Roberto Fendt is the Executive Director of the Centro Brasileiro de Relações Internacionais (Brazilian Center for International Relations). Dr. Fendt chaired the Committee on International Affairs at the American Chamber of Commerce of Rio de Janeiro, the Brazilian Association of Commercial Exporters (ABECE) and the Foreign Trade Board at the Commerce Federation of the State of São Paulo. He was Superintendent of Study and Research at the Centro de Estudos de Comércio Exterior Foundation and Professor of Economics at University of São Pauloand at the School of Post Graduate Studies in Economics at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
Leandro Echt: How and when did you arrive at CEBRI? How did you become the Director?
Roberto Fendt: I have spent a significant part of my professional career in the field of international relations, specifically in international trade: teaching at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, leading a foundation devoted to foreign trade matters, and working in the public sector and in the privates companies. In the period of the re-democratization of Brazil, I joined the government, becoming the Secretary of the Ministry of Finance. Then I moved to the position of General Director of Foreign Trade. When CEBRI was established, it was natural for me to join the organization: first as a member of the Committee and, in 2013, I became the Executive Director.
LE: What were your main motivations to join CEBRI?
RF: The main motivations when I joined the Committee were the people at CEBRI: its Board of Directors and the people doing policy research. Also, I sought to contribute with my experience in thinking about international relations. The possibility of influencing policies was also a very enriching opportunity.
LE: What were the main challenges you faced at the beginning of your work as Executive Director?
RF: CEBRI is mainly funded by the domestic and international private sector, alongside some international cooperation grants. We do not receive funds from the government (some public enterprises are donors of CEBRI, but not the government properly). One of the advantages of this model is the independence in which we conduct our policy research, you can think freely. A disadvantage is that you do not get paid for your advice. So fundraising is a major challenge: I spend most of my time selling CEBRI, convincing donors to support research on a certain issue, but not a specific project.
LE: Latin American think tanks face many challenges when trying attract private sector support for their research. Is it easier for Brazilian think tanks?
RF: We face the same problems. Brazilian firms are very commercial in this aspect: they expect something that is of their specific interest to be prepared by the think tank. So we need to deal with those challenges too. But being supported by the private sector does not represent a challenge for the think tanks’ reputation in Brazil.
LE: Did you face any other managerial challenges when you become the Executive Director?
RF: Throughout my career, I got used to working with large organizations. When I worked in the government I dealt with 160,000 employees. While CEBRI is larger than some other think tanks (15 people), its relative small size is a challenge because it limits our ability to run larger programs. What I have been doing from the beginning is trying to get the best experts to work with us with our limited budget.
On another note, an advantage of being small is horizontality: we abolished most of the hierarchical levels and organize the task forces depending on the needs. Most of CEBRI’s research work is outsourced; we typically hire university researchers, mainly Ph.D, on a temporary basis to conduct specific research. So our people are expected to be able to work in any project, because most of our work is about coordination: writing terms of reference, hiring the best person, and reviewing and evaluating what has been done. And this model works very well.
LE: What other actions did you implement when you became the Director?
RF: I pushed for changing all the publications, both their content and format. We live in a visual world. Books are fine, but people prefer products that are more dynamic. I hired a very experienced designer and we updated the website.
LE: Have you achieved something you feel particularly proud of during your term?
RF: First, we are very proud of our position at the Global Go To Think Tank Index produced by the University of Pennsylvania. We reached the 35st position with a very small team and budget, compared with other huge think tanks like the Getulio Vargas Foundation, which reached the 22nd position. Second, I am proud of CEBRI’s eventual capacity to influence policy decisions, in particular in areas in which we did not expect to achieve results so early.
LE: What aspects of your professional background helped you with your work at CEBRI?
RF: I accumulated many experiences during my career. The activity of managing is one of the less stable activities. Every year, the literature says, there are at least two revolutions at the managerial level. It changes every year, but it is mainly about leadership and commitment. This being said, the public sector is a totally different model: in the private sector you need to be very objective, effective, communicate well, do relevant things and minimize the cost of doing irrelevant things. But all this comes with experience, it is a learning by doing process.
LE: What are your plans for the future?
RF: We have a new Chairman of the Board, and this is a key moment when changes happen. We are working together to redirect the organization, going through an overall analysis of CEBRI: procedures, business plan, etc. On another note, I have plans to eventually leave CEBRI because I believe that nobody should run anything for too long. Our abilities to reinvent ourselves in the same position is very limited, some fresh air is needed. When I leave, I will keep writing: I write two op-eds per week for newspapers, and I will produce content for conferences.