Brazil’s great opening?

Although it still has a way to go, Brazil’s moves to root out corruption and improve transparency bode well.

Brazil''s President Dilma Rousseff and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton participate in the annual conference
Moves to increase transparency in Brazil appear to have slowed recently [REUTERS]

Belo Horizonte, Brazil – This country is distinguished by its position as the only Portuguese speaking country in the Americas, its large protected internal market, and legacies of secrecy, owing to a past riddled by military rule. In other words: self-regarding, defensive – closed.

Yet, at least on one level, Brazil might just be on its way to an unprecedented opening. With just over a year in office, President Dilma Rousseff has launched an “openness offensive” like no other in Brazil’s history. Rousseff oversaw the enactment of a freedom of information law, a Truth Commission, and the construction of an open-data portal. She has also presided over the ousting of six ministers on allegations of corruption.

All of this might still be in vain. Truth Commission proceedings have still not begun and there are few signs that governments are prepared to make good on the freedom of information law when it takes effect next month. Ministers accused of corruption have still not been prosecuted, while new cases are largely being ignored.

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Openness and corruption

It is no time for backsliding; Brazil recently showcased its efforts to become more open, transparent and accountable on April 17 and 18, when it played host to 72 countries at the first meeting of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) in Brasilia. President Rousseff was invited to co-chair this unprecedented multi-nation, multi-stakeholder global initiative by US President Barack Obama when he first visited Brazil in March 2011. Foreign ministers such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made up invitees from the partnership’s 55 member countries and there were also potential applicants from nearly 20 other countries, and citizen representatives from around the world.

President Rousseff’s leadership of the Open Government Partnership is a national and international test for this emerging power, and its performance will be evaluated largely based on progress made at home.

Rousseff has good reasons to strive for greater openness. Brazil’s “parliamentary presidentialism” – featuring a national legislature populated by more than two dozen parties – requires the president to sustain majority support by handing-out ministry portfolios to unwieldy allies. Transparency is one of the few ways central planners can keep tabs on rent-seeking ministers, particularly those from “allied” parties. The well-known tradeoff for political support is corruption, inefficiency and incompetence, a trio of ills that has contributed to the crushing tax burden of Brazil – at over 35 per cent of GDP, the highest in the hemisphere.

A fiscally responsible technocrat, Rousseff has been loath to accept rent-seeking in return for support. She sacked minister after minister for allegations of corruption in 2010 and 2011, but insider resistance in Congress to Rousseff’s nationally dubbed faxina, a “house-keeping” of sorts, appears to be diminishing her appetite for unconditional good governance.

The latest corruption case illustrates President Rousseff’s dwindling enthusiasm for eradicating graft. She has remained silent over the past few months as Fernando Pimentel, minister for development, industry and foreign trade and a longtime friend and ally, has dodged calls for resignation on charges of corruption. Pimentel reportedly accepted large payments for “consulting” services by powerful industry lobbies just before assuming office.

Rousseff has also been weak on enforcement. Not one of the six ministers forced to resign over the past year has been prosecuted. Impunity is yet one more Brazilian legacy that Rousseff will need to tackle if the country is to call itself “accountable”.

Pending urgencies

An initial confrontation with a legacy of impunity is ostensibly the work of the Truth Commission, enacted in October 2011. The president’s interest in reconciliation would seem to be clear; Rousseff suffered at the hands of torturers during Brazil’s 1964 to 1985 dictatorship. The Commission, however, has yet to get off the ground – even though it was approved more than half a year ago.

Frustrations have run so deep that, in early April, a congressional committee on Human Rights began reconciliation proceedings without proper authorisation or attribution. Rousseff’s posture seems to be increasingly congruent to that of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who shied away from confrontations with Brazil’s powerful military establishment. Despite transparency being one of three pillars of Lula’s first election campaign (2003), he prevaricated over a freedom of information law and Truth Commission, and left the heavy lifting of enactment to his successor.

Approved the very same week as the Truth Commission, in October 2011, Brazil’s freedom of information law takes effect almost one month after the Open Government Partnership meeting in Brasilia, on May 16. It is clear that Brazil has made little progress in readying itself for the demands of an effective disclosure regime. Information units and proper training are lacking in most institutions, and current archiving and IT systems are woefully inadequate to the task.

The National Comptroller General, which is responsible for regulating and enforcing the law, has assigned a team of eleven to a law that promises to provide access to information held in every branch of government and at every level of the federation. By comparison, Mexico’s Federal Access to Information Institute (IFAI) boasts a staff of more than a hundred to undertake an analogous task in a country with nearly half the people.

Despite these inauspicious beginnings, much praise has been lavished on Brazil’s newfound commitments to openness and its previously established transparency innovations. In the 1990s, experiments with participatory budgeting captured the imagination of the international policy community. In 2004, Brazil established a Transparency Portal obligating all executive branch entities to post expenses within 24 hours. A 2009 reform (law 131) has sought to do the same at the municipal level.

“The Open Government Partnership is Brazil’s chance to consolidate a position as a world leader in the area of transparency.”

Yet whereas participatory budgeting and the Transparency Portal were rather unique initiatives, the Truth Commission and freedom of information law are international standards: nearly 95 countries, or 5.5 billion people, already possess freedom of information laws, and more than a dozen countries have undertaken truth and reconciliation. Brazil’s performance will be measured by global standards, and the country’s record on openness will no longer be able to hide behind novelty.

Openness as Soft Power

The Open Government Partnership is Brazil’s chance to consolidate a position as a world leader in the area of transparency. This “soft power” is a power within Brazil’s reach. A commitment to transparency translates into strength on the international stage and at home.

Transparency and access to information are critical for rooting out corruption, creating greater efficiencies in government, empowering citizens with information, and diminishing information asymmetries that retard economic growth and public sector effectiveness. In short, improving transparency is the best way for Brazil to show itself – and the world – that it is a vital democracy committed to its people.

Gregory Michener is a professor at the IBMEC, Minas Gerais, and also serves as an independent consultant on issues related to transparency and access to information. He is a social scientist, consultant and researcher specialising in international relations, comparative politics, transparency and good governance.