« The Jews of Rio: Part I | Main | Call Out: Native Portuguese Teachers in the US »

April 28, 2009



that's definitely one of the things that impressed me the most here in Canada, which is very similar to the US in that regard. Everybody seems to have an adopted charity or two and do volunteer work at some point. I volunteered at a volunteer bureau once and was amazed at the range of services provided by volunteers - everything from shopping for the elderly, to taking people who live alone to the hospital for cancer treatments, to helping immigrant kids with their homework...


My husband and I had dinner at a colleague's house in Belo H and this was the richest household I visited. It was a new, large, walled and gated property inside a new, walled and security-manned gated property. The hostess took great pains to tell us that she pays her uniformed kitchen staff, drivers, nannies over the usual salary and she treats them much better than others employers. (This was all bewildering to us
as we are typical Canadians who do our own renovations, car care, AND food preparation, clothes washing, child care, etc.) We wondered what was behind this. Husband thought she felt guilty for being privileged when there are poor all around her. Was this the hostess's way of telling us she was not like her fellow Brasilians as she did give back to the less fortunate?


I remember hearing similar comments about some countries in Europe. I think in France they attribute this to socialism. If people feel the government takes care of these issues they see less need to donate more of their wealth.


hi rachel!

great post :-) ... but i'm afraid once again i have to disagree with you on a few points.

first of all, i think it's important to clarify the difference between philanthropy and charity - especially for your portuguese speaking readers. I agree with you that philanthropy isn't as high as it should be, but I would have to argue you tend to talk about charity (esp. in terms of a "personal level") in your post and in Brazil , charity is higher than you make it sound like.

Philanthropical events and balls, etc. - i see what you mean when you say a great number of people attend them in the U.S. - but let's not forget that here in Brazil, this also exists, on a very frequent level for the AB classes, but the CDE classes don't necessarily have the means to go to an event for R$100+ simply to socialize. The same goes for youth and college students who don't necessarily have the opportunity to volunteer because they have to work to pay for school or, well... other life expenses.

in terms of donating to charities - whether the non-profits here are corrupt or not, i think that is subjective - some are, some aren't, and you never know who's telling the truth - almost like the perception most people, at least here in SP have of people who ask for money on the streets of the city - so there is definitely a sense of "do I donate or don't?" - there's even an announcement on the train that asks those riding it to not give money tho beggars on the trains but to donate to a charity "da sua confiança."

On the other hand (here's where charity comes in), I feel this also brings those who do donate closer to their causes. People I know here will donate gifts in kind and coin but will make it a point to visit those they are donating to, or run a 10K for an organization, etc. My cousin's a Social Worker in Minas and she sees a great number of people being benefitted by Church community contributions and Corporations. Employees at my agency have also rallied with us to raise money for a family in need, or buy Christmas presents or donate blood and so on and so forth.

Enfim, I think it's unfair to say Philanthropy in Brazil is barely there. Granted the AB classes still have a lot to learn and a lot of their actions are pretty ingrained in Brazilian culture and in my opinion, most people in these classes are in dire need of a reality check. But even if it seems slim here in Brazil compared to the U.S., let's not forget the reality of salaries and that the charity that exists is pretty damn genuine.

beijooss!!! hey, don't you leave this week? :-(/:-) - safe travels!! hope you keep blogging with your reverse cultural shock, lol

Thaddeus Blanchette

I also have to disagree, Rachel. I think you're making a very simplistic and ultimately ethnocentric judgement here.

I really don't think that the Brazilian upper-classes are any worse than their American counterparts when it comes to caring about the poor.

I think that one of the reasons many American gringos get this impression is that, frankly, many of them come from your country's relatively enormous middle class and they seem to buy into the American illusion that their's is a classless society. They feel that they hang out with a wide variety of people from different classes, but in reality very few of them have many friends from the true upper or lower classes (most Americans, in fact, think "having diverse friends" means having friends of different ethnic backgrounds). The American middle and upper classes also tend to stick to social circles composed of "people like themselves", at least in terms of class (aside from their brief interactions with people like taxi drivers, maids and the illegal aliens who do their lawn care, that is). They live in an incredibly segregated society, but because the majority of it is middle-class, they can cultivate the illusion that they're really democratic and free of classism.

