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Brazilian International Development Cooperation and Public Opinion: Domestic Costs Faced by a Troubled Emerging Donor

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Brazilian International Development Cooperation and Public Opinion: Domestic Costs Faced by a Troubled Emerging Donor


In recent decades, Brazil has established itself as an important donor to underdeveloped countries. Although the country does not see itself as a traditional donor, its IDC policy, in the context of South-South Cooperation, has increased the country’s international profile as an influential actor in the IDC landscape. However, emerging states, generally classified as middle-income countries, continue to suffer from high levels of poverty, which leads to debate on whether resources used in international aid could not be better used at home. The supply of foreign aid is influenced by public opinion in democratic donor countries; generally speaking, foreign aid is unpopular relative to domestic programs. This article, by means of an experimental design, analyzes Brazilian public support for the country’s IDC policy and engages with the emerging literature on Brazilian public opinion and foreign policy issues. It thus contributes to the discussion about the domestic costs of Brazil becoming an emerging donor. Our findings, based on a national survey of 2276 people, show that most respondents believe the country should reduce or eliminate foreign aid spending. Moreover, support decreases even more when participants are presented with information on how that money could have been used in the domestic realm.
For the first time, other global powers have begun to recognize Brazil as an influential actor in the international arena (SCHIRM, 2012). Despite its lack of military capabilities, the country has achieved unprecedented international status due to the role it plays in multilateral fora and its active participation in international cooperation initiatives (CERVO, 2010). In this regard, previous authors have analyzed how Brazil’s increasing influence in international affairs can be explained by its focus on cooperation strategies, as well as its prioritization of South-South relations (CHRISTENSEN, 2013; DAUVERGNE and FARIAS, 2012; INOUE and VAZ, 2012).
Brazilian diplomats and academics generally agree with the idea that the country’s engagement with international cooperation is an instrument of foreign policy (LEITE et al., 2014). The literature on Brazilian Cooperation points out that this effort was motivated by new international ambitions, which aimed to expand the country’s presence in global negotiations, international regimes and multilateral organizations. Thus, among the reasons related to the provision of International Development Cooperation (IDC), the ones most commonly mentioned in the literature are the search for closer ties with developing countries (CERVO, 1994; PINO and LEITE, 2010; PUENTE, 2010; VALLER FILHO, 2007), the search for ‘greater voice’ in international organizations (APOLINÁRIO JÚNIOR, 2016; HARDT, MOURON, and APOLINÁRIO JÚNIOR, 2017; HIRST, 2011) the search for support for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, an objective that became a priority for Brazilian foreign policy during the Lula administration (HIRST, LIMA and PINHEIRO, 2010), and the search for new markets for its national companies and exports (SOUZA, 2012; WARNER, 2015).
Nevertheless, most of the aforementioned studies have only analyzed the effects of Brazil’s IDC policy on the country’s international standing, without considering its domestic implications. Therefore, our aim in this study is to examine the domestic costs of Brazilian IDC policy as an example of how public opinion on foreign policy is sensitive to framing, given that the supply of foreign aid to recipients is influenced by public opinion in democratic donor countries. States are usually influenced by their citizens in determining the amount of foreign aid they disburse (MOSLEY, 1985). Aid budgets usually rise in parallel with increases in public support (STERN, 1998). Likewise, economic crises generally lead to reductions in foreign aid, because publics place a lower priority on aid during economic downturns and politicians respond with cuts (HEINRICH, KOBAYASHI and BRYANT, 2016). Some authors suggest that public support for aid affects both its quantity and effectiveness (COLLIER, 2007). For these reasons, it is important to understand public support for foreign aid. Moreover, understanding the determinants of support for foreign aid can help policy makers formulate better arguments in favor of aid and design policies more consistent with public preferences (PAXTON and KNACK, 2012).
Milner and Tingley (2013) provide an extensive review of research exploring this relationship. They argue that, in general, foreign aid is unpopular relative to domestic programs. They show that in the 2008 American National Election Study, 44% of respondents wanted foreign aid cut, while 79% wanted funding for public schools to expand. In another cross-national survey conducted in 2012 by the Council on Foreign Relations, 59 percent of Americans indicated that they thought that the government spends too much on foreign aid (HURST, TIDWELL and HAWKINS, 2017). However, public support for aid tends to be stronger in other donor countries (PAXTON and KNACK, 2012; STERN, 1998).
Approaching from a different angle, Milner and Tingley (2013) analyze whether there are consistent cleavages on foreign aid and whether these cleavages can be theoretically explained. A strategy used in the study of preferences in other policy areas, such as trade policy, is to consider the role of ideological and material explanations. They find that there is an important influence of ideology and partisanship in many of the public opinion polls that have looked at attitudes in donor countries. Similar partisan divides are present in elite-level studies as well as in cross-national work (NOEL and THÉRIEN, 2008; PAXTON and KNACK, 2012; TINGLEY, 2010). Regarding the material factors, there is an emerging consensus that individuals in rich donor countries with greater endowments of capital, such as high skills or education, are more likely to support aid, while those with less education, and hence fewer gains from international engagement, are less supportive (MILNER and TINGLEY, 2013; PAXTON and KNACK, 2012).
