Denis Mizne: supporting vaccination, education, and leadership in Brazil

A year ago, the Lemann Foundation – a family foundation in Brazil that focuses on education and capacity-building – received an email from Oxford. It was proposing a partnership: would the Lemann Foundation help organise vaccine trials to test the Oxford-AstraZeneca in Brazil? Lemann, together with a number of other actors both public and private, said yes. And thus began a complex process of collaboration to bring the vaccine to Brazil.

Denis Mizne, CEO of Brazil’s Lemann Foundation

Lemann’s CEO Denis Mizne joined Alliance to talk about the Foundation’s involvement with the vaccine trials, why participating was a good fit for a Foundation normally focused on education and leadership, and share his reflections on philanthropy in Latin America.

Elika Roohi: Brazil has suffered the worst outbreak in Latin America, also one of the worst in the world. As a CEO of a foundation that has been involved with responding to the crises arising from the pandemic, but also just as someone living in Brazil, can you tell us about what it’s been like during the past year?
Denis Mizne: I think it has been a very, very challenging year for everyone around the world, especially in countries that were heavily affected by the pandemic. We always knew Brazil was one of the most inequal countries in the world, but I think the pandemic made inequality so much more visible to everyone. The conditions when people need to stay home, what kind of home they leave when they need to go to school online, what it means for people without internet connectivity or without devices, or without the proper space for kids to study. What does it mean in terms of access to health, when the healthcare inequality is so huge in our society? It was very, very sad to live with these hundreds of thousands of Brazilians that we lost during the pandemic. I think if there is any kind of silver lining, it’s the levels of solidarity and the response that came from civil society.

I know that the Lemann Foundation has been involved in the vaccine trials in Brazil. Can you tell us about your role in that?
When the pandemic started very early on, we thought ‘what can we do to respond’? The first action was related to our core work, which is ensuring that every Brazilian student has access to a great education. This is where we turned first, because education is what we do most of the time – supporting public education at scale in Brazil. But we also asked ourselves what we could do regarding the pandemic itself.

We talked to many experts around the world including leading philanthropies like the Gates Foundation and others and health experts from the universities that we partner with at Oxford, Harvard, and other places. And what we heard was actually: Brazil should be looking into vaccines. Everyone is talking about PPE right now and the capacity of the health systems, but at the end of the day, the pandemic will be over when vaccines are available. This was around April, May last year, and Brazil was out of the map regarding vaccines. They were not having any contracts; they were not participating in any global alliances. It was possible that we could get through this without access to vaccines. That’s why we decided to support the trial. This was a strategy to help put Brazil on the map and support access to the vaccine.

As a sector, we need to step up and identify our specific role, which is not to substitute the government but to be co-responsible for some of the challenges that our societies face.

We had this opportunity with Oxford, which was developing one of the most promising vaccines against Covid. At the time it was a big risk, but we supported the trials in Brazil, which were also the first trials outside of the UK. It ended up being that these were the trials that proved the efficacy of the vaccine. And it was one of the first vaccines that was proven effective, but this vaccine is of course way cheaper, easier to store, easier to distribute. Our support was to finance the trials in Brazil, and to help this bridge between the centre of excellence in Oxford and the centres of excellence in Brazil so they could collaborate and put together the trial.

But ultimately, what we wanted was for there to be access to the vaccine. So after the trial was going forward, we decided to put together a consortium with some Brazilian philanthropies and corporate foundations and consider what needs to happen for Brazil to be able to have secure access to the vaccine. What was identified at the time was that Brazil needed to become self-sufficient in producing vaccines. Brazil has institutions, very respected public institutions related to vaccine production, but we were not able to fully produce a vaccine in Brazil. So, we partnered with Fiocruz, the largest vaccine manufacturing institution in Brazil, and this consortium of private philanthropies and corporate philanthropies, and together we were able to build the capacity in Brazil to become self-sufficient in vaccine production. This project is well underway, and in mid-May 2021, we will be able to start producing the Oxford vaccine fully in Brazil, giving Brazil autonomy to produce as many doses as needed to help the country fight the pandemic.

Brazil spent more days with schools closed than most other countries. That meant supporting a shift to online learning became essential. Photo: Unsplash.

