Archive | September, 2011

Today is International Right-to-Know Day

28 Sep

Today is International Right to Information Day. Countries around the world are celebrating their newfound right to ask and receive public information held, for the benefit of citizens, in the government’s trust.

The New Paradigm– Freedom of Information and Open Government

More than 40 of the world’s 90-odd national freedom of information (FOI) laws were enacted within the past decade. This year alone, 8 countries passed measures: El Salvador, Guinea Canakry, Guyana, Jersey, Liberia, Nigeria and Mongolia. Latin America accounts for 12 of the world’s laws. There is much to celebrate; we’ve entered a remarkable stage in democratic governance. As I wrote for an article published earlier this year in the Journal of Democracy, if the first stage of democracy was about the struggle to freely choose who governs, the second stage is to control how they govern, a task necessitating free access to information.

A FOI Law’s Open Government Toolkit Will Help Brazilians Govern Better

Brazil urgently needs a FOI law and more open government. This is a country too large and unwieldy to be governed by paid public servants alone – citizens need the tools to better monitor and collaborate with government. A FOI law lays out an extensive toolkit, including a provision for information to be disclosed in open formats, ambitious obligations for active transparency, and a wide scope: constitutionally regimented – covering all branches and levels of government.

Obstructionism Must End

A law was President Dilma Rousseff’s stated ambition. Yet the plan to approve the measure, on World Press Freedom Day, May 3rd, came and went. Obstructionism in the Senate prevented passage then, as it does today. Two ex-Presidents, José Sarney (1985-1990) and Fernando Collor (1990-92), one now the President of the Senate, the other, Chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, have used procedural delays to avoid a vote on the bill approved by the Chamber of Deputies in April 2010. As I wrote about over a month ago, Collor has also proposed amendments to the law that would effectively destroy the measure’s intent. The charade in the Senate must end, and it must end soon if Brazil is to make good on its commitments to the Open Government Partnership, much less to its people.

The most remarkable aspect of Brazil’s experience with FOI legislation is that President Rousseff ostensibly has overwhelming support in the Senate, and both Senators Sarney and Collor’s parties are part of the President’s governing coalition. As my upcoming book argues, Presidents with strong legislative and agenda-setting powers – like Brazil’s –have the ability to force the approval of strong FOI laws, but ironically, they are almost always the ones least likely to do so.

Brazil and Latin America’s FOI Trajectories Over the Last Decade

Below I provide a short point-form summary of Latin America’s FOI laws over the last decade (in blue), and Brazil’s FOI trajectory (in green).
For those interested in looking at an assessment examining the strength of FOI laws, around the world, have a look at this website unveiled today by Access Info and The Center for Law and Democracy

Follow Right to Know Day on Twitter: #RTKD2011

Brazil’s Unmerited Swagger

27 Sep

Mighty Brazil

A couple of weeks ago, Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega puffed out his chest and idly suggested that the BRIC countries might bail out Europe. A few weeks later, Dilma Rousseff stood before the United Nations Assembly and tossed daggers at economic mismanagement in the U.S. and Europe while at once highlighting Brazil’s sure-footedness:

“Part of the world has not yet found the balance between appropriate fiscal adjustments and proper and precise fiscal stimuli to demand and growth […] It is noteworthy that it is the president of an emerging country, a country experiencing practically full employment, who speaks here today in such stark terms of this tragedy that assails the developed countries in particular.”

While the swagger of Brazil’s top policy-makers may be based on the country’s good performance and the crush of the U.S. and European debt crises, it reflects an immodesty that is simply unmerited for a country as susceptible to the winds of change and as economically and politically backwards as Brazil.

Is Brazil Really that much Better Off? Inflation and Currency Volatility

Brazil’s vitals are not even as strong as policy-makers might like outsiders to think. Inflation is on the uptick, according to the Estado de São Paulo Newspaper, heading in the direction of 7 percent and putting further pressure on the poor, whose wages are adjusted with greater infrequency than other segments of society. Higher inflation may also signal the need to again raise Brazil’s interest rates, once again putting pressure on the poor as well as inviting speculative capital.

