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“Philanthropizing” Consent: How a Private Foundation Pushed through National Learning Standards in Brazil

Tue, April 16, 5:00 to 6:30pm, Hyatt Regency, Pacific Concourse (Level -1), Pacific F


On December 20, 2017, a ceremony in Brasilía marked the passage of the Base Nacional Comum Curricular(BNCC), the new Brazilian “common core” curriculum, commonly referred to as national learning standards. This paper explores how the BNCC entered the policy debate in Brazil and quickly became the most important reform initiative of the Ministry of Education between 2015 and 2017. What is unusual about this policy reform is the speed with which it gained acceptance among a diverse array of educational actors in Brazil, especially given the fact that the BNCC was not a prominent part of the national policy debate prior to 2014.
Through our analysis, we argue that this accelerated policy process was contingent upon the practice of philanthropizing consent; whereby foundations use material resources, knowledge production, media power, and informal and formal networks to garner the consent of multiple social and institutional actors to support a particular public policy despite significant tensions, thus transforming this policy into a widely-accepted initiative. This concept draws on Antonio Gramsci’s (1971) theories of civil society-state relations to show how philanthropic foundations have become important contemporary actors in establishing new hegemonic blocs in education in different geographies.

While we focus on Lemann Foundation to discuss this particular policy in Brazil, this is not a story of just one foundation. Rather, it is a story of the ways in which private and corporate actors negotiate political openings and alliances that enable new assertions of power and influence, often through racialized, gendered, and classed discourses on quality education for all (Author 2018).
Our data collection involved “network ethnography” (Ball 2016), or tracking the trajectory of a policy by interviewing people who were involved in key institutions at important moments, participating in relevant policy discussions, and analyzing documents that outline moments of policy change. In total, we conducted semi-structured interviews with 29 people who were either government actors promoting the BNCC or other people connected to the BNCC policy debates, attended state seminars, and analyzed BNCC drafts and other documents.

Through our analysis and discussion, we reveal how the Lemann Foundation engaged in this process: through the strategic use of economic resources, knowledge production, media power, and formal and informal networks that rendered educational equity and quality as problems with solvable technical solutions and garnered wide-spread support for this policy initiative—what we refer to as a process of “philanthropizing consent.”

The adoption and writing of national learning standards in Brazil offers an interesting contemporary case of the role of private and corporate foundations in educational policy-making in the Global South. These foundations do not impose policies on governments. Rather, they “render technical” high-stakes political debates on pressing issues of educational equity and quality and then support state officials come to a consensus about which policies to adopt by mobilizing their resources. This is not simply an attempt to privatize the public educational sphere, and make a quick profit. Rather, it is an attempt to remake the public sphere in a particular image.


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