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Last month, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Brazil’s investment in technical education, noting that the annual federal budget for technical training in Brazil has gone from $385 million in 2003 to $3.8 billion today.
These investments are a part of a powerful shift that is building the middle class in Brazil. Until relatively recently, a person born poor in Brazil was destined to die poor. This is no longer the case. Since 2003, more than 32 million people in this country of 200 million have entered the middle class, and about 20 million have risen above poverty.
Yet, while Americans in general—and community colleges specifically—have taken notice of profound changes in China and India, we have not paid the same attention when it comes to Brazil. Clichéd and conflicting images of Brazil dominate: World Cup soccer, Amazon deforestation, stunning tropical beaches, violent cities, and dancers pulsating to the samba.
These flat, cut-out images that served us in the past are no longer sufficient. They now obscure our vision, limiting our understanding of Brazil and our ability to respond to today’s opportunities with purpose. As community college leaders work to develop relevant global education initiatives, connections with Brazil are vital. It’s time two-year college leaders take notice and develop a new vision of Brazil and what its growth means to our students, communities and institutions.
We are already late in this game. Ten years ago, economists identified four countries that were poised to emerge as economic forces in the global economy: Brazil, Russia, India and China. At the time, these “BRIC” countries were contributing 16 percent of the world’s gross domestic product growth. Since then, their aggregate importance has exploded. From 2001 to 2008, BRIC economies represented 30 percent of global growth. Since the global crisis of 2008, this figure has soared to 45 percent.
Brazil, in particular, has emerged as an economic power, a cultural leader, and a source of innovation and creativity. Today, Brazil is the world’s seventh largest economy, exceeding its BRIC compatriots India and Russia by a considerable margin.
Appraising the landscape
I’m currently spending a month in Brazil, a country I’ve visited more than a dozen times since I was a Rotary exchange student here years ago. Without a doubt, the most critical shift I see today as I walk the streets, explore partnerships, and talk with cab drivers, teachers and shopkeepers is the impact of Brazil’s growing middle class. The shift from poverty to middle-class status for 30 million Brazilians is improving health, education and safety while fueling a consumer market currently worth more than $1 trillion a year.
Brazil is already the world’s third largest consumer market for mobile phones, the fifth largest for vehicles and computers, and the eighth largest for higher education. Due to its expanding middle class, Brazil is projected to become the fifth largest consumer market by 2030 when it will be worth over $2.5 trillion, ahead of the United Kingdom and France.
Other countries have taken note. In 2008, China became Brazil’s major trading partner, surpassing the U.S., which had held that position since the 1930s. Between 2000 and 2009, Brazil’s exports to China rose 18-fold, driven by commodities such as iron ore and soybeans.
For decades, any story about Brazil started with a reference to “the sleeping giant’. Today, it’s obvious the giant is alert and on the move. The cost of ignoring Brazil’s will be great. The U.S. Department of Commerce reports some key facts about the U.S.-Brazil trade relationship which underscores the critical need for community colleges to pay attention:
As a first step in creating sustainable and productive partnerships with Brazil that benefit their students and communities, community college leaders who understand the value of global connections must make Brazil a priority. Exemplary college leaders are paving the way today, forming the required network of relationships required to deepen our understanding of Brazil’s growth and identify real opportunities with potential payoff for our students, colleges and communities.
Gershwin is president of US-Brazil Connect. She has led a series of bi-national initiatives that bring leaders from Brazil and the U.S. together to advance economic development and expand opportunities for access to higher education.
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