Then gringos come down here where anything that approaches their middle-class lifestyle is, by Brazilian standards, upper-class. As are almost all the people they initially live and work with. They are socially inserted into the lower ranks of this country's UPPER class, but they don't generally recognize that, because the life-style looks "normal" to them.

So when the Brazilian upper classes demonstrate the same snobbery, noblise oblige and general unconcern for the poor that their American counterparts are well-known for, these gringos - having rarely encountered this in their daily lives up to now - think it's a Brazilian problem. After all, the people back home don't talk that way.

what they're encountering, however, is not mainly a cultural problem but a class problem.

Now, given that Brazil has never subscribed to the myth of a classless society, our upper classes probably spend less effort on hiding their unpolitically correct views of poor people, but really, Rachel, I think that you're simply whistling Dixie if you truly believe that the American elite are all that much more aware or concerned about what's going on below them.

One thing the Brazilian elite actually have in their favor: at least they HAVE to deal, as people, with poor people when they deal with their maids, drivers and nannies. Most of this sort of icky personal interaction with the great unwashed is avoided by the American elite via their well-developed minimum-wage and sub-minimum wage service economy. It is much easier to ignore that ghetto kid feeding your your Big Mac than it is to ignore Dona Maria when she has a problem in the kitchen. Ultimately, however, I fail to see why the one sort of interaction is oh-so-much-more democratic and proper than the other, as many Americans (like anthropologist Donna M. Goldstein) seem to believe.

You want to see the American elite's TRUE political colors on this issue? Don't ask them to attend a 100-dollar-a-plate charity dinner for child cancer victims in Bosnia: ask them to support increasing the minimum wage or liberalizing immigration law. Ask them to socialize health care.

I f you do this, you'll quickly hear commentary coming out of the mouths of most of those nice, philanthropical upper-class Americans will which would make their Brazilian counterparts look like handwringing social democrats.


It is important to remember, what you see in Rio maybe is not the same/true for the rest of the country. Please don't be frivolous judging an entire country through a few people you know.

Rio Gringa

Nao conheco nenhuma pessoa que faz philanthropy, so li/escuti sobre alguns ricos que fazem (e sao poucos), e nao todos sao do Rio.

Thaddeus Blanchette

Um filme excelente sobre a "filantropia" brasileira (e no mundo em geral, para dizer a verdade) é "Quanto vale ou é por kilo?"

Em geral, se rico faz filantropia, é pq está ganhando algo com ela. E não estou falando de uma consciência tranquila...


There is a shocking study from Fundação Getúlio Vargas on how much exatly a fruit vendor makes a month.

You should definitely take a look, you might be shocked to know that some street vendors make more money than some psychologists, and yet would be eligible for government funding and philantropy, as the profession is not regulated.

There are programs like Viva Rio, Criança Esperança, Ação contra Fome and Legião da Boa Vontade that are quite big in Brazil. Also Hospital do Câncer, Fundação Roberto Marinho, Fundação Xuxa Meneghel, and many others are funded (at least partially) by donations. there are also national comotions, like when the flood hit Santa Catarina.

It's also important to note that middle class in Brazil does not have an income as large as middle class in the US. Their budget is really tight and many times they are living in debt.


Olá Rachel,

Concordo com vc. O pessoal em São Paulo também é assim como vc descreveu, não são propensos a ajudar. Qtas vezes eu já não ouvi colegas falarem que a culpa é dos favelados de morarem na favela, ou a culpa é do mendigo que é vagabundo, ou a culpa é da criança de rua, que cheira cola. Fora do Brasil o pessoal é mais propenso a ajudar. Sou da opinião da Alexandra (primeiro comment). Aqui no Canadá, as pessoas fazem trabalhos voluntários, comunitários, e isso nãO é um ou outro que faz, é muita gente fazendo. Está de férias do trampo? Ah, arranja uma horinhas pra ajudar no centro de ajuda do seu bairro. Qdo eu vi isso no Brasil? Nunca. E mesmo na hora de dar grana, o povo não é facilmente convencido a ajudar. Querem sim é se afastar da pobreza e se acharem superiores aos que tiveram menos oportunidades.