The Lemann Foundation is focused on education and leadership. Could you tell us more about what else the Foundation has been doing during the pandemic to support online learning and education.
Brazil unfortunately has the record of the most days that schools were closed. You have to combine that with a continental country, very unequal and where using technology in education was not a day-to-day thing at most schools. So our role was to put together a taskforce with 35 organisations, both government and civil society, and to try to achieve basically three things: one was high-quality content, making that available; the second part was access; and the third part was helping the school districts re-organise for reopening. And these efforts helped. Brazil was able to offer online learning to over 94 per cent of the kids in public schools, which we could not even imagine in the beginning of the pandemic. The problem is of course it’s a couple of hours a day, it’s only passive, you cannot measure the learning. I’m happy that we were able to help, but I don’t have any naivety in the sense that it was not – is not – still a major problem.

Can you tell me more about your work in developing leadership capacities in Brazil?
Our vision here is that the reason Brazil is still a developing country is because we are wasting one of our most precious resources: people. There are millions of babies born every year. If Brazil could do a good job in providing a high-quality education to all of them instead of letting the vast majority fall behind during their school years, and if we could stimulate a critical mass of our most talented people to dedicate their lives to tackling big social problems, Brazil could be in a very different place.

We try to tackle this talent waste through improving the quality of the public education system. This is not only during the pandemic, but also in normal times. We try to work and support public schools and public-school systems to better serve their kids. But on the other side of our work is this vision that if we can channel some of our talent to government, public policy, politics, civil society, academia and tackle some of our hardest social problems, this could be a sustainable source of capacity for transformation.

…for philanthropy to be effective, you need to really look at the problems that philanthropy is trying to solve. There’s not only doing good, but really solving hard problems where you need your best people and you need people who dedicate their lives to it, who actually prepare, are good at collaboration, at data analytics, at policy making, at influence and advocacy. It’s an expertise in itself.

So how do we do that? We give scholarships to some of the best universities in the world: Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Oxford. We have six university partners where we train every year about 50 Brazilians in Masters and PhDs in areas that are critical for Brazil’s development: health, education, government, public policy and things like that. But the scholarships are just the beginning. At the end of the day, what we want is to create a network. Today, we have a network of 650 ‘Lemann fellows’, and these Lemann fellows have made a true commitment to dedicating their lives to helping Brazil. They work in Government and academia, in politics, in civil society. And they are already making a difference. For example, one of our Lemann fellows in Congress was responsible for approving the stimulus package that provided the poorest Brazilians with cash payments supporting unemployment and other needs during lockdowns.

The vision is to create this critical mass of talented people with diverse backgrounds, diverse points of view, different ideologies – but who are willing to work pragmatically to support Brazil moving forward. What we learned during the pandemic is that leadership is critical. If you compare how different countries responded, the quality of their leaders is probably the best predictor of how well they did in terms of deaths, economic impact, educational impact. So hopefully this leadership work will be helping Brazil in the decades to come.

I wanted to ask some more general questions about philanthropy in in Latin America. What are your reflections on what lessons the philanthropic sector in Latin America has learned over this past year?
I think the most important reflection that the sector needs to have is: how can we be effective both in easing the pain in the short-term, but also how can you think about long-term? This is thinking less about implementing projects or funding projects, and more solving problems. To solve a problem, you need collaboration. You need to be willing to work with government. You need to be willing to listen to different kinds of experts and different ideologies and be willing to enter into dialogue, which is not easy. The same kind of polarisation that we see in the US, we see here. As a sector, we need to step up and identify our specific role, which is not to substitute the government but to be co-responsible for some of the challenges that our societies face.

I was recently reading a piece published in The Economist and it alleged that Latin American philanthropy is under-performing. Some of the reasons that they cited was because foundations are smaller, donations to institutional philanthropy are also smaller than other regions of the world, and more than half of the philanthropic groups in Latin America have been founded in the last 20 years. What you think about this? If Latin American philanthropy is under-performing, what can be done to move it forward?
When you talk about under-performance, you are implying that it’s less competent in a way, and I don’t think that’s the case. The sector here is less developed than it is in other parts of the world, and I think there are many reasons for that. One is cultural: you just don’t have the same kind of culture of giving back and donations. The other is tax incentives: in Brazil for example, you pay exactly the same tax if you leave all your inheritance to your kids or if you donate to philanthropy. So, you actually pay a tax to donate, and you pay the same tax to donate to your kids. That’s very different than the US or in Europe where you have high inheritance taxes, and you have an incentive for philanthropy. I think that for these two reasons, the philanthropy sector took longer in the region to develop.

But I think the fact that most of the foundations were established in the past 20 years is a good sign, because it’s showing that it’s changing. We are seeing this in Brazil. We are seeing a lot of new foundations with different and more modern points of view being created and developed here. Some of them are already making a difference. Hopefully the Lemann foundation is one of them!

