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I came to Recife last year and took a public bus to the Ilha do Retiro to see the Sport-Ponte Preta game.

The ride was more memorable than the game. Passengers were thrown to one side and another as the driver careened round corners. People were quite literally shrieking with fear and begging him to slow down.

I took a taxi home as there was little public transport still running at midnight when the game ended.

On Sunday, I came to Recife’s sparkling new Arena Pernambuco to see Spain play Uruguay in the Confederations Cup. I was taken here and dropped off by an air-conditioned FIFA shuttle bus and got a nice seat in a beautiful stadium.

The two trips were both to see football matches in Recife but the only thing they had in common is 22 players, a ball and the trip along appalling roads filled with pot holes the size of televisions.

Much of the protests that erupted across Brazil last night are not against the World Cup per se. They are directed at the double standard of beautiful new stadiums being built for FIFA at a rush (and huge cost) while the government neglects much more necessary investment in hospitals, schools and sanitation.

This video was made by a friend and that sentiment is summed up by one girl around the 2:40 mark.

“We don’t have health, we don’t have education, we don’t have anything dignified,” she said. “The only thing that they gave us was a stadium.  If our child is sick we don’t want to take him to a stadium. We want education for our children and decent health. We don’t have this in Brazil.”

It’s hard to believe unless you live here but only one in four Brazilians can read to an advanced level.

Latest figures show that while illiteracy rates have been halved – only 6 % of Brazilians are today considered illiterate – many of those who do learn to read and write do so only at rudimentary levels.

That means most people can’t follow long or complex sentences and can only understand the most basic words and phrases.

Most frighteningly of all, only 62% of Brazilians who finish university and 35% of people who finish high school are completely literate, according to the INAF who published the results today in this study.

That is less than 10 years ago.

I spent most of this week in Rio de Janeiro at the Congress of the Americas, a biennial event for higher education specialists from across the Western Hemisphere.

Here’s my piece summing up the main themes of conversation over the three days.

It’s been an eye opener for many reasons.

First, to make so many good contacts with those in the know, which will be very helpful when writing future stories. And second to see how Rio goes about greeting so many – there were 600 people registered – foreign guests.

The debates were well managed and there was a huge number of experts from as far apart as Canada, the West Indies and Argentina.

But the organisation was predictably awful. Queues were so long for registration that they were abandoned. The main session started a full hour late. The hotel has almost no electricity sockets. Most unforgivably for a conference that seeks to be modern was the lack of wi-fi.

The worst thing about the three days of debate is Latin America’s endless and pompous formality.

Before every debate, each participant is introduced as ‘illustrious’ or ‘honoured.’ Every speaker has to suck up to every other speaker before they’ve even said a word. The moderator even spent five minutes one day thanking every single one of the sponsors.

It’s not just false and hypocritical and boring, it’s time-consuming. Get to the point!

My Haiti story came out last week in the Chronicle of Higher Education and although it’s only available to subscribers, I’m uploading the front page of the paper so that anyone interested can get a sneak preview.

Click here to see the front page.

Anyone who truly wants to know more about higher education in the world and is willing to invest in a subscription can learn more here.

For me, it’s now back to Brazil. The two stories of the moment are Mulheres Ricas, the sensational reality show on (see a great piece on it here in The Guardian) and the inexplicable success of Michael Teló’s song ‘Ai Se Eu Te Pego.’

The former offers an insight into the lives of Brazil’s shallow and clueless super rich madams and is (unintentionally) hilarious. The latter is just inexplicable, even though this guy does a valiant job of trying.

Decide for yourself in this youtube clip.


Going to the Amazon is always brilliant fun and I particularly love Manaus because it is so unlike any other place I’ve ever been.

Manaus houses built on stilts at the side of the River Amazon (Solimões)

It’s a concrete jungle of almost 2 million people stuck there right in the middle of a real jungle. Just getting there is a four-hour flight from São Paulo.

From a small outpost that got rich on rubber at the end of the 19th century, Manaus has grown and grown and grown and it keeps on expanding into the rainforest as if on some quixotic attempt to dominate nature.

I went there last month to write a piece on distance learning which you can see here.

Manuas to me is summed up in that constant battle between man and nature.

A few years ago I visited a factory in Manaus’s free trade zone that made cell phones. The factory had been built on the edge of town and you could see the thick expanse of trees over the wall that surrounded the property.

The struggle between concrete and forest had made its mark. The factory had a room filled with wild animals the employees had found inside the grounds. On each shelf there were bottles filled with snakes, scorpions, spiders and other frightening creatures.

Man had taken over their patch and they had died trying to take it back.