Thaddeus: clap, clap, clap. I completely agree with you.

Rachel, you are being very simplistic in this (and most of your) analysis. You sound very resentful and bitter when talking about the Brazilian upper-class, especially when you make comparisons to your native country. I don't know what are the sources of your impressions/opinions, but I think they are absolutely distorted.

I don't think the US elite is that different from their Brazilian counterparts in aspects like segregation, snobbery or hanging out in certain "exclusive" social circles. I actually think that the Brazilian upper-class is more prone to mix with the not-so-privileged more than anyone other rich society in the world. Rio is the perfect example of it: rich and poor live side by side and very often hang out at the same places (beach, Lapa, carnival block parties, bars etc.).

When it comes to philanthropy or charity, I actually think that Brazilians are way more involved in a personal level. Philanthropy here in NYC is, in the vast majority of cases, just a social thing - it is part of the "rich manual" to attend balls and fundraising events, as it is a nice opportunity to see and be seen.

I've been involved with several NGOs back in Brazil (SOS Mata Atlântica, Aldeias Infantis [which, by the way, has Renato "Didi" Aragão as one of their most active donors and volunteers, without trying to get any media exposure out of it]) since I was 19. When I relocated to NYC, a couple of years ago, I tried to get involved with a local organization, with a vast network of high profile American donors, but I quickly became disappointed, as soon as I realized the whole social scene and "glamour" behind their events. It was a big shock to me to realize that most of people donating money didn't give a f*ck about the causes being benefited. They were there just because it is "cool" to have your name listed as a big donor in the event program.

Also, when you say the Brazilian rich "underpay the poor they come in contact with" - hey, tell me about all the illegal immigrants being exploited by Americans - maids, nannies, waiter, cooks, farm workers etc. All being paid ridiculously low wages for local standards.

It's a pity that you are leaving Brazil so soon. If you want to be a "brasilianista" it seems that you still have a lot to experience and learn about Brazilian society. Next time you are in Brazil you should get out there, mingle and talk to different people, from different levels. But don't jump to conclusions before you have a better understanding of such complex society. The best lessons come from real life, not from books.

Thaddeus Blanchette

To give Rachel her due, I think her feelings on this have been felt by every American who's ever lived here in Brazil.

I certainly felt the same way for a long time.

What most of the Brazilian elite does and says seems so intrinsically WRONG to the average American middle class kid, that it's quite easy to get upset with it. And, as I said, because most of these Americans have never really interacted with their own country's elites - and in fact can't even recognize that they haven't because Americans are taught to avoid thinking about class like Brazilians avoid thinking about race - it's all a new attitude to them.

So the logic goes something like this...

"I'm in Brazil and I am having new experiences. Ergo, the new experiences (both the good and the bad) must be because I'm in Brazil. If I never encountered open class snobbery and disdain before, that must be because it's a Brazilian thing."

What happened to me, finally, is that I got older and wiser and began really looking at what the American elite were saying and doing, as opposed to what my high school civics teacher taught me they were supposedly saying and doing. I had to filter out that American tendency to believe in the self-made man and the idea that anyone who's rich got their wealth through talent and the sweat of their brow.

Once I did that, I began to see that there were plenty of guys like George W. Bush in the American elite. They were, in fact, probably as much of a majority as the stereotypical playboy is among the Brazilian elite. Now I'llbe the first to admit that there are plenty of GREAT rich people in the U.S., too. True citizens and positive members of the Republic. But in my experience, that's true as well in Brazil (Aragão was already mentioned; I'm thinking also Pitanguy here). It's just that in both countries, I feel they are the vast minority.

