Archive | November, 2010

Bursting Bubble-Thinking About Brazil

22 Nov

000…Brazil is a country of the future.
—-…Brazil will always remain a country of the future if average educational achievement stays at seven years of formal schooling per capita. Higher education enrolls only 2% of the population, but consumes a quarter of the total education budget (see Hunter and Sugiyama 2009).

000…Brazil is economically stable.
—-…Brazil is still mainly a commodity exporter, and in the long run commodities will always be the most volatile type of export.

000…Brazilian policies will remain consistent because of the current continuity in political party leadership.
—-…Political continuity, especially when paired with legislative dominance in Congress, tends to eviscerate checks and balances, diminishes accountability and increases discretion, which often result in institutional abuses and corruption.

000…Brazil’s newfound oil wealth will speed the country’s progress.
—…Developing Countries and oil don’t have the best “progress” record. Read a book called “The Paradox of Plenty” or just take a look at a few “developing” oil states, such as Nigeria, Venezuela, Mexico, Iraq, and Russia, among others.

000…President Lula da Silva is responsible for Brazil’s recent progress.
—…Lula maintained the continuity of most of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso‘s (1995-2003) policies with regards to economic management and even many social programs, such as the conditional-cash-transfer program now called Bolsa Familia.

Open to Competition

19 Nov

Positively, Brazil has become a lot more open over the past decade– in almost every way. My wife still recalls the limitations of a closed economy under military rule. She likes the example of yogurt: only one type of yogurt was available in the supermarket, and if you bought it and it was rotten, there was not a damn thing you could do about it.

Open or closed?

Back then, tariff and non-tariff barriers warded off international competition and made it easier for the Brazilian business elite to make money. But it cost the rest of Brazil dearly. Segments of the economy remained woefully under-invested. Products produced by monopoly or oligopoly firms reflected poor quality, and lacked innovation, and efficiency. They were often more expensive, or unavailable. Another recollection of Carolina’s is how people used to buy telephones as investments– they were so difficult to come by.

In the early 1990s the economy opened up and Brazilian firms began to thrive in the face of competition. Competition has done good things for Brazil, although the country still refuses to compete on a number of levels. This drivel–self-evident to some–hopes to make a point about enclaves that have not been subject to international competition. The market example is the best heuristic to convey a point I want to make about the academic sector.

I have faced numerous non-tariff barriers in setting-up a career in Brazil. The validation of my degree (last post) has been an expensive and time-consuming exercise in bureaucracy. Frustrating as it is, it has provided me with a delicious opportunity to wax philosophical about what would prompt a developing country to set up barriers against advanced-degree holders. Is not the secret of a country’s success to cultivate and lure-in the best minds? Has not the U.S.’ economic success over the last century been predicated on attracting and incubating the most dynamic innovators from around the world? Why would Brazil not want to recruit innovation and expertise?

Protectionism. Protection against what? Protection against having to compete. Simply put, a loser’s strategy. Brazil is ready to compete and would benefit from competition, but still clings to the complacency afforded by protectionism.

The next enclave to be opened up is the public service itself. When government information cannot be accessed by the public, public servants can afford to act  incompetent and corrupt. When information is public, government performance suddenly becomes public–invariably leading to better performance. The access to public information law currently awaiting approval in the Senate need be acted on.

12 Nov

Three Days ago I inquired about the progress of my Ph.D. validation here in Brazil, for which I applied in August, 2010. All foreign degrees (with the exception of France) have to be “re-validated.” Three days ago, I learned that they’re sending the degree back to the start, because the UFRJ doesn’t have a political science department to validate the degree.

After submitting my initial application and not being told a thing about possible obstacles, on two occasions I checked to make sure my “validation” was moving forward appropriately. I cannot be hired by a university until I have the validation, which puts me in limbo: I will not commit to a job outside of teaching, because I expect to be working as a professor come February, 2011. On previous occasions, UFRJ officials told me all was in order. This time, everything was wrong. It seems that other departments will not take responsibility for carrying out what should be, at best, a simple bureaucratic procedure.

I have spent hours chasing down the officials who either have my information or finding out where my dossier is located. I want a copy of the validation’s trajectory within the UFRJ bureaucracy to have a record of the gross incompetence that has occurred: no one informed me that the university was not “competent” to validate the degree, and it spent three months languishing in filing cabinets before they gave me the bad news. When I asked for a record of what has happened to my degree, I was denied. When I asked to look at the record– denied.