This raises the question of the wildly vacillating Brazilian Real. According to the Valor Económico newspaper, Brazil’s currency decreased 11 percent between September 23rd and the 26th – an alarming drop when compared to the average 5 percent drop experienced by a basket of 14 other currencies during the same period. The volatility is spooking Brazil’s exporters, importers, and investors (addendum: see this NY Times article). It’s also making price-setters edgy. The hope is that an unstable currency –reflecting an economy built on the highly elastic prices of primary commodities – will not unleash the sort of expectation-driven inflationary cycles from which Brazilians suffered throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Tax and Public Policy Mismanagement

While Rousseff and Mantega tout Brazil’s fiscal management, they seem to speaking solely in terms of spending control, as opposed to taxation – the other side of the ‘fiscal management’ coin. Tax burdens are getting out of control in Brazil, especially given the offensive quality of public administration that public money buys. The Globo Newspaper reports that tax collection has hit an all-time high, having increased from 33.14 percent of GDP in 2009 to 33.59% in 2010. By comparison, the overall tax burden in the U.S. is 24 percent and in Canada it is 32 percent.

Security

Homicide rates around the World (Wikipedia)

Yet public services are regionally uneven and frequently of poor quality – especially for a country doing as well as Brazil supposedly is. Take the most basic responsibility of government — security. According to a report this week in the Globo Newspaper, Brazil solves only 5-10 percent of its approximately 50,000 homicides each year, which compares abysmally to the U.K.’s 90 percent or even the 65 percent achieved by U.S. authorities. The Globo’s analysis is that Brazil’s rock-bottom performance has to do with a lack of expertise. Given that the average police officer in the State of Rio de Janeiro starts his career with a monthly salary of $R 1200 (~US $800), it’s no wonder that experts are lacking.

Health

Health policy is yet another example, and a subject of heated debate right now in the National Congress. According to what the Minister of Science, Technology and innovation, PT faithful Aloizio Mercadante, told the Globo newspaper, Brazil spends 47 percent less per capita on public health than much-poorer Argentina, and 2.5 times less than is spent by the private sector. In Rio de Janeiro, people regularly die in emergency rooms, and public health services are so bad that my wife, a construction manager here in Rio, sends her workers back to their home state of São Paulo to receive urgent medical care. Ironically, the federal government is now fighting against a constitutional amendment (29) that would set a 10 percent floor for government health expenses. The government originally suggested raising a new tax to fund greater health spending, but recanted under well-justified criticism. Now it simply says it cannot afford such a commitment.

Over-stretched?

Perhaps money earmarked for 2012 municipal pre-election spending binge is one of the reasons why officials are so tight-fisted. Perhaps it is lavish spending on the 2014 World Cup or the 2016 Olympics that has the public purse in a bind. Or maybe it’s just poor fiscal management, the sort of mismanagement signaled by corruption scandals and the fall of four Ministers in nine months of a new presidency.  But wait, isn’t fiscal mismanagement the developed world’s problem?

Over-Taxed

Donkey (businessman) Wagon (Tax Burden), Congress in the background

Fiscal mismanagement is not only about keeping the public accounts in order, it’s also about taxation, and how taxation is levied. This government has been praised for its fiscal discipline. Yet its approach to taxation is woefully out of step with the just treatment of citizens. Taxes accost Brazilians from every angle. Less than a week and a half ago, the government sent an executive decree to Congress levying a 30 percent increase on a ‘Tax on Industrialized Goods’ for imported cars (Mercosur excepted). The new measure provides no guarantees that domestic car producers will not raise their own prices in response to the heightened prices of foreign competitors. Effectively, the tax places a burden on consumers –who will pay more for cars – and weakens the international competitiveness of Brazil’s auto industry, which the new tax effectively inoculates against real competition. The original idea behind the measure was to protect domestic auto-makers from imports, driven into Brazil by the strong Real. The newly strengthening US dollar and the fall of the Real now appears to have alleviated the original bind domestic car makers were having – but the tax remains.

Another tax that experienced an increase in 2011 is one that would cause a revolt in any other country – a 6.38 percent tax on all credit card purchases made outside the country. In order to force Brazilians to buy overtaxed goods at home, the government attempts to curb spending abroad by placing taxes on foreign credit card spending. What it may effectively achieve is capital flight: driving richer Brazilians to open up accounts in the U.S. or offshore.

