This year, Brazil reached its lowest score on the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) in seven years. Earning 35 points out of 100, it scored well below both the global (43) and regional average (44). In addition, this year, Brazil was listed as a ‘country to watch’ in the Americas regional analysis, given its regional influence and its position as the world’s eighth largest economy.
But it’s not all bad news from Latin America’s largest nation. Brazil has a unique opportunity to enact wide-ranging reforms that could significantly counter corruption in the country’s political and judicial systems.
Perceptions sometimes get worse before getting better
The latest CPI results for Brazil reflect an ongoing dilemma and limitation of the index: as efforts to fight corruption intensify in a given country and schemes are uncovered, perceptions of corruption may actually increase rather than decrease. This means that even when countries address corruption issues head-on, they sometimes experience worse scores on the CPI, at least initially, as scandals come to light.
In Brazil’s case, this is magnified by the seemingly unending series of corruption scandals unearthed by Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash). These scandals continue to shock the world with their complexity and breadth, as well as their transnational reach, involving dozens of countries from the Americas and Europe to Africa and Asia.
A lack of action
While Operation Car Wash likely influenced perceptions, it might not entirely account for Brazil’s continuing negative performance on the CPI. Perhaps equally relevant are government actions that should have taken place over the last several years, but did not.
From 2016 to 2018, former President Michel Temer and his administration neglected the anti-corruption agenda, along with Parliament. Despite corruption being a top concern for many Brazilians, there was a significant lack of any government reforms or policies to address the issue.
In fact, of the few initiatives that moved forward during the previous administration, most worked contrary to anti-corruption efforts, allowing for greater impunity for the corrupt. In his infamous 2017 Christmas pardon, former President Temer even excused the crimes of several corrupt individuals convicted under the Lava Jato investigations.
One of the key lessons from Transparency International’s work over the past 25 years is that to fight corruption, you need to move beyond purely punitive initiatives. This is the direction countries around the world, including Brazil, must take in the future.
Uncovering corruption schemes and punishing those involved is essential, but not enough. Brazil needs to implement medium and long-term reforms that demonstrate the country’s serious commitment to eliminating the structural causes of corruption.
The country has a unique opportunity to take this next step. Fighting corruption remains a main priority for citizens who perceive it as a drain on the government’s budget and resources and a cause of serious deficiencies, including a lack of quality basic services, such as health and education.
As the scale of corruption and the consequences it has for the country have become more evident over the past few years, so have the strategies to tackle corruption.
Last year, in a process facilitated by Transparency International Brazil and Fundação Getulio Vargas, several Brazilian civil society organizations worked together to develop the world’s largest anti-corruption reform package.
The ‘New Measures against Corruption’ consist of 70 legislative and regulatory proposals to tackle complex corruption issues, such as transparency and integrity in the private sector. In addition, the package includes proposals for strengthening control institutions and reforming Brazil’s judicial system.
The measures were developed through a participatory process which received contributions from civil society organizations, academics and practitioners, as well as interested citizens.
United Against Corruption campaign
Building on these efforts, a coalition of civil society organizations in Brazil launched the United Against Corruption advocacy campaign to engage citizens, garner popular support for the anti-corruption reform package and influence the electoral debate.
Prior to the 2018 election, candidates for Congress had an opportunity to commit to supporting the package, while presidential candidates were invited to review the proposals and include them in their government plans.
To date, more than 50 members of Parliament have pledged their support for the anti-corruption reforms, and Parliament is forming an anti-corruption caucus to tackle these issues. Transparency International Brazil is working closely to ensure these proposals are debated and advanced in Congress.
A new way forward
Large corruption scandals like Lava Jato have shown how pervasive corruption is in Brazil. Corruption deepens social inequality and it has led to a staggering economy and faltering democracy. In order for Brazil to rebound, the country must take a new approach and address the systemic causes of corruption. The ‘New Measures against Corruption’, for its technical quality and social legitimacy, constitute the best hope for the necessary reforms to be successfully implemented.
Bruno Brandão is the Executive Director and Guilherme France is a consultant at Transparency International Brazil.
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