Law 9507/97 is regulation for a particularly useful type of access to information–habeas data, literally, “you have the data”–the constitutionally guaranteed right (article 5) to ask for and receive data on you, held by government. Obviously, this is legislation I will use to retrieve my information, but it was telling to hear the attitude of UFRJ officials. Basically: “this information is ours, is secret, and you can’t see it.”

This is the battleground of access to information– changing the political culture of public administration to emphasize the ultimate ownership of citizens over government and its information.

Media Coverage, Transparency and Reform

6 Nov

It is no secret that media coverage is the primary motivator of probity in politics. Without the threat of being publicly exposed, public officials are more likely to engage in malfeasance; whether it be weakening key legislation, hiding incompetence, embezzlement, accepting bribes, or deviating from due-process. In Brazil as in other parts of the world, government transparency serves little purpose if the content of transparency is not scrutinized and publicized. “Just because it’s public doesn’t mean it’s publicized.*”

And just because it’s public doesn’t mean it’s intelligible or useful, either. This frequently the case with the Brazilian Government’s much vaunted transparency portal . This “proactive” transparency mechanism in effect provides incomplete information and is often impossible to understand without greater context (not provided). Take this example of credit card use by a member of the marina, in the ministry of defense for 2010 up-to-date. There are withdrawals of $1000R for about six days straight. What did this buy? Good question. No information is provided, only who and how much was spent. This is work for watchdogs–NGOs, and especially, the media.

I have written several pieces (1, 2, 3,) on the importance of media coverage of freedom of information reform. But the issue applies to transparency and critical good governance reform more generally.

At this critical juncture (see yesterday’s post) the Brazilian press ought to be scrutinizing the reform agenda of the coming government. Key good government reforms will fail or emerge weak without media coverage. This is why a strong media is a key ingredient of a strong democracy. Media not only serves to dig up corruption and malfeasance, but provides space for key reforms and advocates thereof, both of which re-vitalize the political process.

*The quote was from Milton Jung, a Brazilian journalist concerned with corruption began a blog called, “adopt a city councilor.”

Government Decides to Keep Archives Closed: Opacity to Prevail Under Dilma?

5 Nov

The Brazilian government has decided to keep its historical archives on the military dictatorship (1964-1985) closed, according to a report published today by ABRAJI. The move breaks with previous promises and effectively renders a conference I paid $100R to attend– International Seminary on Access to Information and Human rights –irrelevant. A boycott of the seminary (see banner photo) is now underway, with prominent NGOs Artigo 19 , Transparencia Brasil, and ABRAJI (Brazilian Association for Investigative Reporting) refusing to participate. The maneuver also signals that long delayed transparency reforms promised under Lula, such as the access to public information law currently awaiting sanction in the Senate, may be also be resisted under President Dilma Rouseff.

Brazil currently has no regulated means of accessing public information (e.g. documents) held in the trust of government. Access to public information regulation, otherwise known as a freedom of information laws, normally establish this crucial right. While such laws are found in more than 85 countries (more than half of these passed within the last five years),  Brazil continues to resist.

A bill was introduced after repeated promises in 2009, grinded slowly through committees in the Lower House in 2009-10, was passed in April of 2010, and has since languished in the Senate. Military opposition to the measure is the clearest sign of resistance. Yet the low legislative priority accorded to the law is clearly indicative of government intransigence. President Lula da Silva has the majority in place to speed enactment. But the Lula administration has not given the bill the “urgency” it needs to gain quick passage.

The decision to uphold opacity over openness is a step backwards for Brazil, and deserves greater attention from citizens, the media, and the international community.

Brazil’s Conventionality, Continued–and Higher Education

5 Nov

Last post spoke about the insularity of large countries, of which one of the most obvious manifestations are their conventions. This convention issue is not without its slipperiness as a concept. I’ll venture forth the idea that a country tends to be conventional when greater value is placed on standard –homogeneous (traditional) formats– than diversity.

