Microscopes in laboratory (Image by Ousa Chea on Unsplash)

Can developing countries influence the transnational arena using science and education as foreign policy tools?

Published on 19 July 2017
Gabriela Ferreira

Gabriela Ferreira is a PhD candidate in International Relations in a joint-degree programme between the University of São Paulo and King's College London. Her research focuses on the use of education as a policy instrument, with particular emphasis on the internationalisation of Brazilian higher education.


The use of education as a foreign policy tool is usually related to developed countries. However, major developing countries are designing strategies adapted to the new transnational arena, which is being constantly modified by technological transformations. These strategies include scientific and educational agreements towards both the exchange of knowledge and shaping public opinion. One of the most recognised transnational strategies has been developed by Brazil, which offers educational opportunities to students from the global south through two specific programmes: the Programme for Undergraduate Students (Programa de Estudantes-Convênio de Graduação – PEC-G) and the Graduate Student Programme (Programa de Estudantes-Convênio de Pós-Graduação – PEC-PG).

As a study by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission has highlighted, there is a lack of research on scholarship programmes promoted by non-OECD countries, including Brazil's 'flagship' scholarships. Reflecting on the structure, successes, difficulties, and future design of such programmes is overdue.

Development of the programmes

Both the PEG-G and PEC-PG programmes were created during the dictatorship. The PEC-G programme was created in 1965, by the first military president of the period, President Castelo Branco, and the PEC-PG was created during the last military government of the dictatorship by President Figueiredo in 1981. Since then, both programmes have been updated, most recently, in 2013 and 2006 respectively, during the left wing governments of the Brazilian Labour Party (PT). During this time, the scholarships received special attention in line with the 'South-South cooperation' policy carried out by Brazil.

According to the official discourse, unlike the North-South relationship that preceded it, South-South cooperation intended to treat political, economic, and technical interests among developing countries in a horizontal way; substituting the concept of aid for one of cooperation. The programmes are now part of the Brazilian Cooperation for International Development (COBRADI). According to the last report released in 2013 by the Brazilian Agency for Cooperation (ABC) and the Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) on COBRADI, the scholarships policy is classified as one of educational cooperation.

Under the PEC-G programme, global south students can undertake their undergraduate studies without charge in public and private Brazilian universities that signed agreements with the government. And, in cases related to remarkable academic performance or economic needs, Brazil can provide funds for these students' living costs after the first year of study. In some cases, the Brazilian Government can also provide return flights for these students. The PEC-PG programme is slightly different: it is focused on graduate students – and, because of that, research activity and knowledge production – offering not only the course for free and all the return flights but also a scholarship to provide the living costs, paid in the same value as those received by Brazilian students in national programmes.

Foreign Affairs Ministry data indicates that there are currently 59 countries participating in the PEC-G, of which 25 are African countries, 25 are from the Americas, and 9 are Asian. Since 2000, there have been over 9200 scholarship recipients selected. The dominant share has come from Africa, accounting for 76.5% of the total. Among African countries, the largest numbers are from Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau and Angola. In Latin America, Paraguay has the largest share, and in Asia, East Timor.

On the other hand, data about the PEC-PG shows a different landscape. The participating countries are similar - 56 countries, of which 24 are African, 25 from the Americas, and 7 in Asia – but the scale is much smaller: since 2000, more than 2100 postgraduate students have been selected. Approximately 75% of the students have come from countries in the Americas, with the biggest influx coming from Colombia, Peru and Argentina. African countries account for only 20% of the students, most notably Mozambique, Cape Verde and Angola. Among the Asian countries, which account for about 5% of the applications, East Timor has a larger share of students.

The management of the programmes is complex, divided between multiple ministries: the PEC-G programme is managed by the Division of Educational Themes (Divisão de Temas Educacionais – DCE) of the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministério das Relações Exteriores – MRE), which holds joint responsibility with the Ministry of Education (Ministério da Educação – MEC). Whereas PEC-PG is managed jointly by the MEC, through its Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior – CAPES), and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Communication, through the National Council of Technological and Scientific Development (Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico – CNPq).

Education as a foreign policy tool

Brazilian official discourse stresses three main lines through which educational exchange is used as a foreign policy tool:

  1. As cooperation it intends to help other global south countries by developing their human capital, which in turn helps to attract foreign investment and technological innovation
  2. Culturally it supports coexistence among people from different backgrounds, enhancing mutual understanding and tolerance
  3. Politically it tries to construct an image of Brazil's importance to these foreign citizens, projecting itself – and its ideas, values and discourse – in the transnational arena

These three perspectives make education an important asset of foreign policy, also aligned with Brazilian diplomatic narrative of solidarity among countries. By offering scholarships and opening its graduate programmes to foreign citizens, Brazil attempts not only to cooperate but also to affect perceptions towards itself by influencing the culture and values of potential leaders elsewhere. The Brazilian National Graduate Plan (Plano Nacional de Pós-Graduação 2011-2020), released in 2010, states that the internationalisation of higher education is a strategy which, among other aims, intends to influence the transnational arena and 'increase Brazil's role on the international scene' through the development of qualified human capital. It concludes that Brazil has a blended foreign policy that aims to provide development and also explore the benefit of connecting developing countries' elites with Brazil. The place of the soft power agenda is also implied by the management of both programmes occupying an important position in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The scholarship management is also shared among various Ministries not all concerned with foreign affairs, reflecting the complexity of the programmes and their goals.

