Sheep go to heaven, goats become cabinet ministers

The FT notes that former Brazilian President Lula da Silva reportedly said the following as a revolutionary in the 1980s:

“In Brazil, when a poor man steals he goes to jail — when a rich man steals he becomes a minister.”

His words appear to be both true and prophetic:


h/t Ian Bremmer (@ianbremmer)

Title context below:

The Persistence of Human Capital

I just ran across a really interesting working paper by Rocha, Ferraz, and Soares called “Human Capital Persistence and Development.”  They take advantage of a historical curiosity in Brazil to explore whether human capital differences last over time and if so, how much that was reflected in per-capita income.

Here they describe the historical curiosity;

“After the international ban on slave trade in 1850, and in the midst of a massive inflow of European immigrants to Brazil, immigrants with relatively more education were channeled into specific localities through deliberate government policies. In the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, public authorities established a number of official settlement colonies throughout the state of São Paulo. This policy had goals involving occupation of territory, food production, “whitening” of the population, and was driven by a centralized decision at the state level. The settlements were established typically near previously existing rural villages and were occupied by relatively high- skill European immigrants of various nationalities.”

Amongst other things, one of the reasons this is so interesting is that the state-sponsored settlements were not appreciably different from other regions except for the fact that they had higher levels of schooling on average.

So what did they find?

First, “in 1920, a few years after the establishment of the last settlements, the literacy rate in settlement municipalities was 8 percentage points (or 27 percent) higher than elsewhere in the state, despite an only marginally higher share of immigrants.”

Second, one century later, people living in those regions had an average of more than half a year of schooling, and more than 15% higher average per-capita incomes, than people living in other municipalities.  That’s pretty amazing after 100 years.

It reminds me of the Western European economic growth after WWII, which was said at least anecdotally to have been helped by high human capital levels pre-war.  The paper has more interesting parts and is definitely worth checking out in full.

Diplomacy 101, or the use of strategic bathroom breaks

The Washington Post is reporting that the Canadian PM, Stephen Harper, is resorting to some unusual negotiating tactics in Brazil.  According to a Brazilian periodical Folha, the Brazilian president wanted the all of the “official speeches” to take place in the afternoon.  Harper demanded that they come before lunch and supposedly “locked himself in the private bathroom of the foreign affairs minister until he got his way.”  

That seems like a very unusual issue to take a stand on.  What kind of tactics does he use when the stakes are higher?  like where they are going to dinner?  and what is on the menu?

Both sides are denying this story but diplomats who were present assured Folha that it was true.  It’s almost too dumb to be made up.

The Post goes on to note that this is not even the first time Harper has taken a strategic bathroom break.  At the 2009 G20 photo of world leaders, Harper is not in the picture because he was in the bathroom.  Maybe he was just trying to avoid the awkward family photo aspect of these shots.  Obama apparently found it funny; when Harper returned from the bathroom, “he was greeted by a “jovial” President Obama, “who appeared to find the Canadian leader’s absence quite amusing.”

Pimp my cart, Brazilian edition

In an awesomely titled site called Goats and Soda, NPR looks at cool ways that people are making a difference around the world.  The story that caught my eye is called “MTV Pimps Cars, Brazil Pimps Trash Carts“.  It details the work of Mundano, a Brazilian street artist that is aiming to change the way that residents view catadores, scavengers that search for recyclable material and “haul away more than 50,000 tons of recyclable waste each day.”  Mundano argues that residents see the scavengers as either invisible or as a nuisance: “[The communities] don’t look at these people; they don’t say ‘good morning’ or ‘thank you.'”

Mundano and friends have repaired and pimped 200 recyclable carts since beginning in 2007 and it seems to be having an effect.  Residents are stopping to talk to the catadores and ask for pictures of their carts. Here are a couple of examples:


“My work is honest, how about yours?”


“One catadore does more than an environmental minister.”