Brazil’s Limited Options

Despite Brazil’s many problems, it is still thankfully in much better economic shape than the U.S. or Europe right now. But whereas the U.S. has fiscal options, in Brazil they’re relatively limited. Taxes cannot be raised much more and government cuts in spending look unlikely, what with elections on the horizon, expensive preparations for the 2014 and 2016 games, and the desperate straits of Brazil’s public services. In short, Brazil has little margin for error, which leaves it in a tight spot if the world recession should jump Brazil’s high tariff barriers or narrow the funnel that travels from Brazil’s forests, fields, and mines to China’s kitchens and workshops.

If there’s one place Brazil could be saving money, it’s on administration. By opening up government to greater transparency, citizens might be able to help government reveal inefficiencies, incompetence and corruption. Eliminating this fat would help Brazil save an inestimably large amount of public money.

Until the Brazilian government acts to clean up its own waste and mal-administration, it should keep its eulogizing about the mismanagement of other countries to itself.

 

Corruption in Brazil Today: Showdowns on Multiple Fronts

20 Sep

It is a pivotal moment for Brazil. While President Dilma Rousseff presents Brazil’s plans for the Open Government Partnership in New York today, anti-corruption movements are mobilizing across Brazil. Today, the Globo newspaper reported that around 30,000 protesters have come together through Facebook for a protest in Rio de Janeiro to be held between 17:00 and 20:00 in one of the city’s largest squares, Cinelandia. These protests follow in the wake of the September 7th demonstrations in Brasilia that brought together almost 10,000 people.

The Broom as a Symbol

To attract attention for the event, citizens planted 513 brooms on the beach of Copacabana last night, representative of the country’s 513 Lower House deputies (see the video below =>1:00).

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sSzZ8jHlMdQ

Citizens are disgusted with a secret vote that took place in the Chamber of Deputies three weeks ago, acquitting Representative Jacqueline Roriz of corruption charges. As I reported about a month ago, Deputy Roriz was caught red-handed on videotape receiving a large bribe of public money.

Citizens are also mobilizing in support of the President’s faxina (cleaning). The Minister of Tourism, Pedro Novais, was the fourth minister to resign because of a corruption scandal during the President’s nine months in office. Tourism is a key posting because of the upcoming 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, both to be held in Brazil. For this reason, advocates hoped that Rousseff would make a technical appointment following Novais’ resignation. Yet the pressure of coalition allies such as José Sarney (PMDB), President of the Senate, forced Rousseff to accept yet another political appointee.

Explaining Brazil’s Embryonic Movements Against Corruption

The public largely views President Rousseff as hostage to a political establishment steeped in corruption. Ironically, Rousseff has ostensibly been trying to shake the image of an anti-corruption crusader in order to keep congressional allies from rebelling.

Yet the public has been eager to support this faxina. “Everyone Together Against Corruption” (Todos Juntos Contra a Corrupção), is the headline anti-corruption movement in Brazil, but it is composed of smaller, local movements. In Rio de Janeiro, I spoke with the leader of the 31 of July Movement (@fora_corrupto), Marcelo Medeiros.

What is odd about Medeiros’ initiative is that it is composed principally of 60-something middle and upper-middle class residents of Rio de Janeiro. Many people who lived part of their adult lives under the dictatorship (1964-85) have a Pavlovian aversion to speaking critically about politics. In the cause of self-preservation, most avoided speaking about government under authoritarian rule. Yet Medeiros and his colleagues seem to have overcome this ingrained response.

A small business owner, Medeiros explains that after reading the article “Why don’t Brazilians React?” (on which I wrote about a month ago), he and friends decided they could no longer stand around idle:

Corruption is nothing new in Brazil, it’s been around for many years and there has always been a corrupt side to life in Brazil, but this time it has reached such a proportion that it’s unacceptable. Government only reacts, it doesn’t act proactively despite media reports on corruption.”

Medeiros’ 31 de Julho movement illustrates that momentum for better governance need not be led exclusively by disaffected social-media driven youth.

