The family is the connecting thread
INTERVIEWER José Enrique Barreiro ◦ PHOTO BY Eduardo Moody
When he created the Odebrecht Foundation back in 1965, Norberto Odebrecht had just one aim in mind: providing Construtora Norberto Odebrecht S.A. members with benefits that the Brazilian social security system did not provide or adequately cover at that time. In 2005, the Foundation marked its 40th anniversary by looking back on a history marked by several transformations. It went on from providing assistance to company members to taking part in external debates on subjects of public interest in the 80s and, later on, helping Prepare Adolescents for Life. Since 2002, it has focused its operations on the northeastern part of Brazil, specifically in the micro-region known as the Southern Bahia Lowlands - “a stagnant part of Brazil that must transform itself,” in the words of Norberto Odebrecht, now Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Odebrecht Foundation and Honorary Chairman of Odebrecht S.A. In this interview, he discusses Principles such as Trust and Cooperation, Education for Life and Regional Development and explains the connecting thread in the Foundation's history: “We started out by focusing on our company Members' Families and now we are focusing on the Families of the Southern Bahia Lowlands.”
Odebrecht Informa – Let's start with some background. Why did you decide to create the Odebrecht Foundation?
Norberto Odebrecht – In the mid-60s, workers received Social Security benefits from the Brazilian government. However, many Construtora Norberto Odebrecht Members weren't entitled to that protection because of the Posts they occupied, and were constantly exposed to the risks of frequent air travel in rural Bahia. The Odebrecht Foundation was created to provide them with a pension fund and guaranteed retirement benefits. In case of death, their Widows would benefit and their Children's Education would be guaranteed until they were 21. When these Members became eligible for Social Security coverage a few years later, in the late 60s, the Foundation started providing in-house assistance by offering medical and dental care and other benefits.
OI – You have made it clear on many occasions that “assistentialism” is far from being one of your favorite concepts. What made it necessary back then?
NO – I like to quote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado: “Traveler, there is no path; the path is made by walking.” That's it in a nutshell. We were finding the way forward, our Path, as we went along. And that search took us in several directions. In-house assistentialism was one of them. Back then we had to provide medical care to our Members because we were still taking our first steps in the area of personal and preventive health care. Regular physicals were considered undue interference by Companies in their Members' private lives. Since then, all that has changed, awareness about health has grown and we have been able to free ourselves from that assistential approach.
“Our programs focus on enabling families to prepare the next generations for life through work and instilling them with values”
OI – How did that shift in the Foundation's focus from the internal to external environments come about?
NO – We started out by getting involved in matters of public interest through our ongoing theme – one that I believe will always be with us – Education for Life. However, there was a crucial time when we asked ourselves, “Where should that Education start?” It took us a few years to come up with an answer. Education should begin during Adolescence, the time of Life when People question everything and everyone, seeking the paradigms that will guide their Lives and determine their Paths. That is how Preparing Adolescents for Life became the Odebrecht Foundation's Mission.
OI – What was the basis for preparing adolescents for life?
NO – Instead of focusing on the negative aspects of the Adolescent's constant urge to question convention, we decided that it was worth our while to value the positive aspects of that stance, viewing it as keeping an open mind about new things, a sense of belonging to one's Community, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, a thirst for justice, the strong desire to be better off than their parents(to be able to help them more in their old age) and the desire to start a happier, more solid Family.
OI – How did the Foundation's work with adolescents begin in practice?
NO – We had a Cause: Preparing Adolescents for Life; we had a Mission: grooming Adolescents to achieve the objective of that Cause; but we lacked a focus. We looked for that
OI – What was the outcome of these decisions?
NO – They resulted in the creation of the Alliance with Adolescents for the Sustainable Development of the Northeast, a Program that combined the forces of the Ayrton Senna Institute, the Kellogg Foundation, the Odebrecht Foundation and the social division of the BNDES (Brazil's national economic and social development bank). The name of the Program was “Alliance with Adolescents” rather than “Alliance for Adolescents.” This is because it didn't focus on Adolescents in general but on those who were able to play the part of Protagonists capable of changing their home Communities' realities for the better. As a result, the Foundation stopped what it had been doing and embraced this greater Cause, devoting itself entirely to this Program. It started working in three Micro-regions: the Middle Jaguaribe in Ceará (five Municipalities), the Goitá Basin in Pernambuco (four Municipalities) and the Southern Bahia Lowlands (eleven Municipalities). Then, in 2003, the Odebrecht Foundation left the Alliance Program and started concentrating exclusively on the Southern Bahia Lowlands. After a tough learning experience and several hits and misses, we had begun a new journey. This is our Spirit: we are always starting afresh.