In a heartwarming turn, Mundano’s project has turned into something much bigger.  The article explains that “Twice a year, dozens of volunteers in Brazil donate their time and money to catadores passing by. Mechanics and artists renovate the raggedy trash carts. Eye doctors, psychologists and massage therapists tend to the pickers. Veterinarians examine their dogs. The catadores are also given safety gear: bright shirts so they’re more visible at night, mirrors to see oncoming traffic, gloves, raincoats and glasses.”

Phone call for Dr. Doolittle

Have you ever been without your cell phone in the US and looked around for a pay phone instead?  I guess it’s not surprising, but they are pretty much extinct.  If we had pay phones that looked like the one below, however, perhaps there would still be some demand for using them.




It’s a pay phone found in Manaus, Brazil at the Brazilian Army’s Jungle Warfare Training Center.  Thanks to @viaSimonRomero for the awesome find (and for letting me use a screenshot of his Instagram photo!).

Disappearing Donkey, or the confusing issue of race in Brazil

Africa is a Country recently posted a great discussion about race in Brazil.  They begin by examining the case of soccer superstar Neymar, who once said that he never faced any racism in Brazil because he’s not black.  As you can see from the photos in the post, Neymar has become increasingly white over the years.  Africa is a Country makes some good points though when they write:

“It’s too easy to condemn Neymar for pretending to be white: judging by the images, he is partly white. Technically speaking, however, his logic was faultless – and even kind of interestingly honest: the Neymar who made that statement was an unworldly eighteen-year-old who had never lived outside Brazil. And in Brazil, Neymar is not black.”

In 1976, the Brazilian government decided not to ask people to check a particular race box on the census but to instead describe in their own words what their race was.  The incredible range (and amazing creativity) of the answers is amazing.  Here are some of my favorites:

Agalegada:  Somewhat like a Galician

Alva escura:   Dark snowy white  (seems like a contradiction)

Branca-morena:  White but dark-skinned (ditto)

Burro-quando-foge:  Disappearing donkey (i.e. a nondescript color) humorous

Cabocla:  Copper-coloured (refers to civilized Indians)

Cor-firme:  Steady-coloured  (steady??)

Marinheira:  Sailor-woman  (this is a race?)

Pálida: Pale (hey I found my category!)

Russo: Russian  (again, this is a race?)

Sapecada:  Singed  (head scratcher)

Turva: Murky (another head scratcher)

Verde:  Green (a joke on the census workers?)

Definitely check out the full post though, because it includes some interesting thoughts on the intricacies of race in Brazil.

When the State Retreats: Organized Crime in São Paulo

Graham Denyer Willis, from the Centre for Criminology and Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Toronto, has written an amazing piece win the Boston Review called “The Gun Library: An Ethic of Crime in São Paulo.”  Even though I’ve heard similar anecdotes about organized crime in Brazil, this article blew me away.

Graham followed police detectives around in São Paulo for 4 years and got very acquainted with an organized crime group called the PCC (or Primeiro Comando da Capital), whose main mission was to protect prisoners. The PCC controls 135 of the state’s 152 prisons and provides things the state does not (such as food and clothing).  The group has moved beyond the prisons though and now governs large portions of the favelas that surround the city.

The whole article is fascinating, but here are some of the parts I found most interesting:

1.  The PCC is extremely organized in its approach to organized crime.  Willis notes that “among the documents were Excel spreadsheets itemizing millions of dollars in weekly sales of cocaine, crack cocaine, and marijuana by area code, but there were also photocopies of membership roles including name, nickname, member number (the same as the official prisoner ID), place of residence, last three prisons stops, names of “Godfathers,” time and place of “baptism” into the organization, lists of drug distribution and sales by member name and/or nickname, quantity and amount of money owed by individual, and, among other things, inventories of cars and guns.”

2. The PCC has a code of ethics and proportionality.  For instance, “children may not be harmed, murder and other violence must be preauthorized, and perceived injustice on the part of police is met with violent retribution. Under the PCC banner, crime is at once a practice, an occupation, and an identity.”