Open Government Partnership

Meanwhile, Brazil formally unveiled its plans for the Open Government Partnership in New York today. The Minister of the Comptroller General, Jorge Hage, noted that the development of his country’s plan was a “rich process” and that “this is not the final plan…it is the beginning of a process.” The plan resembles the leaked draft I obtained two weeks ago, and makes some promising commitments for open government, including a data.gov.br website, an integrated platform for federal ombudsmen, the development of a National Open Data Plan and Data Infrastructure, and a generalized integration of open-data type initiatives into a host of regulatory agencies and governmental initiatives. A presidential decree issued earlier this week also creates an Inter-Ministerial Commission on Open Government, composed of the most central federal ministries. Hopefully this Commission will incorporate systemic transparency reforms into rules and regulations, rather than simply providing Gov 2.0 platforms for institutions that lack open, transparent designs to begin with.

Ironically, the first section of Brazil’s OGP commitments revolves around freedom of information, the regulation of which hinges on a bill actively being obstructed in the Senate. Last week, stalling tactics by disgraced ex-President, Senator Fernando Collor, gained the support of the President of the Senate, ex-President José Sarney. Sarney endorsed Collor’s “motion for information,” a tactic that, when approved, effectively paralyzes a bill until the information is handed-over by the Executive Branch.

 

The President’s Office has made clear its intention to approve the law as soon as possible. Given discord between the ex-Presidents-cum-Senators on the one hand, and President Rousseff, on the other, it appears that a showdown is in the works. Rousseff initially sought to have the bill approved in May 2011, but Collor and Sarney prevented the President from making good on those intentions.

Brazil’s Plans for the Open Government Partnership and 5 Recommendations

12 Sep

Brazil unveiled tentative plans to make good on the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a multi-country, multi-stakeholder international initiative to advance greater transparency, openness, accountability, and participation in government. Brazil and the U.S. are the Co-Chairs of the OGP, which is to be announced on September 20th by President Barack Obama at the opening of the United Nations in New York.

Brazil as a Beacon?

Brazil’s proposed initiatives are somewhat promising, and appear to be in line with the general spirit of the Open Government Partnership. But the proposals overlook basic transparency and accountability deficits that Brazil’s maturing democracy still needs to address. Brazil’s approach suggests a potential danger posed by the OGP: the ‘gov 2.0’ focus may be distracting emerging democracies from negotiating more systemic accountability and transparency lacunae.

Brazil’s ‘Boutique’ Transparency and Accountability Initiatives

Brazil has provided some boutique examples of transparency over the past few decades. The City of Porto Alegre pioneered a much-heralded participative budgeting process that 2.5 percent of Brazil’s 5500-or so municipalities have adopted, as have governments around the world. International institutions such as the International Budget Partnership have also praised Brazil for its online catalogue of Executive Branch expenses, archived in the Federal Transparency Portal.

These two innovations are to be commended. Yet I refer to them as ‘boutique’ because of their limited scope and their uneven performance and operability. Most critically, large gaps in the Portal’s data and its closed data format render it of limited utility for systematic monitoring efforts. Scraping the website is too laborious and time-consuming for the limited resources of Third Sector organizations.

Brazil’s Tentative Plans

The CGU is responsible for the OGP

Last week the group Transparencia Hacker [thackday@googlegroups] forwarded a powerpoint and five page Word document from the Comptroller General (CGU), the institution responsible for leading Brazil’s Open Government Partnership (OGP). I have also spoken with numerous people involved with the OGP, including Roberta Solís, the Chief Advisor for International Relations in the Comptroller General’s Office. The CGU has made a concerted effort to involve civil society stakeholders in the consultation process.

The documents outline Brazil’s tentative plans for the Open Government Partnership. These focus on improvements or new initiatives centering on:

a) A yet-to-be-enacted freedom of information law (read on).

b) Upgrades to the federal government’s Transparency Portal.

c) Events and interactions with the NGO and private sectors.

d) The integration of ombudsmen and participatory mechanisms into federal institutions and training programs.

e) A plan to be unveiled in March, 2012, for a “National Infrastructure on Open Data”[1] including a data.gov.br portal and accompanying IT contracting regulation.

f) A better integration and upgrade of current IT platforms to increase civic participation.

g) Providing data on government contractors and suppliers.