OI – Why the Southern Bahia Lowlands?
NO – Because that Micro-region is a typical example of the perverse contrasts that exist in the Northeast and throughout Brazil. It has natural wealth: plenty of fresh water, fertile soil, native forests and a pleasant climate; and human potential: a young population at the most productive age; but this wealth stands in stark contrast with the poverty that assails the majority of the Southern Bahia Lowlands’ population. Therefore, we are focusing our efforts on conducting an innovative experiment in integrated and sustainable development that can create Work and Income opportunities and the fair and equitable distribution of wealth.
OI – What role is the Foundation playing in this experiment?
NO – It is directing its programs towards enabling Families to prepare the next Generations for Life through Work and instill them with Values. That is the point. These integrated programs are being carried out in Partnership with the Bahia State Government and all fifteen State Departments, the Institute for the Sustainable Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands (IDES) and the Association of Southern Lowlands Municipalities (AMUBS). This Partnership was officially established in February 2004, creating a Governance Board that includes the Government, Private Enterprise and Organized Civil Society – the first, second and third Sectors, respectively. They are joining forces to carry out the Program for the Integrated and Sustainable Regional Development of the Southern Bahia Lowlands, which we call DIS - Southern Lowlands. This is how we are creating new paradigms for grooming Adolescents and Young Adults to become first-class, productive citizens in the rural areas of that Micro-region.
“I have learned that encouraging rivalry between businesses and organizations is a big mistake. That is a 'win-lose' game. Ideally they should practice cooperation, which is a 'win-win' game”
OI – What do these young people want?
NO – They want to play a worthy, respected role in the worlds of Work and Civil Liberties and Obligations, and to start happy, productive Families. It is a worthy dream, even a modest one, but few people have managed to achieve it because our forebears did not take into account the glaring needs of people living in the countryside, particularly in regard to education and health.
OI – What needs to be done to get Brazil decisively involved in local development?
NO – Regionalized development based on clusters of areas that share a strong identity, unlike the current geography of Municipalities and States. This will require some reengineering of Government. The current system, which is centralized and sectoral, will have to share power with local branches of government. Civil Society must also play a strong role in related debates and decisionmaking. This is a challenge that is finding the space to make itself felt. The practice of decentralization can already be seen in some ad hoc measures. It is no longer possible to insist on centralizing decisions about local needs. Our experience in the Southern Bahia Lowlands is part of the struggle to create a Culture of Regional Development.
OI – What are the core principles of that culture?
NO – There are several. Two are considered decisive: the first is Trust, which is the basis for everything. According to Alain Peyrefitte, the author of La société de confiance (The Society of Trust), “The strongest and most fruitful social bond is based on mutual trust,” whether it is between a man and a woman, parents and children, Leaders and their Team Members, fellow Citizens, Students and Teachers, or Employers and Contractors. The second Principle is Cooperation. Although it might seem otherwise, all-out war is not the predominant state in human society. Cooperation predominates. Just look at Nature and see how it organizes itself in atoms and subatomic particles, molecules and cells. Humankind seems to have forgotten that we are the Children of Mother Nature. What we now call sustainable development has to be built up from day to day through constant effort on the basis of Trust and the pursuit of what is right for All and the Common Good.
OI – Did you transfer these principles from the business world to the social sector?
NO – I was already applying them in the Group's Subsidiaries and have sought to apply them in the Social Sector as well. In the course of my entrepreneurial life, I have learned that encouraging rivalry between Businesses and Organizations is a big mistake. That is a “win-lose” game. Ideally they should practice Cooperation, which is a “win-win” game. In the past eleven years, the Nobel Prize for Economics has been awarded to economists working in this field. One of them, the winner in 1998, was Amartya Sen. I've had an opportunity to study his work, which, from beginning to end, demonstrates that cooperation is not only possible but better for all concerned. There is a strong tendency in Economics to value behaviors and situations that are beneficial for everyone and not just for a few, to the detriment of others.
“I'm seeing a powerful and generalized feeling of discontent with our current realities in all sectors of the population, male and female, old and young, and a unanimous demand for change”
OI – Isn't Economics behind the times, since the business world has already been following this trend for some time? You are an example of that.