3. The PCC might be organized, but they don’t encourage members to be overly business-like.  Here is memo they put out to their members: “It is inadmissible to use the commando [PCC] for personal gain. If a member takes advantage in order to make money from the comando, operating with cunning for personal benefit, the leadership will analyze the case and after confirming the incident, the person in question will be expelled and have death decreed. No member may use the relationship with the comando for commercial or private transactions without the knowledge of the leadership.”

4. And lastly, the PCC runs something called an “assistance bank,” which offers “a gun and a cash loan of up to 5000 Reais ($2500 USD), an amount roughly eight times the monthly minimum wage. Borrowers have their choice of an impressive array of weapons for a thirty-day loan. The document stipulates that there should be 500,000 Reais available for loan to accompany the inventory of twenty machine guns, fifteen submachine guns, fifty pistols, thirty grenades, and twenty revolvers.”


Truth is stranger than fiction, Brazilian edition

I get why a government or non-profit might want to raise awareness about cancer, but I cannot imagine why they would feel the need to have a mascot for the campaign (especially when the cancer in question is testicular cancer).  It does make the campaign memorable though, so maybe that’s the reason.

In an unbelievable article called “Mr. Balls, aka ‘Senhor Testiculo,’ goes to bat for cancer research,” the NY Daily News writes that a Brazilian testicular cancer awareness group that has created a mascot that is a “wide-eyed, dual-toothed, rosy-cheeked, mole-sporting scrotum that will cause a lifetime of nightmares for anyone who lays eyes on him.”  I would second that last sentiment.  Here is Senhor Testiculo in all his glory.  Who are the parents that think it’s a good idea to let their kids take pictures with the mascot.  I found clowns scary as a kid–god knows what kind of therapy I would have needed if I had confronted Mr. Balls on the street.

Word of warning:  while at least some Brazilian parents would beg to disagree, I would argue that the following photos are NSFW.



Promises, promises

The New York Times, in A River Runs Over With It, documents how bad sewage treatment is in Brazil. A 1992 UN conference on the environment in Rio caused the Brazilian government to promise big changes when it came to water treatment.  Unfortunately, “after 20 years and more than $1.17 billion in investments from international agencies and the state government, not one of the four treatment stations that were built to process sewage is fully operational.”


The situation is now so bad that less than 55% of Brazilian households have treated water. So what is an eager to please government to do?  More promises of course.  This time they promise to spend $720 million to improve water treatment in Greater Rio, an area where currently “only half of the wastewater is collected and only 4 percent of that is treated.” Another $580 million has been slated for water treatment plants and sewer lines for 16 other cities.

This reminds me of the sad tale of Ghanaian investment at the start of one of my favorite development books: The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists’ Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics.  My students are often dumbfounded by the idea that big investments like this might not work out and I think they sometimes like to think that the Ghanaian case as atypical, that perhaps Easterly has cherry-picked an extreme example to get their attention. As the Brazilian example shows though, it isn’t that uncommon.  I’m hoping these next promises will work out better.

Innovation in Education, Brazilian style

The article Celeb Twitter Mistakes Teach Brazilian Kids tells of one of the more innovative ways to get students interested in learning (and practicing) a foreign language.  At an English language school called Red Balloon, kids correct the grammar mistakes of their favorite celebrities on Twitter.  For instance, Rihanna recently tweeted:

She’s my rock so I hold on to she tight!!!

Yikes.  Fortunately, young Carolina was there to help.  She tweeted back:

Hi @rihanna! I love your songs. My name is Carolina. I’m 11 years old. It’s not to she, it’s to her. bye bye .

I don’t know how much this helps students learn English, but I love the attempt to make learning a foreign language both relevant (from the students’ perspective), fun, and technology-based.  It’s also a lot more fun to correct other people than get corrected yourself.  I remember how excited I was the first time I noticed grammatical mistakes on student papers when I taught in Mexico.