If you compare how different countries responded [to the pandemic], the quality of their leaders is probably the best predictor of how well they did in terms of deaths, economic impact, educational impact. So hopefully this leadership work will be helping Brazil in the decades to come.

The truth is that for philanthropy to be effective, you need to really look at the problems that philanthropy is trying to solve. There’s not only doing good, but really solving hard problems where you need your best people and you need people who dedicate their lives to it, who actually prepare, are good at collaboration, at data analytics, at policy making, at influence and advocacy. It’s an expertise in itself. So even if in Latin America the process started more recently, I think in general a lot of the philanthropic actors globally took a long time to realise that it’s hard to be effective in philanthropy, and you should be dedicating much more time to thinking about how you’re putting together your team, how you’re attracting and developing talent, how you’re thinking about your strategy – all of that. So hopefully not only in Latin America but all over the world, philanthropy will evolve and will be able to respond to the increasingly more complex challenges that we are facing in the world. Covid-19 unfortunately is not the last one that we’re going to face – it’s just one example of the scale of problems that we’re going to face in the coming decades.

GIFE in Brazil found that when they did their recent census, over the past decade there was a growth in family foundations participating in their research – it went up between eight per cent and 22 per cent. This could indicate a few things: it could be a growth in the number of family foundations, growth in engagement among those working at family foundations, or combination of both. I’m wondering, as your foundation is a family foundation, what have you noticed among your colleagues here?
We can definitely see this in Brazil. We have more family foundations being established, and they are growing in relevance. I think this has to do with this growing awareness of the role that wealthy families can have in giving back and supporting their country. It also has to do with the wealth created in Brazil more recently and with younger people becoming rich because of technology. These people are more conscious, and they’re not trying to wait until the end of their lives to think about philanthropy. I think now people are thinking about philanthropy early on in their careers, and this is all contributing to this boom in family foundations. I think family foundations are particularly important, because you are generally more independent than with corporate philanthropy. Hopefully some of those new foundations that are making a difference will inspire more people to engage with philanthropy.

The National Congress in Brasilia, Brazil. The Lemann Foundation doesn’t agree with the way the government handled the pandemic in Brazil, but the Foundation sees its place in navigating politics as participating in public debate, contributing technical expertise, and offering different points of view. Photo: Flickr.


In the policy work that you do, how does the Lemann foundation navigate politics? Have you challenged the handling of the pandemic by the government?
We participate in public debate and try to contribute technical expertise and different points of view. We are non-partisan and independent from government – we don’t take any government funds or tax incentives or anything like that, so we are fully independent.

We didn’t think it was our role to discuss in general how the government handled the pandemic. But in the specific area of education, the lack of support from the federal government to a national plan on how schools could react to the pandemic, we got engaged in different conversation. With vaccines on the other hand, we worked together. The federal government actually made the contract with AstraZeneca to have the technology transferred to Brazil, so they had an important role.

Government is a very complex entity in Brazil. We definitely think the way that the government handled the pandemic in Brazil is unfortunate and created many problems. But we’re trying to find ways to engage here either by working with state and municipal governments or by working with the people in the health sector to fight and respond to the pandemic. It’s very complex in Brazil, and unfortunately a few other countries around the world, where the main approach from the federal government was to deny the existence of the pandemic. I think the impact of that choice can be felt in the numbers of casualties, the economic impact and everything that we’re living through.

I wanted to ask about how the philanthropy sector in Brazil handles transparency. We had asked if you would be willing to share about the Lemann Foundation’s endowment and grant making to which your colleague said you don’t speak about that publicly. Are conversations about the sizes of foundation endowments or how much foundations decide to spend happening in the open in Brazil?
I think there is a growing good pressure on the side of transparency. Brazilian foundations are regulated in Brazil, so they need to make this information public. We are a Swiss foundation, where the focus is on Brazil because our founder is a Swiss-Brazilian, so instead we are bound by the Swiss regulations. I think there is a growing discussion around transparency, which is something that we welcome very much. The reason that we don’t talk about our numbers is that we’re very transparent on our strategy, and we’re very transparent on what we’re doing, the programmes we are supporting. The only reason we don’t talk about the numbers itself is that we feel that this could divert the discussion from what we’re doing to how much money we’re spending – and it’s a very particular vision from a very particular family that is very, very, very under the radar. But I think in general there is a good level of transparency in terms of the sizes of endowments and donations in Brazil.

Elika Roohi is Digital Editor at Alliance.

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Next Interview to read

Interview: Kirsten Hommelhoff, BDS Secretary-General

Andrew Milner