Opinion, by Michael Kerlin

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Brazil’s sudden burst of immigration has received well deserved attention, with Portuguese, Paraguayans, Bolivians, Chinese and other groups boosting the country’s foreign-born population by more than fifty percent in the past six months. Above all, this demographic trend signals a healthy economy, capable of attracting not just capital but also labor. But Brazil has been exporting labor for years as well, and the country’s emigrants still have a major role to play in its development.

Michael D. Kerlin is an international management consultant who began working in Rio’s favelas fifteen years ago.

We can’t forget that the Brazilian economy remains clustered in the South and Southeast of the country, despite recent gains in the North and Northeast. GDP per capita averages more than R$21,000 in the Southeast, home to economic powerhouses like Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and Belo Horizonte.

That’s roughly three times the per capita GDPs of the Northeast (R$6,749) and North (R$7,247). Even within regions, the economy’s income benefits still sort themselves unequally. Here in Rio de Janeiro, the richest twenty percent of the population earn fifty times more than the poorest twenty percent.

To be sure, Brazilians don’t emigrate in the large numbers that, say, Mexicans do, but Brazilians living abroad have managed to send roughly US$7 billion back to their homeland as recently as 2008, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. These remittances make a huge difference to the families and communities that the emigrants leave behind. As many as 1.3 million Brazilian households receive support from family members living abroad.

The dollars, euros, and other currencies that flow in provide these families with much needed resources for day-to-day food and clothing needs, more critical needs such as healthcare expenses, school supplies and fees, and even capital investment in new or expanded homes and businesses. When used most productively, the remittances help households build earning capacity. A 2005 study by Manuel Orozco found that every dollar remitted from emigrants generates a $1.78 income increase for the receiving family.

Brazilian emigrants also join together to fund collective projects through so-called hometown associations. A 2007 study of Brazilian emigrants in Massachusetts found that roughly twelve percent contribute to hometown associations.

These groups recognize the limitations of individual remittances to provide poor migrant-sending communities with improved community infrastructure and services. So they combine their money to fund projects such as sewers, schools, health centers, and other shared resources.

Some of Brazil’s more famous emigrants aim bigger. Ronaldo de Assis Moreira, aka Ronaldino, has taken his earnings from playing professional soccer in Europe and established the Ronaldinho Institute, dedicated to youth development in Porto Alegre, where the soccer player grew up. Though relatively affluent, with a GDP per capita of more than R$20,000, Porto Alegre still contains significant pockets of poverty that benefit from Ronaldinho’s work.

To be sure, Brazilian remittances and diaspora philanthropy fall far short of the volume coming in to countries like Mexico. Federal, state, and local policymakers should look to such places to identify more creative ways of engaging Brazil’s diaspora. Mexico, for example, instituted the Tres por Uno program, in which federal, state, and local governments match diaspora investments in infrastructure, services, and businesses.

It also introduced the matrícula consular identification card, which helps Mexicans open bank accounts while living abroad, and therefore facilitates remittances. Other countries, like India, have made efforts to attract the most talented emigrants to return home and join the local economy.

In the meantime, Brazil’s emigrants will continue to provide an important source of household and community investment in many of Brazil’s neediest places. For that reason, while we celebrate Brazil’s new immigrants, we should also take time to celebrate and further engage the country’s emigrants.

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Michael Kerlin began working in Brazil fifteen years ago. An international management consultant, he has written about economic development in the Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, and several other publications.

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