One often hears that Brazil’s economy is stuck in the “middle-income trap.” Since its debt crisis of the 1980s, Brazil has failed to revive the structural transformation and per capita income growth that had characterized the previous three decades. However, with the right mix of policies, Brazil 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 by just 13 of 101 middle-income economies in 1960 reaching 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, such as 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.
While this broad assessment is useful, it neglects critical aspects of Brazil’s story — namely, that the country’s three-decade rise to upper middle-income status created additional growth traps. A targeted strategy for addressing these problems is just as important to Brazil’s continued development as the value-added-based imperative.
The good news is that Brazil’s leaders increasingly seem to understand this. Indeed, Brazil has already taken steps to address the first growth trap — the legacy of macroeconomic instability in the 1970s and 1980s. While it took more than two decades to address the issue effectively, when the necessary policy and institutional reforms were finally implemented in the 1990s — and validated after a change of government — the resulting “stabilization gains” contributed to a growth spurt in the mid-2000s.
Another impediment to Brazil’s development has been what could be called an “exclusion trap.”
While Brazil’s average per capita income puts it among upper middle-income countries, a substantial share of the population has remained mired in poverty, even as the country has captured higher positions on some global value chains, such as technology-intensive agriculture, sophisticated deep-sea oil drilling and the aircraft industry. With inadequate education, poor health conditions and a lack of on-the-job training preventing a large proportion of workers from increasing their productivity, Brazil’s potential economic growth has been compromised.