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What’s Holding Back Brazil?

WASHINGTON, DC – One often hears that Brazil’s economy is stuck in the “middle-income trap.” Since the debt crisis of the 1980’s, Brazil has failed to revive the structural transformation and per capita income growth that had characterized the previous three decades. But, with the right mix of policies, it could finally change its fortunes.

The prevailing explanation for Brazil’s failure to achieve high-income status lumps the country together with other middle-income economies, all of which transferred unskilled workers from labor-intensive occupations to more modern manufacturing or service industries. While these new jobs did not require significant upgrading of skills, they employed higher levels of embedded technology, imported from wealthier countries and adapted to local conditions. Together with urbanization, this boosted total factor productivity (TFP), leading to GDP growth far beyond what could be explained by the expansion of labor, capital, and other physical factors of production, thereby lifting the economy to the middle-income bracket.

Progressing to the next stage of economic development is more difficult, reflected in the fact that only 13 of 101 middle-income economies in 1960 reached high-income status by 2008. According to the dominant view, success hinges on an economy’s ability to continue raising TFP by moving up the manufacturing, service, or agriculture value chain toward higher-value-added activities that require more sophisticated technologies, higher-quality human capital, and intangible assets like design and organizational capabilities.

In short, middle-income countries seeking to reach the next stage of development can no longer simply import or imitate existing technologies or capabilities; they must build their own. This requires a robust institutional framework – including, for example, a strong education system, well-developed financial markets, and advanced infrastructure – that encourages innovation and can support complex supply chains. According to this logic, Brazil’s inability to continue its ascent up the income ladder is rooted in its failure to modify its institutional environment.