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Scholarship That Informs Policy: Fernando Henrique Cardoso

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The following is a guest post by Lauren Sinclair, Program Assistant at The John W. Kluge Center.

Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso speaks during a discussion with Kluge Center Director Jane McAuliffe and Indian historian Romila Thapar to kick off the Scholarfest gala, June 10, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.
Former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso speaks during a discussion with Kluge Center Director Jane McAuliffe and Indian historian Romila Thapar to kick off the #Scholarfest gala, June 10, 2015. Photo by Shawn Miller.

On the question of the applicability of scholarship to policy, scholars are sometimes faulted for being out of touch and out of step with the needs of lawmakers. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, winner of the 2012 Kluge Prize, upends these notions, evincing that scholarship, carefully applied, can make direct contributions to the world of public affairs.

A sociologist specializing in political economy, Cardoso began his career studying the social structures of government, the economy and race relations in Brazil. His first books, written in the 1950s, demonstrated the lingering prejudices, inequality and injustices in Brazilian society. His findings proved unpopular with Brazil’s military dictatorship, and as such he was prevented from pursuing his research. He was exiled from 1964 until 1968, and upon his return in 1969 had his civil rights suspended and was banned from teaching. During the 1970s he moved between Chile, France, and the U.S., teaching and eventually joining the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America. This experience enabled him to pursue more research and amass practical political experience.

Upon his return to Brazil in the late 1970s, Cardoso established the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Research (CEBRAP), was elected an alternate to Brazil’s Federal Senate in 1978, helped found the Social Democratic Party of Brazil in the 1980s, and served as Finance Minister in 1993. Throughout these roles, he collaborated with democratic organizations and institutions to expose the disparity between the impoverished lives of many Brazilians and high rates of economic development.

Cardoso was elected President in 1994 by an impressive popular vote. During his Presidency, he instituted policies informed by his earlier scholarship: tackling inflation, opening up the country to global markets, and instituting social programs to address poverty, lack of education, and racial inequality. His leadership transformed Brazil from an underdeveloped country on the periphery of the global stage into the world’s sixth largest economy. Drawing on the research and scholarship from his earlier career, he instituted universal access to basic public education, strengthened a universal public health system, expanded land for those who needed it, and instituted a system of direct cash transfers to the poorest families in order to reduce poverty and inequality.

In a New York Times article published at the end of his tenure, Cardoso was described thusly: a “sociologist with a doctorate and more than a dozen books to his name, Mr. Cardoso was initially thought by some to be too cultured to withstand the rough and tumble of Brazilian politics. But in a poll published in 2002 at the end of his second term as President, Brazilians named him the best president in their history.”[1] His approval rating can be attributed to the perspective garnered through his social sciences research, and the resultant policies he developed that moved Brazilian society toward a more egalitarian structure.

Over his lifetime, Cardoso has written or co-authored more than 23 scholarly books and 116 scholarly articles. His career epitomizes the link between academic practice and real-world action. As the Librarian of Congress James H. Billington has noted, “If you want to make an American comparison, he is like Jefferson, playing a key role in building a democracy on a scholarly foundation.” Cardoso’s scholarship discredited myths, exposed truths, and prepared him to promote change and create a government that better serves society. Paulo Sotero, director of the Brazil Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, observed “[Cardoso] is a man who profoundly studied Brazil before governing it, taking part in all of the important intellectual debates of his time, never letting himself be limited by any one theory.”[2] As a Kluge Prize winner, Cardoso epitomizes a scholar whose work shapes both public affairs and civil society.

This post is the fifth in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again in September 2015 with an accompanying $1.5 million award. #KlugePrize.

More about Fernando Henrique Cardoso:

Previous posts in this series:


[1] Rohter, L. (2002, December 29). Departing President Leaves a Stable Brazil. The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015 from:

[2] Rohter, L. (2012, May 13). Brazil’s Ex-Leader Honored as Scholar. The New York Times. Retrieved July 7, 2015 from:


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