Brazil's beacon of hope

27 January 2016 | EducationCommunity
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Stunning graffiti art such as this mural which depicts protests in Sao Paulo in response to a drought, is commonly seen in Latin America

To many, Brazil is known for its Mardi Gras revelry, exotic samba and, of course, football — “the beautiful game” first dubbed by Brazilian football legend Pelé. A group of NUS students also learnt that Brazil could be more than just the land of cheese, pastries and the football museum. As part of NUS’ Study Trip for Engagement and EnRichment (STEER), 31 students who visited São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro in December 2015 found Brazil’s solidarity economy and social business landscape an eye-opener, providing an international model of social and economic development.

Although the term “solidarity economy” may be unfamiliar to Singapore, this alternative economy is no stranger to Brazil. In essence, it is an economy with a social slant, and is perceived as an alternative to the capitalist model. Cooperatives are one of the main agents in the solidarity economy and they pride themselves on basing their decisions on collective voting, undertaken by all its workers. There is greater cooperation, accountability and a more equitable profit distribution, in place of competition and profit maximisation. The students found that although the solidarity economy is still largely theoretical, it has proven itself useful to generate employment in Brazil, allowing workers to be financially independent and to contribute to society.

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NUS students interacting with local children at a favela

During the trip, the students spoke to city officials and organisations that promote the solidarity economy and visited a particular cooperative. Situated in a favela (slum), Filadelphia, an environmental cooperative, selects and classifies the city’s recyclables for sale. Interestingly, the cooperative comprised solely women. The students observed that the women felt empowered by their work, and were glad to be able to contribute to society. Given that a cooperative enables individuals — regardless of social status — to own part of the company and act in its interests, perhaps the solidarity economy could be used to promote more opportunities in the job market.

What was also remarkable, the students discovered, was that some of Brazil’s top universities were involved in helping these cooperatives get ahead. The University of São Paulo, for example, houses incubators and provides networks for cooperatives to grow. Furthermore, students can join an academic programme that allows them to be attached to cooperatives across various industries for months, to contribute their expertise and provide advice.

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The “father” of Brazil’s solidarity economy and President of National Secretariat of Solidarity Economy Professor Paul Singer (third from left) with NUS students

The STEER group also had the opportunity to visit Brazil’s social businesses — firms embodying similar goals but different approaches. In Singapore, these “social businesses” could be associated with firms that employ the marginalised. However, the students found social businesses in Brazil to be more established and were impressed by the integration of social goals into innovative business models by some firms. Extensive needs assessment and ground sensing were apparent, and these were balanced with financial sustainability.

One such social business, dr consulta, stood out for its extensive database. As 75 per cent of the population relies on public healthcare, patients tend to face a year-long wait to obtain their diagnosis. dr consulta strives to alleviate the problem of Brazil’s strained public health system, providing diagnostics within 15 days, at affordable prices. The data collection and analysis were extremely comprehensive, and dr consulta is working towards data optimisation whilst maintaining a user-friendly and efficient interface. Other social businesses also tend to focus on key areas such as innovation, efficiency and effectiveness.

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Meeting representatives of UNISOL, a labour union made up of cooperatives

NUS Arts and Social Sciences Year 1 student Amanda Ong found STEER Brazil an extremely eye-opening experience, one which gave her a deeper understanding of the country’s solidarity economy system. Agreeing with her was NUS Business Year 2 student Florence Leung, “It was truly inspiring visiting their social businesses which operate on a massive scale and tackle universal issues of education and healthcare."

Even as Brazil remains daunted by political and economic uncertainty, its innovative push to improve the social business landscape and reduce poverty provides much hope to the impoverished segments of the country’s population. As aptly put by NUS Business Year 2 student Ng Xu Jie, the different cooperatives and social enterprises that they visited were “where we witnessed the creativity, bravery and warmth of the human spirit”.

By Venetia Wong and Phyllis Ho, NUS Arts and Social Sciences