NO – That's true. Strategic alliances and specific-purpose partnerships are forms of Partnering, which can only happen where there is mutual Trust. Entrepreneurs have been working this way for quite some time because they follow their intuition more than logic, which is the basis for academic studies. And intuition precedes logic. Furthermore, Entrepreneurs must produce Results that can and must be objectively measured, evaluated and judged. Leaders of Third-Sector (Organized Civil Society) Entities who are convinced of the effectiveness that results from the practice of Trust must share this awareness.
OI – How is the Odebrecht Foundation networking with its partners in the Southern Bahia Lowlands?
NO – To some extent, the groundwork for truly integrated and sustainable development and social inclusion has already been laid. However, all we have now are just scattered intentions and initiatives that have not been linked together. Our challenge is to improve and orchestrate these initiatives and intentions through qualified Leaders, adapting their focus to give them more impact and ensuring that the desired Results appear in the environmental and social spheres. These Results include increasing moral and material wealth, shaping hopes and dreams – through the Belief in a fair, better and viable Future – and bolstering the local Culture. The end product of all these efforts will be the assurance of quality of Life with autonomy and unbreakable collective self-esteem.
OI – You always talk about the need to integrate the four kinds of capital. Can you explain how this is being done in the Southern Bahia Lowlands?
NO – DIS - Southern Lowlands programs work through a process whereby Environmental, Human, Productive and Social capital – in that order – interact synergetically on the path of integrated and sustainable development. This can only occur when all four types of capital develop harmoniously and supplement one another. We are currently prioritizing the development of Productive Capital. But for these efforts to be successful we must develop the other three at the same time. Integrated operations are one of the features that set our Program apart.
“I'm an optimist. We have made progress in the qualification of public management and the growing perception of the advantages of Associativism. The culture of sustainable development is getting stronger every day”
OI – How can that productive capital be developed?
NO – Several programs are going on, including concerted efforts to bolster four Production Chains with the aim of creating Work opportunities and increasing Income and its fair and equitable distribution in the Municipalities involved. The Production Chains are for manioc, hearts-of-palm, aquafarming and piassava. Small farmers organized in Cooperatives are gaining access to technology, and thereby increasing the quantity and quality of their output. We are talking about the Primary Sector of the Economy (Agriculture). The next stage, in the Secondary Sector (Manufacturing), involves setting up a Processing Plant for Products with Value added. Finally, in the Tertiary Sector (Retail), Producers will receive the support of a Social Partner that can put their products directly on Supermarket shelves and give them their just rewards.
OI – Are you optimistic about the future of the Southern Bahia Lowlands?
NO – I'm not just optimistic, I'm an optimist. In the case of the Southern Lowlands, I have good reason for that. The Bahia State Government has established Regional Planning as an agent of local development and will reach the stage of institutionalizingc Regional Development Boards in which all levels of government and forces will be represented. We have made progress in the perception of the advantages of Associativism in the Productive Sector and the Municipal Sphere, thanks to the emergence of numerous municipal associations such as AMUBS in the Southern Lowlands. Generally speaking, the Culture of Sustainable Development is getting stronger every day. We have also made some progress in qualifying public management and Legal Aspects of Public Administration are showing clear signs of modernization. One example of this is the Tax Responsibility Law. One thing in particular that I'm seeing is a powerful and generalized feeling of discontent with our current realities in all sectors of the population, male and female, young and old, as well as a unanimous demand for a different situation characterized by the existence of decent opportunities for decent Work and equitable Income, the preservation of our Environmental Heritage, Inclusion and Social respect for minorities, credibility and reliability. The culmination of all this will be the practice of a Society of Trust.
OI – How do you envision the future of the Odebrecht Foundation?
NO – I see it the same way. Although we have gone through numerous transformations in the last 40 years, there is a connecting thread, a plotline that is not always perceptible but has always been present. I'm talking about the Family, which has always been the underlying target of all our attention and efforts. We started out by concentrating on our Members' Families, and now we are concentrating on the Families in the Southern Bahia Lowlands. The Family has the capability of producing and raising new Beings who are better educated and more productive than the previous Generation. The Family is at the core of Education for Life. It's no accident that one of the most important tools for educating Youths in the Southern Lowlands is our Family Houses. We have a Rural Family House, a Sea Family House, and next year we'll open an Agri-Forestry Family House. Respectively, each of these schools prepares Young People to develop Production Chains in the areas of Farming, Fishing and, in the future, Piassava extraction. They teach in two ways: the Youths spend a week studying in the Classroom and two weeks on their Families' farms to apply what they've learned in practice. They are both educated and educate their Families. They will be the new transforming agents of the Northeast, a stagnant Brazil that must and will become a forceful, dynamic Brazil that is rich in opportunities.
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