Kick it like Rousseff © Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR

Three Strikes: Why Brazil’s Government is Better Than What the Media Tells You

Current media coverage of the protests in Brazil has missed a key point. The progressive Lula and Rousseff governments’ efforts to empower the new “lowest middle class” socially and politically are bearing their fruits.

In football-crazy countries like Germany, media attention these days is focused of course on Brazil. This year’s host for the World Cup has built modern and expensive stadiums, some of which are only a stone-throw’s away from vast favelas, where the poorest of the poor reside. The contrast between the glamor and thrills associated with the tournament and the desperate daily grind of the downtrodden is just too stark and provocative to be ignored. But in a well-meaning attempt to raise awareness for worrying trends, some German media have done little more than taken a cheap shot at the government of Brazil. In denouncing the socioeconomic record of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) governments, the media’s response has been based more on intuition than the actual evidence. Taking colorful pictures of protestors and demonstrations, they accuse the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2010) and his successor Dilma Rousseff of neglecting the poor, corrupting politics and alienating themselves from the people. Based on the analysis and data of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index (BTI), I would like to challenge the three most popular headlines.

Strike # 1: Most Brazilians are poor, and nothing is being done about it

True, one out of ten Brazilians has to make ends meet on less than 2 dollars a day, and 30 million live below the national poverty line. But the country has come a long way in battling poverty during the last twelve years. In fact, these numbers were twice as high in 2002. Before Lula took office, almost one-third of the country’s 200 million inhabitants was considered to be poor. Since then, the bottom 10% of the population has benefited from annual income increases of 7%, while the upper crust saw their income rise by just 1.7%. As a consequence, the Gini coefficient measuring income inequality dropped, from 60.1 (2001) to 54.7 (2009), according to World Bank statistics. This still leaves the country as one of the most unequal places in the world, but at least it now fares decidedly better than some other Latin American countries.

This did not happen accidentally. True, favorable global economic trends contributed to these trends, but that doesn’t say much about distribution. PT governments helped create 20 million proper jobs (including social security payments) and increased the minimum wage by 70% during the last twelve years. With their domestic consumption, a new “lowest middle class” (still in a precarious position but no longer poor) carried the national economy through rougher times. And the government jumped in directly, sometimes by fighting hunger (Fome Zero) or eradicating extreme poverty (Brasil Sem Miséria), but in a more radical sense by going beyond the tools of redistribution and fighting the roots of structural poverty: sickness and illiteracy. The famous Family Purse (Bolsa Familia) program made monthly payments to over 13 million households (almost a quarter of all Brazilians) conditional to regular school attendance, literacy progress and health examinations.

Strike # 2: The political elite is corrupt and estranged from the population

Bribes and office abuse still constitute a serious problem. Many corruption scandals have been exposed in recent years, but many observers agree that this is due primarily to more vigilant prosecutors and investigative journalists rather than an actual increase in corrupt behavior. All relevant integrity mechanisms are in place and function for the most part satisfactorily. In the BTI, Brazil scores 7 out of 10 for its anti-corruption policy and 8 out of 10 for the prosecution of office abuse. Among the 129 developing and transition countries, this puts the country in the top 20. And almost no country improved more during the last eight years than Brazil. This is also due to President Rousseff, who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket and proved early in her administration – by firing five of her ministers – that rank and file in the PT would offer no protection or favors. In late 2012, 25 prominent entrepreneurs and politicians were sentenced for vote-buying by monthly payments (mensalão), among them Lula’s former chief of staff.

Still, the question remains how much politicians understand the social reality faced by the bottom half of the population. The income gap is huge, and the arrogance of the few has often infuriated the many. PT politicians have tried to broaden the dialogue with civil society by expanding on the participatory tradition of Porto Alegre’s participatory budgeting in calling Conferências nacionais de políticas públicas. Civil society representatives were invited to take part in a national dialogue on public policy and to discuss guidelines for policy areas such as health, minority rights, sustainable rural development, public safety, education, culture and human rights. The government aimed for a more participatory democracy than in the past and tried to strengthen the involvement of new social movements and civil society groups in political decision-making processes. Many of their participatory formats have been copied by other governments in attempts to improve democratic responsiveness worldwide.

Strike # 3: The current protests are a demonstration primarily against the government

Why, then, are people demonstrating? Because despite the gains made, poverty and inequality are widespread, structurally engrained and massive. Because social exclusion becomes all the more crass when juxtaposed against the staging of a glamorous international event. But also because protests and demonstrations are outcomes of those very improvements of the last twelve years during which the government aimed to improve public participation and help lift millions of people out of extreme poverty. These people now have very different (but no less justified) demands of their government. The “lowest middle class,” no longer living in poverty but by no means in a secure socioeconomic position, has seen its social advances challenged by high costs of living, insufficient health and education services and underpaid, precarious jobs. A new social dialogue is being called for, and the World Cup is a welcome catalyst helping put these pressing issues on the agenda. This, however, is a major advancement and may well serve as a consolidating factor for Brazil’s democracy. In that sense, the protests do not signify the failure of the PT-governments under Lula and Rousseff, they underscore their successes: as an expression of an empowered civil society and its growing expectations.

Dr. Hauke Hartmann is Senior Project Manager at the Bertelsmann Stiftung and directs the BTI project “Shaping Change – Strategies of Development and Transformation.” He has an M.A. in Latin American and Caribbean Studies (State University of New York) and is a passionate football aficionado.

Related BTI

Study: BTI 2014 Report
Political Management in International Comparison



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