It’s the same in the city itself. The jungle is constantly fighting to win back space. Every vacant lot quickly becomes overgrown with trees and flora. Even the spaces between paving stones sprout with grass.

That’s Manaus.


As I said last week in this Lula blog, many of my colleagues in both the Brazilian and international press are writing summaries of the departing president’s eight eventful years in power.

Paulo Cabral did this very detailed radio special on the BBC.

AP’s bureau chief in Brazil Bradley Brooks has this.

My first retrospective was a broad piece on the economy that came out in October in the KPMG’s magazine High Growth Markets.

Read it here. My article is on page 12.




I’ve written a lot about education recently and especially about the debacle surrounding the Enem, the country’s unified university entrance exam.

Close to 10,000 students affected by the screw up during the Nov. 6 exam got a chance to retake the test today.

I wrote about the mess here for the Financial Times blog and will also have a piece up on the Christian Science Monitor web site later.

My longer piece about the government’s desire to create a unified test that will replace the vestibulares, the individual entrance exams held by each university, can be found here at the Chronicle of Higher Education site. It’s a pay site.



The OECD’s triennial education results were issued yesterday and for Brazil it was like getting a B for effort and a D for results.

The scores recorded by Brazilian students in maths, reading and science were better than those in years gone by but they were still poor, in most cases well behind not only the OECD average and their BRIC colleagues, but also their Latin American neighbors.

Brazilian kids came 57th out of 64 economies in math and science but fared marginally better in reading, where they ranked 53rd.

Brazilian leaders have long know that education is a major worry but they have done very little to improve standards in primary and secondary schools. (Here’s a piece I wrote for the New York Times on the relationship between education and growth in 2007.)

Kids in state-funded schools have big classes, poor teachers and not enough books, computers and other equipment to do the job.

Lula has been spectacularly successful in making life better for the country’s less well off.  But that change has focused on income, rather bolstering institutions. The poor have more money to spend but schools, hospitals and the justice system do not serve them much better than before.

That has to change.

The report can be found at the OECD page here:

The survey was carried out in 70 economies and for the first time included participants from China. Students in Shanghai took the test and shamed their rivals by scoring highest in all three disciplines.

“More than one-quarter of Shanghai’s 15-year-olds demonstrated advanced mathematical thinking skills to solve complex problems, compared to an OECD average of just 3%,” the report said.

Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan were the next best performers.

Brazil’s much vaunted attempt at creating a nationwide university entrance exam is in disarray today after the test was beset by problems for the second straight year.

A judge last night ruled the exam results be annulled after 2,000 or so of the 3.7 million papers were printed with mistakes.

The erroneous multiple choice papers had Human Sciences questions numbered 1-45 and Natural Sciences numbered from 46-90 but the results paper had the categories inverted. Exacerbating the confusion, adjudicators gave students different orders about how to fill in the answers.

The error came a year after the test had to be rewritten when questions were leaked. Earlier this year a computer glitch made the personal data of millions of students available online.

The Enem, as it is known, was revamped two years ago as I explained in this blog and in this longer piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education. The new test was supposed to make it easier and cheaper for both students and universities as well as bring Brazil more into line with a national entrance system like that used in the US and most European countries.

More than 4.6 million Brazilians will sit their university entrance exam tomorrow and for many universities and students it will be their first experience of the Enem, the new standardized test that is being held nationwide to replace the vestibular.

The vestibular tests were set by each individual university, meaning that each student had to actually go to the university he wanted to attend and take the test there.

That was impossible for many students living far from their preferred venue and expensive for others. It also meant that many students spent several consecutive weekends sitting entrance exams at different universities.

As I write in my latest Chronicle of Higher Education piece here:

“The government’s goal is to reduce costs for universities and students and expand access to the country’s publicly financed, and best, universities.”

Last year the government revamped the Enem and many universities adopted it. This year even more publicly financed institutions are using the new test.

The new Enem is standardized and based on the national high school curriculum. Simpler than the vestibulares, it comprises 180 multiple choice questions grouped into four subjects: languages; the human sciences; the natural sciences; and mathematics. It is followed by a short written comprehension test.

The new Enem has had its troubles. Personal data on applicants leaked from the Education Ministry’s computers earlier this year and last year the test had to be completely rewritten at the last minute after thieves stole it and tried to sell it.

But it is touted as being beneficial to both students and universities as well as bringing Brazil more into line with a national entrance system like that used in the US and most European countries.

“(This) is a system that is national, progressive, a test that gives all Brazil’s high school students chance,” said Clélio Campolina, the rector of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.  “All the developed countries have a national assessment system and not this conventional vestibular system that we still use.”

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