This list appears to be promising. But the federal government may consider a few other initiatives that are less ‘boutique 2.0’ and more focused on addressing fundamental lacunae that affect the quality of Brazil’s transparency and democracy.

5 Fundamental Lacunae Brazil Ought to Address

1. Putting pressure on the Chief Executive and Congress to pass the freedom of information law. Promised by Lula in 2006, introduced to Congress in 2009 and stuck in the Senate since passing the Lower House in May of 2010, the FOI bill is Brazil’s largest standing transparency deficit. Most recently, Senators in the Foreign Affairs Committee proposed stone-age amendments that would effectively turn the law into a secrecy measure. No plans for the bill’s imminent approval have been made public.

The President does have the power to pressure for its approval – her parliamentary coalition controls the Chamber – but evidently has thought better. Coalition leaders angered by recent corruption-crackdowns in Ministries held by their parties may help explain Rousseff’s soft-handed approach towards passage of the FOI law.

2. Brazil must approve the proposed Truth Commission now stalled in Congress alongside the FOI law. Brazil currently stands in contravention of two important decisions handed down by the Inter-American Court: the obligation to adopt freedom of information (Claude Reyes et al v. Chile, 2006) and access to historical memory (Gomes Lund v. Brasil, 2010). More information can be found in a post from June.

3. The Federal Government ought to organize wide-ranging federal-state and federal-municipal partnerships to make transparency more than just a federal phenomenon. Participatory budgeting ought to be expanded throughout the country. Brazil also needs to focus on establishing the basis for the country’s transparency infrastructure: a modernization of its record-keeping and IT systems. These initiatives need not infringe upon the constitutional division of powers. Suasion through publicity and non-institutional carrots and sticks would help advance a more integrated approach to good governance.

4.  Brazil urgently needs to make value-added (goods) taxes transparent to the public. If there is a 10% consumer tax on all goods, then when you buy a bar of soap for $1.00, you should have to pay $1.10 (10% tax) at the till. As it stands, import taxes, inter-state taxes, and value-added taxes are all hidden. Ultimately what is needed is a tax reform, a measure that President Rousseff has promised to introduce this year. Integrating transparency into this reform must stand as a priority. Citizens must become cognizant of what government appropriates from the public purse. This knowledge may help ignite demands for improved efficiency and probity in the public sector.

More to the point, disclosing tax-collection and the rationale behind it is democracy 101; the lack of visible efforts to inform the public about tax collection is effectively government by stealth –authoritarian. It is worth noting that most of these taxes are highly regressive value-added taxes that are hidden in the price of goods –they continue to tax the poor and skew income distribution, contributing to Brazil’s egregious inequality.

As it stands, citizens would have to be forensic accountants to understand the tax soup that saturates the consumer basket. Brazil’s tax to GDP ratio is the highest in the Americas at over 35 percent. High tax rates compensate for revenues that end up lost to corruption and waste. Better social auditing would help improve this situation, hence the urgent need for a FOI law and detailed obligations for active transparency.

5. Fifth, governments across Brazil must make public how they allocate advertising dollars and broadcasting concessions to the news media. Widespread co-optation of local media and the exclusive granting of concessions at all levels of government foster information asymmetries that contribute to Brazil’s unequal regional development. The centralizing tendency of federal power over the past decades may be seen as a manifestation of its inability to adequately monitor what exactly is going on at the state and municipal levels.

These are just a few of the pending priorities. There are many, many others.

Brazil’s Open Government Partnership (OGP) initiatives appear somewhat promising. Yet they still smack of a ‘boutique’ approach to showcasing the federal government’s minimally effective and unrepresentative efforts at combating corruption and improving transparency. The plans may focus too much on pleasing an international and elite audience, and too little on addressing Brazil’s more basic transparency and accountability lacunae.

The danger with the OGP lies herein: emulating the government 2.0 initiatives of advanced countries, such as the U.S. or the U.K., may be a premature strategy for emerging democracies. While advanced democracies are mostly tweaking and improving upon value-systems and infrastructure already in place, most countries within the OGP have only begun the adoption process.