In another study, Paxton and Knack (2012), through a large, multi-level, cross-national study of seventeen donor-countries, finds evidence that publics have consistent opinions on foreign aid activities. Their findings support predictions that attitudes toward aid are influenced by cultural and material factors such as religion, beliefs about the causes of poverty, awareness of international affairs and trust in people and institutions.
Earlier research suggests that the public have consistent attitudes about foreign aid and that these attitudes matter. The general population may constrain elites, and may reflect elite views. Milner and Tingley’s (2013) findings support the view that partisan debates in the United States over the role of aid match the public’s overall preferences. The act of giving aid thus seems to reflect public attitudes.
Noel and Thérien (2002) argue that attitudes to international redistribution are not a simple projection of attitudes about the domestic situation. They claim that in countries where domestic income redistribution is seen as an important priority, foreign aid is less popular. Where this is less so, there is more concern for the fate of the poor in the global South. Instead of believing that this finding reflects a lack of coherence in public opinion, they conclude that, although the commitment to redistribution is stronger at the domestic level, relationships of solidarity do not stop at national boundaries. The achievement of justice at home in fact sustains justice abroad.
In relation to cultural characteristics, Baker (2015) explores the cultural effects of public support for aid, especially in relation to race and paternalism. Contradicting the previous literature that believes that white Americans are less enthusiastic about welfare for non-white than white recipients, they find that when it comes to foreign aid, white Americans are more favorable toward aid to poor non-whites than to poor white people. They argue that this relationship is due to an underlying racial paternalism. Their research is based on experimental data in which the race of hypothetical aid recipients was randomly manipulated.
However, Milner and Tingley (2013) emphasize that neither those who see theoretical primacy in material factors nor those who emphasize cultural variables have clearly identified the role of material or cultural explanations. In this sense, they advocate the view that better causal identification of material versus cultural factors in driving attitudes toward aid will be best obtained from a sustained experimental agenda that includes survey experiments.
Following this trend, Hurst, Tidwell and Hawkins (2017), by means of a survey experiment, analyze whether framing effects can impact public views on foreign aid. Contrasting arguments in favor of and against foreign aid, they find that the way in which the supply of aid is presented to the public has an impact on support, especially in the case of arguments related to the cost of aid.
Although there is a consolidated literature that analyzes the relationship between public opinion and the provision of foreign aid by developed countries (BAKER, 2015; HURST, TIDWELL and HAWKINS, 2017; MILNER and TINGLEY, 2010; MOSLEY, 1985; NOEL and THÉRIEN, 2002; PAXTON and KNACK, 2012; STERN, 1998), work is in the pipeline that evaluates the domestic costs of the foreign aid provided by developing countries, generally referred to as South-South Cooperation for Development, and the international assistance provided specifically by Brazil.
Considering the role that public opinion plays in Brazilian foreign policy formulation (LOPES, 2011), this article first analyzes support for the country’s IDC policy. Traditional public opinion surveys have provided some information relevant to this issue and have assumed that Brazilians who voice support for helping other developing countries automatically agree with the country’s foreign aid practices (AZEVEDO, SANTOS JÚNIOR and RIBEIRO, 2009). However, given methodological considerations, we argue that these conclusions are misleading.
Secondly, taking into account the fact that foreign policy issues can be used to gain advantage in the domestic realm (ALDRICH et al., 2006), this article also examines how Brazilians react to the major criticisms consistently used by the opposition to undermine the former administration’s IDC policy. Briefly, these critiques have focused on 01. the large amounts directed to foreign aid and 02. how that funding could have been used domestically. To this end, we conducted an online survey experiment on a national representative sample composed of 2276 people. The experimental design aimed to determine whether the way a particular IDC policy, namely, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti1 (MINUSTAH), was framed would change respondents’ perceptions of whether Brazil ought to increase, maintain, reduce or eliminate investment in foreign aid.
Our findings show that at least 70 percent of Brazilians, based on our sample, believe the country should reduce or completely eliminate spending on foreign aid. Contrary to our expectations, support for foreign aid increased by 8.76 percent when participants were informed of Brazil’s spending on MINUSTAH from 2004-2014. However, when the same information was contrasted with how this money could have been used domestically, support for foreign aid decreased, and 78.97 percent of respondents declared that Brazil should reduce or completely eliminate funding for foreign aid.
This paper is structured as follows. In the next section we contextualize our research, explain how Brazilian cooperative initiatives have evolved during the last decade and assess how previous public opinion surveys have addressed this issue. Next, we present a theoretical discussion on how public opinion influences foreign policy formulation and how foreign policy issues can be used to gain advantages in the domestic realm, together with our hypotheses. We then describe our survey experiment and present our results. Finally, we discuss our findings and present several conclusions.

Matheus Soldi Hardt
Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de São Paulo, Brasil

Fernando Mourón
Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de São Paulo, Brasil

Laerte Apolinário Júnior
Instituto de Relações Internacionais da Universidade de São Paulo, Brasil