What makes the Brazilian scholarships most interesting is the fact that most scholarships available to international students – the development focused, public diplomacy/soft power and blended ones – are typically funded by developed countries with an aid perspective, whereas Brazil is a developing country with a cooperation discourse. The reason why international scholarships seem more likely to be deployed by developed countries relies, among others, on in two facts. Firstly, it demands funds 'available' to be expended on non-nationals and, secondly, because according to many scholars, the traditional concept of soft power is normally seen as being a result of other power resources and, therefore, would be more likely to be deployed both by developed countries and within an aid framework. In this sense, soft power aims to coopt and seduce, provoking emulation – the desire of developing countries' nationals to mimic 'successful' (developed) countries' values and structure.

On the other hand, influence (as defined by, for instance, Reich and Lebow) differs from power to the extent that it implies persuading potential allies to work towards common goals, enabling international action with legitimacy towards the cooperation concept, without the need for substantial material resources. Moreover, contemporary accountability processes are much easier to carry out than they were 20 years ago, due to the improvement of data storage and transmission available to many citizens. Thus, in a world so profoundly transformed by technology development, legitimate policies that seek to build common ground, allowing the sharing of values, are becoming more important.

Beyond that, Brazil is a developing country, though, with an intermediate position in the transnational arena. Definitions like 'emerging' and 'middle' country, as its position as part of BRICS, support this current, although challenged, affirmation among international relations researchers. It indicates Brazil's relative power compared to other developing countries. This intermediate, thus complex, position seems to be reflected in its educational foreign policy that merges cooperation and developing goals with Brazil's positive international projection. Hereupon, both concepts, soft power and influence, seem to be useful to explore the Brazilian policy and its specificities.

What's in the future?

The main question is: can a country like Brazil thrive on such policies?

During the last left-wing administrations, Brazil has not only continued investing in, but has also strengthened its educational foreign policy. It was inserted in a broader government programme, which aligns with the traditional solidarity discourse and focuses on global south countries. However, since the impeachment of the last elected president, the future direction of Brazilian foreign policy is not certain. Although the policy is relatively stable at present, a new course could easily be taken, especially given the many previous updates to the programme since its creation.

Another important feature of the policy is the lack of institutional evaluation which has been undertaken. Some academic work has been done, especially because of the focus on South-South cooperation by the last governments. However, no evaluation is currently being carried out to analyse whether the complex outcomes envisioned by the policies are being achieved, nor to assess the factors that contribute to whether it is successful.

As a start, a structured evaluation of the scholarship selection processes would provide important information in line with up-to-date methodological designs. In this sense, the government could greatly benefit from the establishment of partnerships with universities' research institutes. The data would not only improve the policy but also provide accountability tools for the actors involved in it and Brazilian citizens. In the longer term, detailed information about the outcomes of PEC-G and PEC-PG graduates and their future relationship with Brazil would help to establish (or challenge) the effectiveness of these scholarships in making a contribution to the foreign policy dimensions of educational exchange. Implementing a systematic evaluation of both programmes seems to be the next main challenge for policymakers.


Brazil has developed an educational foreign policy focused on offering scholarships to international students from the global south. This policy is traditionally carried out by developed countries which aim to enhance and legitimise their already established power, guaranteed by military and economic means, using 'soft' strategies based on an aid discourse. Brazil, a developing country, is pursuing a similar policy, but making different claims on its nature: instead of a vertical aid relationship between developed and developing countries, it is a horizontal cooperation policy among developing countries.

The Brazilian intermediate position in the transnational arena seems to be reflected in its complex foreign policy that combines a perspective based on legitimacy and co-development with its national interests of projecting a positive image and creating links in a more horizontal relationship with other countries. This complex policy has no evaluation programme officially designed to assess its outcomes. The implementation of a structured policy evaluation focusing on the programme seems to be crucial in contributing to the foreign policy dimensions of educational exchange in Brazil and other developing countries.

The Measuring Success blog series draws from the ACU's experience in scholarship design, administration, and analysis, and our connections in the sector, to explore the outcomes of international scholarship schemes for higher education.