When I first came across Greg Michener's blog, it was a bit like discovering a diamond in the rough. True, with less than a year of beginning the blog, he was already being featured on the Christian Science Monitor's LatAm Monitor (by the way, I'm also being featured there, as is Boz of Bloggings by Boz). But I couldn't believe I hadn't seen the blog sooner, considering that much of Greg's recent work is very unique in the English-language blogosphere.
Michener is a proud Canadian, raised in Toronto by activist parents, who taught him the importance of democracy and policymaking. A polygot with an interest in Latin America, he received his Masters in Latin American Studies and his Ph.D. in Political Science, both from the University of Texas. For his doctorate, he studied freedom of information laws in ten Latin American countries, and he will publish a book next year on his findings. His focus is on transparency law, anti-corruption policy and governance, and his blog largely focuses on transparency, legislation, and corruption in Brazil.
Married to a mineira, Michener originally moved to Belo Horizonte about two years ago. He works as a translator, editor, and consultant, but after moving to Rio de Janeiro last year, he hopes to begin teaching political science and international relations. Like my blog, and others, he began by writing about what it was like to live in Rio, and his observations about the city, and later moved into detailed political analyses.
Why is transparency so important? According to Michener, a freedom of information law is the basis of any country's transparency infrastructure, permiting citizens to request and receive public information and obliging government to publish preestablished details about its operation, including budgets, employees, plans, contacts, contracts, etc. Transparency encourages public employees to be more accountable and professional in their work, recognizing that anything they do might be subject to a freedom of information request. It also directly affects freedom of the press and press politics, since transparency laws allow journalists to get information from the government. This may seem simplistic, but in countries without transparency laws, finding out basic facts about how tax revenue is spent and how much government employees are paid can be quite difficult.
So where does Brazil stand in terms of transparency in the region? "It's a mixed bag," Michener said. "On the one hand, there's decent budgetary transparency." Indeed, the federal government is known for this type of transparency on the international level. On the other hand, as Michener has written about extensively, the Brazilian congress has failed to pass a Freedom of Information bill, one that would provide a much more robust legal framework for transparency policy. It's supposed to pass before September, but has been delayed several times already.
Brazil will be one of the last countries to pass a transparency law of this kind in the region, and it also will be one of the least "open" of the laws in the hemisphere. In the bill, the maximum reserve period for information release is set at between 25 and 50 years, compared to, for example, 12 years in Mexico, and the international standard of a maximum of 20 years. This type of secrecy is "very retrograde," according to Michener, and the bill could actually be weakened further before passage. Plus, some legislators are still pushing for eternal secrecy, to ensure certain information is actually never made public. Compared to neighbors like Chile and Argentina, who set up truth commissions to investigate dictatorship era abuses, Brazil still hasn't attempted anything of the sort. Despite promises from Dilma to finally establish these types of investigatations, it's been stalled in Congress, due in part to the power of the military. According to Michener, "vestiges of authoritarianism still have a lot of sway in Brazil."
There's plenty of need for more transparency. "History seems to repeat itself in Brazil," Michener laments. With rife corruption in Congress, an elite-driven system, and the largest tax to GDP ratio in the hemisphere, citizens deserve to know precisely what is going on. Michener cites a quote, reportedly from Eike Batista's father: "Brazil has the services of Angola and the taxes of Switzerland." There are a multitude of systemic problems; Michener points to education as one, since the average Brazilian has an average of seven years of formal education, meaning that some politicians and policymakers also lack a high school education. In addition, there's the infamous amounts of bureaucracy, which can sometimes be wasteful and lead to overspending. With more information readily available, the government could potentially become more regimented - and allow citizens to see what's really going on.
Corruption, though, is really one of the main issues. In his blog, Michener says there's evidence that billions of dollars worth of public monies are stolen each year; by one estimate, it's around US$35 billion annually. In 2003, the comptroller general estimated that 30 percent of federal funds were lost to corruption at the municipal level, amounting to R$60 billion annually -- the value of the GDP of Uruguay. In 2009, the comptroller general found that 90 percent of municipalities still had irregularities, despite a law passed that year setting standards for transparent budgets at the municipal level. "Barely a quarter of municipalities have complied," says Michener.