What is needed is heavy collaboration between more advanced democracies, and countries still beginning to prioritize transparency and accountability. With 79 countries qualified for the OGP yet only 21 so far committed, it remains to be seen whether countries have the will to engage in this type of collaboration.



[1] Infraestrutura Nacional de Dados Abertos, INDA

Movements Against Corruption Afoot in Brazil

6 Sep

The performance of Brazil’s Congress, and particularly the governing coalition makes one wonder whether the nation’s deliberative process should be moved somewhere else— far away from the alleged ‘representatives of the people.’ Congress is where the government’s coalition ‘allies’ select their robber baron cabinet ministers, the same ones that have been resigning one after the next in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s spring cleaning. Yet despite the rash of corruption scandals over the past months, and one particularly egregious ‘secret vote’ that recently absolved a deputy of grand corruption charges, a few bright spots have begun to appear. These include a parliamentary movement against corruption and a September 7th “March Against Corruption” in support of President Rousseff’s efforts to purge Brasilia.

The Super-Party Front Against Corruption

Senator Pedro Simon

A group of parliamentarians led by Senator Pedro Simon (PMDB) have announced the creation of a “Super-Party Front Against Corruption.” The movement supports the faxina or cleaning that began shortly after President Rousseff took power.  According to the Jornal Globo, Simon asks that the President, “dialogue with us, chat, sit together to find a solution.” Simon’s plea does not sound like unconditional support for the fight against corruption, but rather a return to the amiguismo and ‘consensus impunity’ status quo. But at least the establishment of a ‘front’ against corruption is a promising sign that incentives are moving in the right direction.

Can Electoral Rewards for Ethical Behavior Change Congress?

One Deputy reinforces the idea that incentives to prioritize ethics do exist. Deputy  Jose Reguffe, a 38 year-old Deputy from Brasilia, is an ethical crusader who gave up half his staff, his complete travel allowance, and part of his ‘extra’ salary, because he’d rather save public money than receive funds he claims he doesn’t need. In proportional terms, Reguffe won more votes than any other member of Congress (266.5K), and with very little campaign money. The clear inference is that Brazilians reward honesty and ethical behavior. Although perhaps not the most novel conclusion for readers used to seeing dishonest behavior punished, it is highly significant for a country where assumed or proven dishonesty often has little bearing on election results or political support more generally.

Unchecked Impunity

Bribe-Taker, Roriz

Last week’s secret vote in the Lower House, which successfully absolved Deputy Jaqueline Roriz of corruption charges, provides a point-in-case of the sort of impunity that has long muddied the reputation of Congress. In 2006 Roriz was caught red-handed on tape accepting a bribe of R$50,000 (US$33,000) in public money. Yet deputies justified the 235-166 vote in favor of absolution by claiming that Roriz had not yet been vested as a federal deputy when the film was shot—  instead she was a state deputy at the time. The fact that a proven thief of public money continues to pose as a public servant seems to have escaped Congress’ sense of higher justice, much less its sense of irony. Irony of ironies, the ‘representatives of the people’ employed a very unrepresentative institutional mechanism –the ‘secret parliamentary vote’ – to endorse another desolating setback for parliament.

The March Against Corruption

But there is increasing movement against corruption and impunity. Tomorrow is Brazilian Independence Day, the 7th of September, and marches against corruption are set to take place across Brazil. The movement, simply called the “March Against Corruption” (marcha contra a corrupção) has been quietly accumulating supporters through social media, including Youtube (and here) and Facebook.

Organization against corruption is a positive step forward. As I wrote about a couple of posts ago, Brazilians have a reputation for passivity in the face of injustice. Yet it remains to be seen whether the March will prove little more than a fleeting protest. Discouragingly, the mainstream media has been providing very little coverage of the event.

The hands-off approach of the media makes perfect sense, however; zealous coverage of recent corruption scandals has led government to once more brandish the ‘media reform’ card. In the wake of the government’s efforts to purge corruption from federal ministries, especially those most involved in preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics,  it seems the strategy is now to use the media as a scapegoat. This is the media’s cue to play nice. Stay tuned.