"We have a lot of experiences that we want African governments to look at"
Brazil is fast becoming a symbol of the new global economy. With a GDP of $2,500bn, it is already the world's sixth largest economy, and by some estimates, will overtake France by the end of 2012. Its ascent has been swift. Between 2003 and 2010, the economy more than quadrupled in size. Social progress has been impressive, with poverty falling by 27.5 percent between 2003 and 2007. In the last decade an estimated 40m Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty, with the official poverty rate at just 8.5 percent in 2011.
Growth, which reached a high of 7.53 percent in 2010, has slowed recently. Latest forecasts predict expansion of as little as 1.5 percent in 2012, prompting some to doubt the sustainability of the country's growth model. One would not know it driving through São Paulo, Brazil's - and increasingly Latin America's - commercial heart. Huge billboards advertising the latest LG and Samsung Smart TVs line the newly paved highways which take visitors from the airport into the centre of this sprawling metropolis of 19 million people. From its imposing skyline, reminiscent of New York, to its shopping boulevards and fine dining restaurants, it is a place brimming with confidence.
If asked, most Brazilians would point to former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva - who led the country from 2003 until 2011 -as the person to thank for Brazil's new-found fortune. Born into humble circumstances in one of Brazil's most deprived regions, the popular former trade union leader, universally known as Lula, enjoys iconic status in Brazil. His approval ratings of 80 percent when he left office were at levels most politicians would not dare dream of.
The ruling Workers Party, which "Lula" helped found in 1980, is currently embroiled in Brazil's largest ever bribery trial - which includes high ranking members of his government. Mr da Silva faces no charges, and for most Brazilians, he remains a political and social hero.
His time in office was also marked by the strategic realignment of Brazil's foreign policy. An outspoken advocate of South-South cooperation, he forged closer ties with Brazil's Latin American neighbours and other developing regions - notably Africa. In the eight years of his presidency, bilateral trade soared to $25bn, Brazil opened more than a dozen new embassies across the continent and President Lula visited some 25 countries on close to a dozen official state visits. When he gave his first major public speech since being diagnosed with throat cancer in October 2011 at a conference at the Brazilian Development Bank in May, the topic was Brazil-Africa relations.
Speaking to This Is Africa at the Instituto Lula, the foundation he now runs in São Paulo, his passion for Africa is visible. The casually dressed Mr da Silva - who has little time for the protocol that normally surrounds former heads of state - is in good spirits, having received news from his doctors earlier in the week that his cancer has gone into remission. He is sporting a West African shirt - from Benin - and one of the walls is adorned with a painting of African women walking through a Savannah landscape, the sun setting in the background.
"I would like to tell you a short story," he says in his unmistakable, booming voice, as he explains why Africa emerged as a focal point in his government's foreign policy. His iconic beard is gone, and there are doubts about whether it will ever grow back, but his battle with cancer has done nothing to diminish the force of his speech, which carries as much gravity as ever.
"When I won the elections for the presidency and I was inaugurated in 2003, on January 25th I participated in the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre first and then travelled to Davos on the same day. I saw what was going on at the World Social Forum and followed what was going on in Davos."
The contrast of the two experiences, one dedicated to alternative economic and social models, the other deeply rooted in mainstream globalisation, made it clear to Mr da Silva that a 21st century foreign policy would have to be more multi-faceted than what had, until then, been the norm.
"I said to my foreign affairs minister that it was necessary to change the political geography and economic and trade geography that until then existed in Brazil. Everything went through the major superpowers and it was necessary to work to insert the emerging countries in decision-making on trade, economic and social policies.
"Brazil could not look towards the Atlantic as an obstacle to reaching Africa," he says, pointing to the oceanic divide on a globe on a table next to him. "On the contrary it should look at it as something favourable towards integration and we could even consider Africa as sharing a border with Brazil."
Such thinking was ahead of its time. In 2003 countries such as China and Brazil, albeit fast growing, were still marginal actors in world affairs. The economies of the West seemed incapable of doing any wrong. Neoliberal triumphalism was at an all time high, with growth seemingly endless. Regions such as Africa hardly registered with the exception of the occasional military coup or food crisis.
Less than a decade later the picture is radically different. In the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, emerging economies now lead global growth, with markets such as Africa generating growing interest among governments and the international business community. "There was a certain animosity from the business sector and Brazilian rulers towards even trying to understand that Brazil could have a good relationship with Africa, and that it was not just a place full of miserable people," Mr da Silva recalls.
"There were countries and people there that wanted to progress and develop, places that were strengthening their democratic processes."
With time, and lobbying, the idea caught on, and has since gained some acceptance in Brazilian political and business circles. Government agencies such as the Brazilian Development Bank, and Embrapa, Brazil's agricultural research body, have ramped up their engagement with the continent. At the same time, big commercial players such as iron ore giant Vale and jet manufacturer Embraer have become vocal advocates of the African growth story.