What exactly will the law do? There's already a transparency portal set up by the federal government, which allows anyone to access certain government expenditures. But it's not quite all encompassing. Michener has looked through the records, and he found that one army colonel has been making withdrawals of R$1,000 a day, every day - but there's no explanation as to what the money is for, or why it's happening.
Given the current information available, the transparency law will have two components – information that is visible, and information that leads one to draw accurate conclusions. "It will create an opening," says Michener, "to show people where things need to happen, and to make the government more conscientious." The government would be forced to become more organized, both to organize information properly and to operate with greater effeciency. The obligation for active transparency -- to put information online and make it visible -- will in fact lead to interesting revelations, like "ghost companies, more employees than are on the payroll, and lots of discrepancies."
But this kind of wake up call is a good thing. "It needs to create citizen demand," Michener told me, "since Brazilians are famously depoliticized." According to Michener, with little contact with the federal government and a general lack of active participation to keep government accountable, Brazilians could become more active in demanding responsible governance. The law could help create a culture change, though it could take decades, and it could take a long time to make a visible difference. Still, there are tangible benefits to this type of transparency: discovering and revealing corruption and irregularities doesn't just save tax dollars, it can actually save lives, Michener claims.
Initially, though, the law will start out as a "symbolic gesture of opening," one that won't initially solve problems or even necessarily work at first. But by putting a system into place that opens the government up to scrutiny, there will still be more information available to the public than there is now, and will provide a very useful tool for citizens, the media, and politicians themselves. Michener also hopes the law will make the press more critical, allowing journalists access to more information. Plus, he says, "it will provide hope for democratic progress."
Yet the law still hasn't passed, which has actually proved an embarrassment not only to Brazil, but also to the United States. That's because Brazil and the US are co-chairing the Open Government Partnership, an Obama initiative "aimed at securing concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, increase civic participation, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to make government more open, effective, and accountable," according to the State Department. Since Brazil is still not considered very open, "it's difficult to credibly chair this iniative," says Michener. In his post about the partnership, Michener wrote:
"The question that should be on everyone’s minds is whether Brazil is fit to co-chair the OGP, much less whether it should qualify for the OGP in the first place. If the OGD adopts these sorts of permissive benchmarks before its formal inauguration, much less makes a co-chair of a country not leading on transparency, can we expect the OGP to be anything more than feel-good window-dressing."
President Dilma had hoped the freedom of information law would pass in April, on World Press Freedom Day, but later backpedaled, and the bill is still stalled in Congress. The Open Government Partnership was just launched last week, and it's true that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's gushings about Brazil didn't ring 100 percent true:
"I go around the world bragging on Brazil, so I’ll do it again here. But what Brazil has done over the last 25 years is remarkable, because it expanded its tax base, increased its revenues as a percentage of GDP, and then did not enrich a small elite, but spread those resources broadly among the Brazilian people in an effort that has lifted so many out of poverty while at the same time enhancing the even stronger establishment of democratic institutions and positive results."
Still, Michener thinks the initiative is worthwhile, as he wrote in his post:
"Regardless of what the skeptics say, if there was ever a time in history to launch an international open government partnership, this is it. Historically, it’s a highly atypical diplomatic initiative: unideological, nonexclusive, engaged with all levels of government and society, and diffuse—it’s a heck of a promising initiative, if it turns out to be for real."
He also agrees with Clinton that Brazil has come a long way in terms of democracy, and says it's made good progress that needs to be recognized. At the same time, criticism is important, he told me, since it puts pressure on the government and opens people’s eyes. "My kids will be Brazilian," Michener explained, "so I want a better government for them."
For the latest on transparency issues, corruption, and politics in Brazil, read Greg's blog Observing Brazil.