Weddings in Brazil are a good example. They tend to be highly formulaic, from the bride’s dress, to the whisky poured at the after-party, and the chocolate “bonbons” made available at the door. Some of the conventions are more akin to standards. For example, the Brazilian government enforces a curriculum that is followed in public and private schools: students have few electives in high school or university, and “careers” are far more important than learning a discipline. This standard has produced the conventional wisdom that there is less intrinsic value in, say, a philosophy or political science degree than an engineering or law degree. Although somewhat similar in other parts of the world, this assumption is exaggerated in the developing world. For logical reasons too– it’s hard to make a living off of a philosophy or political science degree in an economy where the comparative advantage is not in intellectual capital or niche services. By contrast, advanced countries place value on analytical or creative thinking, and disciplines such as philosophy or political science arguably provide excellent means of sharpening this sort of thinking. I’m digressing, but will return to conventions.

I was recently speaking with Brazilians about their high school experiences. According to them, high school curriculums are tedious and impractical. A student has no choice whether s/he will take advanced mathematics, for example; there is little to no room for specialization. Whether they graduate or not (most don’t), Brazilians acknowledge the listlessness of what and how they learn. The system is unfortunate, because it stunts the sort of analytical and creative development that leads students in more advanced democracies to discern and develop “niches” within the larger economy. You find that careers in Brazil are more like what you learned when you were a child— clear-cut: policeman, secretary, doctor, lawyer, etc. In this sense, careers here appear to be highly conventional.

We all have good reasons to embrace unconventional thinking, to inject a good dose of diversity into our day to day. Yet the more traditional we are, the more resistant to this sort of thinking. Hence the value of a humanistic or social science education.

Back to Brazil. I have found conventionality in the most unlikely of milieus: the educational establishment. In Canada or the U.S., we welcome people with advanced degrees with open arms. Here, they put up incredible roadblocks to foreigners teaching or working in Brazil. Some of this has to be attributed to the byzantine bureaucracy native to Latin American countries. But some of it verges on xenophobia. A professor at a Rio university recently recounted how the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) came to evaluate his program. The authority responsible, a Ph.D., had a candid meeting with professors, and during the meeting my friend expressed his appreciation for being able to teach an elective course in English. The MEC authority expressed his disapproval, apparently warning professors that “foreigners want to manipulate Brazil,” among other shocking bigotry. While highly disturbing, it is not altogether out of line with my experience trying to break into the higher learning sector here in Brazil. The official obstacles erected against foreigners, and these sorts of paranoid attitudes given me reason to believe that either:

a) A considerable sector within the Brazilian educational establishment is less tolerant, more parochial, defensive and even paranoid than one would expect of highly educated professionals in a traditionally “open” milieu.

b) (The more likely explanation) A sector of the Brazilian academy is defensive because it is insecure and unsure about its ability to compete with foreigners– it feels threatened.

The advanced world has prospered by recruiting the best minds from around the globe and making it easy for them to establish a toehold. One would think that a developing country such as Brazil has even greater reasons to do the same.

Large, Insular Countries

3 Nov

It’s a peculiar thing about countries with large populations that they often tend to be insular, uninformed about what goes on in other parts of the world, and mildly paranoid, if not xenophobic. The U.S. provides a leading example: the intermittent periods of “isolationism” provide a testament to insularity. Proverbially clueless about the world outside their borders, Americans have also gained fame for their paranoia and xenophobia. But the prominence of these characteristics is tempered by the country’s historic openness, large educated classes, and sophisticated urban centers. Other large countries provide more striking examples of xenophobia and paranoia, such as Japan, Russia, and to a growing extent, China.

Large populations render countries more self-contained economically and culturally, which tends to make them more insular, if not more xenophobic. A small country, by contrast, is constantly looking out at the world to see how it will be or can be influenced by the larger, more powerful countries. They tend to be more cosmopolitan and more open to outside influences.

One convention I can get used to

With some micro-cosmic exceptions, Brazil tends to fall into the purview of a large insular country. What might be associated with a country´s insularity? One of the principal features might be “conventionality.” More open countries tend to evince less rigid conventions, which is to say they go about the same ritual in different ways. Brazil remains plainly conventional, which makes sense: it’s a traditional country—the largest Catholic country in the world— and on average Brazilians have low levels of education. Moreover, Brazil has no clear unconventional role-model, unlike other Latin American countries who emulate worldly Spain or Latino USA. Brazil clings to its own conventions. I´ll follow up on this line of thinking and my ultimate thesis, next post.