Brazil: one million people demand accountability

Brazil: one million people demand accountability

The protests in Brazil started because a hike in bus fares angered people. But that was only the catalyst. Across the country people are taking to the streets in increasingly large numbers to demand that their politicians are held to account.

They want to know why so much money – upwards of $13 billion – is being spent to build state-of-the-art football stadiums for the 2014 World Cup when so many people lack basic services. They want to know why politicians are giving themselves pay raises when inflation is hurting the poor. 

The message they are sending the political elite is clear: we do not trust you to work in our best interests. We want you to be accountable.

In a country that was seen to be making progress in bridging the gap between rich and poor and in taking a serious stand against corruption, the expenditures around the World Cup have hit a raw nerve.  The government initially promised that the money to build the stadiums would not come from taxpayers, but with costs rising the public has had to step in to pay the bill.

Although so far there have been no allegations of corruption regarding the construction of World Cup stadiums, Brazilians are angry at their politicians’ ability to get away with wasting money in other ways and the fact corruption is considered to be endemic in the country. Some studies show corruption is now costing upwards of $40 billion each year.  Brazil ranks 69 out of 174 countries on the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index with a score that indicates significant problems with corruption.

So much public money is going toward building stadiums in cities that do not have enough fans to fill them – I am thinking of Brasilia, the capital, and Manaus in the heart of the Amazon – while millions of people still lack the basic infrastructure of roads, schools and hospitals to lift them out of poverty.”

– Josmar Verillo, vice president of Amarribo, Transparency International’s partner in Brazil

A promising start

President Dilma Rousseff stated clearly during her election campaign in 2010 that she wanted to fight corruption during her time in office. She made a good start.

Her co-leadership of the Open Government Partnership in 2011, which aims to make more information about how government works available to the public, has won international plaudits as more than 42 countries have joined the initiative.

The Ficha Limpa (Clean Record) law, which was endorsed by a citizen initiative with 1.6 million signatures in 2010, prevents convicted citizens from participating in elections and being elected for public office. In the last local elections hundreds of aspiring candidates convicted for corruption were barred from participating in elections.

The convictions of more than 25 people, including high profile politicians in the big Mensalão scandal of 2012 were also hailed as a watershed in the fight against corruption in politics.

But the political atmosphere changed after the Mensalão scandal, when many politicians tried to introduce laws that would make it harder for the Supreme Court to convict politicians. This is not the reaction that Brazilians want to see as the anger spilling out in more than 80 cities shows. 

Access to information

Access to information, the cornerstone of the Open Government Partnership, should now become a renewed focus at both the national and regional levels.

People have every reason to be wary. Over the years there have been too many examples of corruption because of a lack of information about public accounts.  For example, it was only after investigative journalists in Paraná, a southern state in Brazil, trawled through hundreds of memos and thousands of budget lines that they discovered that millions of dollars were being systematically rerouted from public funds into private bank accounts. Politicians had created a roster of ‘ghost employees’ who were receiving the benefit payments.

The exposure of the scandal had results:  people implicated lost their jobs and the official number of employees at the assembly after the ‘ghosts’ were deleted ultimately dropped by more than 1,000 saving an estimated US$5 million each month. The journalists were awarded the Transparency International and the Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (Press and Society Institute) 2011 Latin American Investigative Journalism Award for their work.

The power of transparency

In November 2012 Brazil hosted the 15th International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brasilia, which brought together more than 1,900 people from 140 countries. After three days of workshops and discussions the conference concluded with The Brasilia Declaration, a rousing call for people to stand up for what they believe in the fight against corruption and embrace transparency.

The millions on the streets of Brazilian cities are heeding that call. Politicians would do well the practice what they preached.

… By focusing on daily lives and concerns, efforts toward transparency and the fight against corruption empower people. The fight against corruption must mean more than the passing of new laws. It must mean the practice of transparency in day-by-day government activities; and its impact must be felt at every level of society and compel citizens to join forces …

… The most vulnerable people in our society, often severely affected by corruption, must be able to hold leaders to their word, and to expose those who go back on promises. To do so they need access to information through a free press, unfettered Internet and other open pathways to inform the public and facilitate the fight against corruption.

… Reducing impunity also requires independent and well-resourced judiciaries that are accountable to the people they serve.

… We call on leaders everywhere to embrace not only transparency in public life but a culture of transparency leading to a participatory society in which leaders are accountable.”

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