional politics of the country. Many prominent Brazilians believe she will be the country’s next president.

In October, I gave a speech in Sao Paulo. I was unaware that Marina was in the audience. She came up afterward, introduced herself, and asked if I would give the opening keynote for the launching of her Sustainability Network (she finds the term political party too narrowing). “Why not?” I replied. This is going to happen next Thursday.

“You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why Not?’”  (George Bernard Shaw)

In 2012 I published an article with Gui Azevedo about the “Why not?” people of Brazil (see also the TWOG of 7 May). There is something about the spirit of the country, its history and peaceful pride, large size with linguistic isolation, that has fostered a kind of “Why not?” mentality among the people. As Gui and I wrote, “Brazil is a civilization-under-construction, full of freshness and brashness, much like the United States of earlier times.”

For two centuries, the United States was the “Why not? country of the world. It remains so economically. But politically and socially, it has become more of a “Why?” country, as private sector interests have come to dominate so much of American social and political life. As other countries have followed suit, this has been fostering a dangerous imbalance throughout the world.1

Brazil is remarkable for its many imaginative social initiatives. Participatory municipal budgeting, started in Porto Alegre, has been adopted in many municipalities; there is a prominent landless workers movement that works unoccupied farmland; the favelas have provided affordable housing for many poor people2; and the country dealt remarkably with its HIV/AIDS crisis, challenging pharmaceutical prices and the international agencies that supported them. (See the photo of a famous ad, modeled after the one for the movie “American Beauty”, displayed at Carnival to encourage men to use condoms.) These days, when I hear about a really interesting new social initiative, the first question I ask is if it started in Brazil—because so many do!

We desperately need rebalancing in this world, and I believe this will require a “Why not?” attitude, socially and politically. Beyond our obsessiveness with exploiting resources, including ourselves as “human resources,” has to come the exploration of our human resourcefulness. I can think of no people more inclined to show the way than those of Brazil, just as soon as they get past their scandals and recognize their substantial strengths. So why not go to Brazil next week?

© Henry Mintzberg 2016.  Follow this TWOG on Twitter @mintzberg141, or receive the blogs directly in your inbox by subscribing here (link fixed).

1 See a number of these TWOGs, under “Rebalancing Society”, also my book by that title. When I read the Manifesto for Marina’s Sustainable Network, I understood why she invited me.  It is remarkably like my book Rebalancing Society.

2 While housing in some of the major cities of the world has become unaffordable for many of their own residents (e.g., London, Vancouver), thanks to foreign money using that housing as investments at the top end of the market, which pulls up prices in the rest, the favelas may have been having exactly the opposite effect, by taking considerable demand out of the bottom end of the market.