After I realized that, I could no longer console myself with the notion that it's something culturally "wrong" with Brazil that makes the elite here "worse" than in the States.

I will say, though, that I think the American myth of the self-made man and that gumption and hard work will always bring you reward is at least as important to that country as the Brazilian myth of racial democracy. The older I get, the more I appreciate - rather than denigrate - these myths because they tell us what we WANT the world to be like, what it SHOULD be like. I find Brazilian belief in racial democracy much more refreshing than American racial fatalism. And I find American belief in Everyman, the Underdog, more refreshing than the Brazilian belief that Zê Povão, se não caga na entrada, caga na saida.

I just think it's important to realize that these things are myths and that they are often turned in very nasty ways.


when you have some of the highest taxes in the world, you dont expect to give even more to the poor, you expect the government to act and use that money to give to the poor.

i doubt doubt that the difference in what a brazilian pay in taxes and what an american pay in taxes is similar to the amount americans give off as charity.


Carlos, just watch "The Housewives of New York City" to see what a frivolous group the Manhattan rich can be. And yes, they are involved with charities, and all fundraisers are lavish parties.

Rachel has a point that the Brazilian rich do give less to charities, but the snobbery is as present in the US as it is in Brazil. I am one of the few people at work who even says hi to the hispanic cleaning crew. The majority pretends they don't exist. Nothing is black oe white, there is a lot of gray.

Livia Silveira

Well... I didn't really have time to read all comments, but I'd like to say that I do agree that philantrophy in Brazil is a joke. However, I think we have some historical reasons, and they're not all connected to historical snobery. I'm guessing most of what Thadeus said might sound for foreigners as trying to find "excuses" for justifying a bad habit, specially for foreigners who hasn't lived all his life being part of the brazilian excentric "upper-middle class" or "lower-high class". And I say "excentric" because you really just can't compare it with what happens in developped countries. It's impossible to completly get it without having spent years in Brazil and in some developped country and we, brazilians, when put face to face with the situation from outside, get really perplex while trying to identify what's wrong. I can tell it from where I see it that upper-middle class's attitude towards philantropy is probably the result of a mixed feeling of "injustice" and "guilt". It's true that we don't have the culture of contributing to philantropy, but, in my opion, it's sort of a response to the fact that we ourselves can't count on ANY OFFICIAL HELP ourselves. People who get to have a good life in developped countries rely on lots of governamental help for education, health care, etc, on which we can't count on. The brazilian middle class, on the other hand, is excluded from any governamental support, even they're responsible for paying all public services in the country. Maybe I'm not right but someone told me the other day that 40% of your income goes away on taxes! And those paying for it don't use it, just because they can't really trust on public infrastructure and services. You could argue that that's a elitist myth, however within the 30 students that got in Brasilia's public university with me, ONE came from a public school. That's a fact. What happens than to all student's coming from public schools. Just to make the situation worse, the only way to make some money to have a developped-country-middle-class life in Brazil without going to university is through ilegal ways (either real crime or just selling fruit without any record or taxes on it, as someone just mentionned above). This perspective is totally different in developped countries. In France, the minimum salary is 1200 euros, whereas, in Brazil, it's around... 200 euros? A person willing to have a legal job in Brazil without a superior degree is not likely to make more than 600 euros/ month if he's lucky. OR, he has to come from a wealthy family that can give this person some money to start his own business. In France, the poverty line is around 800/900 euros/month.

At the same time, it's impossible not to feel guilty that you have a decent live in a country where most people don't, specially if you "take advantage" of all the low cost services that the need for employment creates. That's where informal charity comes in. I've seen my grandmother pay all the home devices her maid owns. I've seen her give her the "cesta básica" every month, help everytime there was a problem (whether it's a kid in prison or a kid in the hospital or whatever...).

I'm not basing my speech on precise statistics, but that's pretty much the impression I have from where I see it. It's clear that it's a ambiguous situation, but I don't think it should be taken as pure result of a slavery past or snobish attitude.

The comments to this entry are closed.