The turn to Africa is, however, not simply a move to open new markets for Brazilian state and commercial enterprises to sell into, nor is it primarily about Brazil's strategic interest, Mr da Silva insists.
Noting Brazil's cultural ties to Africa - it is estimated that half of its 196m strong population is of African descent - the notion of social and political solidarity plays a central role in Mr da Silva's South-South approach. He speaks of Brazil's indebtedness to Africa due to the transatlantic slave trade and its legacy, a debt that "is not tangible; you can't pay it with money. How do you pay it back? You pay it back through solidarity."
One of his priorities as president, Mr da Silva explains, was devising a strategy that would strengthen ties "without acting in a way that the coloniser would act, as traditionally has happened there".
"We don't want to have that relationship with Africa. No, we have to build a relationship where partnership means full partnership. Brazil should have something to gain, but the Africans should also have something to gain.
"People need to know that Brazil truly wants to be different," he says, arguing that the country has a responsibility to share its recent social and economic success with Africa on equal terms. "We have a lot of experiences that we want African governments to look at... The challenge is how we can take these successful experiences but respect the culture and particularities of each country in Africa."
While business interest has picked up in recent years, this approach continues to be principally embodied by the likes of Embrapa. The agency has played an important role in turning Brazil into a major global agricultural producer, uniquely specialised in tropical agriculture.
It is in areas such as agriculture, which has become a policy priority for many African governments in recent years, where Mr da Silva believes Brazil can have the strongest development impact.
Other government agencies, including the Brazilian Cooperation Agency, are also promoting Brazil's equal partnership approach. BNDES is scaling up its engagement. In May, the bank signed a trade financing agreement with Bradesco, one of the country's biggest private banks, to boost Brazilian exports to Africa. It is also exploring potential partnerships with the African Development Bank.
While this approach has clear potential benefits for African development, Mr da Silva is conscious of the limited impact a single actor such as Brazil can have, and the need for reform of global development institutions.
"I believe that South-South cooperation obliges us, first of all, to improve the functioning of multilateral institutions, and then build new institutions that could allow more equity between all the participants," he says, reflecting the growing push for reform of key bodies such as the UN and the international financial institutions.
Following the untimely departure of Dominique Strauss-Kahn as IMF managing director, Brazil and its Brics peers were among those opposing continued European control of the top job at the lender. Similar pressure was exerted on the selection of the new World Bank president earlier this year.
"Africa is not represented on the Security Council, Latin America is not represented, and a country the size of India does not participate. What is the problem with having an additional five or six countries on the Security Council? Why does Europe have so many voices in all the institutions?"
Leaning in for emphasis, Mr da Silva's trade union roots come to the fore on the issue of Western dominance in international institutions. He is outspoken in his criticism of what he sees as a clear double standard by rich countries in their dealings with developing countries.
"With the bankruptcy of Lehman we had the breakdown of the theory that the markets could take care of everything," he says, in reference to the neoliberal orthodoxy that had dominated international finance and economics since the early 1980s.
After a brief period of critical self-reflection among bodies such as the G20 in the wake of the financial crisis, he argues, rich countries are now returning to "business as usual".
"The financial sector was not punished. We discovered that the IMF only had a tough voice for the poor countries to follow their policies. In the crisis of the rich countries nothing was said." While not a proponent of free market economics, Mr da Silva's approach has an overarching pragmatism. "We don't want to withdraw anything from anybody, but we want to establish rules...rules that guarantee our independence and free us from the need to rely on third parties to conduct our business. I believe that multilateral institutions need to change, but as long as they don't change we have to develop other institutions."
Such statements reflect the growing confidence of emerging economies to move beyond being the subjects of international regimes towards reshaping them, and where necessary, building their own development institutions.
Along with renewed calls for reform of international institutions at the fourth annual Brics Summit, held in Delhi in March, the five member states also held talks on the establishment of a new development bank to finance infrastructure and development projects in the Brics and other developing countries. As Brazil takes on a more central role in global economic and political affairs, some doubt its ability to maintain and consolidate the current level of commitment to Africa, particularly without a passionate advocate such as Mr da Silva in the presidency. Presented with this, Mr da Silva concedes that there is more work to do.
"I have it resolved in my mindset, but certainly it is not resolved in a lot of people in Brazil. Many businessmen and women do not think that way. There is still a lot of hard work ahead to consolidate this view and vision on Africa, even in part of the state bureaucracy in Brazil," he says.
Much of his post-presidency activity, his advisers say, will focus on Africa, and Mr da Silva is said to be planning a return to active politics. While accepting that more consolidation is needed, he has no doubt that Brazil's policy of engagement with Africa is here to stay.
"This work with the development of Africa is something that personally enthuses me, and today it's exciting a lot of people in Brazil as well. I know President Dilma very well and I am certain that her convictions towards Africa are the same that I had."