Brazil in crisis! What is to be done?

12 July 2016

With the political crisis in Brasilia looming large, alumni in Brazil met in May to discuss the sustainable development goals and the future of development in Brazil.

Alumni in Brazil met in May to discuss the sustainable development goals and the future of development in Brazil.

Alumni event in Brazil marks IDS' 50th Anniversary

More than 40 people, including some 15 IDS alumni, gathered in São Paulo to pick one another's brains and to commemorate 50 years since the foundation of IDS. It was a chance to share stories, meet old friends as well as make new ones, and above all to celebrate what IDS means to so many of us in Brazil.

The event was hosted by Cebrap, a research institute that has been an important partner to IDS in Brazil for more than two decades, and will be celebrating its own 50th birthday party in 2019. To mark the occasion, a samba trio serenaded guests at the end of a vibrant and well humoured debate.

Vera Schattan Coelho and Angela Alonso from Cebrap opened the debate, along with James Allen, IDS alumni representative in Brazil. Speakers who shared their experiences with us included Rômulo Paes de Sousa, from the Rio+ Centro, Jessica Morris from Conectas, Margareth Watanabe from Fundação Seade and IDS's very own Alex Shankland.

Challenges and opportunities - Sustainable Development Goals

In what seems a very short space of time, Brazil has gone from being the darling of the development world to a country mired in a deep political and economic crisis. There is a general sense that we have come to the end of a period marked by creative public policies. Now, public sector accounts at the state and federal levels need to be put back in order before any new advances can be made.

The 2013 protests, when hundreds of thousands of mainly young people took to the streets across Brazilian cities, now seem to be in the distant past. The opportunity for change that sprang from this moment was lost. 30 years after the end of the dictatorship, we can celebrate participatory democracy, but to what extent can we call Brazil a representative democracy?

Just as colleagues in other countries have noted, the sheer number and complexity of the Sustainable Development Goals leaves them open to criticism. At the same time, have they gone far enough? Why does the issue of torture relate only to children? What about prisons? Or access to justice for poor people and immigrants?

But the larger number of goals is the result of a far more participatory process in developing the SDGs. This is the price to be paid for a more democratic and inclusive process, in which many Brazilians were involved. The accompanying indicators are numerous and varied: some are much more robust than others and may be open to multiple interpretations. The indicators for the environment and social inequality look to be particularly problematic. There will, inevitably be heterogeneity in implementation, in Brazil and elsewhere.

What Brazil does have is very robust data gathering institutions. The Brazilian Institute for Geography and Statistics, IBGE, is responsible for coordinating the UN's data in Brazil. At the municipal and state levels, the SDGs are being incorporated into government planning systems. And in São Paulo state, the Fundação Seade has high quality data that feeds directly into SDG indicators for education.

Many advances have been made in education: more children in schools, reduced inequalities in primary education (though not in secondary education) and more women in professional education courses. Partly as a result, demand has increased for crèches, though this has not been met by supply, particularly in the poorer peripheries of Brazil's largest cities. But the indicators only tell part of the story: who are the people that are falling through the gaps of formal education and how can they be brought back into the system?

Finally, Brazil is at the heart of the South-South debate, a country with considerable influence and responsibility. Many Brazilian development initiatives such as the ‘bolsa família’ safety net and the fight to prevent AIDS have been touted as models for other developing countries to follow. The dialogue of South-South cooperation is about sharing problems and exploring solutions. Brazil, it seems, is ready to talk.

If the political and economic climates in Brazil are at breaking point, perhaps there is succour in the thought that Brazil has lessons to share not just with the global South, but also with the North. One IDS alumnus reported on his experience of carrying out research in the UK on the NHS. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that there was no social participation in Britain's public health system.

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