Brazil: citizen watchdogs mobilise against corruption

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At the end of June, José Carlos Ugaz, chair of the anti-corruption non-governmental organisation Transparency International, went on a special mission. He went to Brazil, a country beleaguered, for over a year, by the fallout from the ‘Lava Jato’ scandal, named after the carwash where everything began.

After meeting Supreme Court justices, judges and Members of Parliament (MPs), the Peruvian pointed out that corruption in Brazil was systematic, spread across the whole country, and that reforms were more than necessary.

“Grand corruption kills,” Mr Ugaz said to the press, “And the investigations must be seen through to the end, no matter who has to fall, no one is above the law.”

The situation in Brazil is, indeed, unprecedented. In 2015, for the first time in its history, Brazilian citizens ranked corruption as the country’s number one problem, ahead of the flaws in the healthcare system, unemployment and violence.

The number of corruption convictions since 2010 has risen by 116 per cent. And Judge Sérgio Moro, who is leaving no stone unturned in his investigations of all those involved in the Petrobras scandal, be it the company’s directors, MPs or even former president Luiz Inácio Lula, has become their new anti-corruption hero.

Some have not, however, waited for the media to raise the alarm and, above all, do not want to wait for the courts to intervene once the harm has already been done. Since 2008, a cross-section of Brazilian society including students, pensioners and professionals, have been volunteering in the efforts of the Observatório Social do Brasil (OSB, or the Social Observatory of Brazil) to monitor the use of public money, starting at a local level.

Because there is much more to corruption than the big money siphoned off by greedy business leaders and crooked politicians. It most often begins on a small scale, as Equal Times has already revealed in reports on Brazil’s education and health sectors.

 

Bringing about a culture change

Luiz Cláudio Carneiro has been chairing one of Brazil’s 109 observatories for the last year and a half, in Teresópolis, a city of 170,000 inhabitants, with a strong tourism sector, in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

This IT entrepreneur explains how his desire to improve the city led him to take an interest in the actions of the municipal councillors. Following a natural disaster in 2011 that killed more than 300 and displaced thousands of people, Teresópolis received a lot of aid money.

The subsequent scandal around the misuse of the funds by former mayors, who have since been revoked by courts, triggered the creation of a local branch. There is now a team of around a dozen people devoting a portion of their free time – around six hours a month – to checking the city council’s expenditure and calls for tenders.

“It wasn’t easy, initially, to gain acceptance among the elected representatives, and we had to work hard to explain our citizen initiative,” recalls Carneira.
Two OS-Teresópolis employees and ten volunteers, including pensioners, lawyers, and teachers, oversee all the activities of the local executive and legislative team, to avoid any attempt to misappropriate funds.

Their work ranges from examining the budgets approved, to check, for example, whether purchase prices are in line with market prices (to ensure there is no overbilling), to disseminating information regarding tenders, to ensure that competition is respected and to avoid price fixing with one or two preferential suppliers. Then there is the task of monitoring the delivery of supplies ordered, works contracted out and services provided.

“This information is not always public, we often have to ask and insist. But we have a few ‘allies’ at the city hall,” the volunteers say. Each team of observers, in each municipality, has to follow the methodology established by the national head office, which is based in Curitiba.

Its president, Ney da Nóbrega Ribas, tells Equal Times: “Citizen involvement would not be necessary if the oversight work were done as it ought to be. There are internal bodies in charge of doing it, but it’s not usually sufficient.”

If any irregularities are detected, the volunteers take their findings to the mayor, then to the municipal assembly and, as a last resort, to the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The observers also keep an eye on appointments to municipal posts, any legal cases that may arise and check that any municipal legislation approved is in line with the law and the public interest.

“We want to bring about a culture change. Our elected representatives are not accustomed to being held accountable. “To have a society without corruption, we also need put an end to petty corruption. Our methodology produces immediate results,” says Ribas, a former Banco do Brasil (one of Brazil’s public banks) employee, who has been part of the initiative since its very beginning.
The Observatory has, undeniably, produced very encouraging results, and claims to have avoided the misuse of almost R$1.5 billion (US$450 million) between 2013 and 2016 at a national level.

The organisation has been rapidly expanding over recent months. “There is ever growing public interest. We are in the process of helping to open 230 new observatories. Founding a new branch cannot be left solely to the initiative of the local people. We need new resources to be able to keep up the pace.”

The funding for the activities, although voluntary in the main, is limited to donations from private individuals or companies.

“We do not, of course, accept money from political parties or any dubious source,” we are told at the seat of the organisation.

The OSB is developing partnerships with other public bodies, such as universities, to which it offers management or accountancy internships, as well as with retail trade syndicates and professional associations, such as the Ordem dos Advogados do Brazil (OAB, or Brazilian Bar Association) or local SMEs.

“There are company directors supporting us, because they’ve had enough of the unfair competition and closed agreements that exclude them from the public procurement market. They want to contribute to creating a virtuous circle,” explains the president of the OSB.

In Teresópolis, these citizen watchdogs are proud of having saved their fellow constituents almost R$2 million (US$600,000) in public funds, by securing the cancellation of fixed allowances paid to elected representatives who did not account for their use.

“We presented a legal case demonstrating their uselessness,” explains Cláudio Carneiro. A subsidy of no less than R$160,000 (US$49,000) granted by the mayor to the local press, “so that it would speak highly of him,” was also suspended.

“Our aim is to transform society and, why not, to set an example for other countries,” insists the president of the Observatório Social do Brasil. The organisation is planning to form a partnership with Transparency International, which is opening a new office in Brazil.

“Brazil suffers from corruption, but we have the means to save our country.”

 

This story has been translated from French.