How Brazil Broke Loose

For development institutions like the World Bank, poverty reduction is a continuing goal, and many at the Bank now view improvements in business law as a way to achieve it. But, however compelling the logic behind that view may seem, Brazil’s rise does not confirm it.

CAMBRIDGE – Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s visit last week to Washington, DC, offers an occasion to consider how some once-poor countries have broken out of poverty, as Brazil has. Development institutions like the World Bank have advocated improving business law as being essential to success. Are they right?

Such thinking goes back at least as far as Max Weber’s argument that an effective business environment requires a legal structure as predictable as a clock. Investors, it is thought, need clear rules and effective courts. Security of contract and strong mechanisms that protect investors are, in this view, foundational for finance, which in turn fuels economic growth. If a potential financier is unsure of being repaid, he or she will not invest, firms will not grow, and economic development will stall. Rules and institutions come first; real economic development follows.

But, compelling as this logic seems, Brazil’s rise does not confirm it: financial and economic growth was not preceded by – or even accompanied by – fundamental improvements in courts and contracts.

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