5 Brazilian Public Policy Innovations The North Could Learn From

By Brian Mier.

During my 22 years in Brazil I’ve gotten used to gringos moving down here who, before taking the time to understand how things work, begin immediately bad mouthing the entire country based on local observations about the neighborhood or city they live in, which is usually somewhere in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone. This could be expected from the average Joe but it is annoying to hear it coming from the mouths of journalists who are paid to know better but typically have little specialized knowledge of how national and local governments work in their own countries, let alone in Brazil.

During the period in which Brazil had enough sovereignty to democratically develop its own public policies, which started during the final days of the US-supported military dictatorship in the 1980s and appears to have ended last year with the coup, several innovative programs emerged which have been emulated all over the world, even in the northern countries where many of the complainers come from. Although not all of these innovations were fully rolled out on the national level, there are hundreds of local governments that reached higher levels of participatory democracy than anywhere in the United States or England during the last few decades. Here is a list of 5 Brazilian public policy innovations that Northerners could learn from.

1) Women’s police stations

Brazil, which unlike the United States managed to elect a woman president twice, is frequently labeled as a “land of machismo”. While it is true that there are serious problems with women’s reproductive rights and domestic violence issues, there have been success stories as well. During the 1980s, studies showed that one of the main reasons that the crime of rape was under-reported was that women did not feel comfortable talking about their experiences with male police officers, who frequently tried to blame the victims. As a response, the federal and state governments created a system of Delegacias de Atendimento à Mulher, or Women’s Police Stations. 368 Brazilian cities now have police stations entirely staffed by women, which specialize in receiving and acting on complaints about domestic violence issues and sexual assault. Although criticized by some women’s groups when the program was initially set up for appearing to treat a social problem exclusively as a police issue, the results have been positive. Prosecutions for domestic violence and rape are significantly higher in cities which have women’s police stations.

2) Anti-slumlord legislation

American cities, which have the wealthiest local governments in the World, have horrible ghettos, in part because of predatory real estate industry practices. One traditional way to make money in real estate, practiced by notorious slum lords like Lou Wolf in my hometown of Chicago, is to purchase decrepit properties in poor neighborhoods and then sit on them for decades, leaving them empty without doing any maintenance until real estate values begin to rise, when they are sold for huge profits. This practice is called land banking. When the Brazilian military dictatorship ended and a new Constitution was drafted in 1988, urban reform activists and social movements worked together, gathering over 1 million signatures to successfully create articles 182 and 183, which declare that the social function of property overrides the profit motive. As a result of this innovative legislation, when absentee landowners leave their buildings vacant for over five years and fail to keep up with the back taxes their properties can be appropriated by the mayor’s office and converted to social housing. Since the constitution passed, and since the landmark national Cities Statute of 2001 set up a series of guidelines for adherence to these articles, hundreds of big, empty buildings in downtown areas of cities throughout the country have been appropriated and converted to social housing. This influx of new residents, who need local goods and services, revitalizes degraded neighborhoods and stimulates the local economy.

3) Social housing based on ownership as opposed to free or subsidized rents

University of Chicago sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the term “the underclass” to describe the millions of Americans who seem permanently trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty with no apparent way to get out. Although one of the most effective ways to rise out of poverty is through property ownership and the US government has spent billions of dollars subsidizing housing ownership for the white middle class through efforts like the GI Bill of 1944, public housing policy for the poor is based on rent subsidies. The Brazilian approach to public housing is based on ownership and there are several different policies that foster this. One recent example is the Minha Casa Minha Vida Entidades program that was first implemented during the Lula administration. Groups of poor women band together through social movements and community associations and make a proposal for the government to purchase a plot of land. The federal government provides architects, engineers and training for the women to build their own houses or apartment buildings. Over the course of a process that usually takes 2-3 years, the women spend one day a week working on the construction site. Once the properties are finished the government sells them for a subsided price under the condition that they live there for 10 years before selling the property, to protect against predatory speculation. The deeds for this program are issued in the name of the woman head of household, regardless if she is married or not. I provide technical assistance to residents of a condominium complex on the NW side of São Paulo that was built through this program. Everyone in the condo is a former resident of Brasilandia favela. Since they only have to pay R$50/month on their mortgages, money is left over for other things like cars and private university tuition. Due to their status as property owners, the 1000 formerly poor people who live in these apartments have all moved into the lower middle class.

4) Participatory budgeting

Participatory budgeting is, without a doubt, the most influential Brazilian public policy innovation of the last 50 years. Since its original development by PT party city governments in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul it’s been implemented in 1500 cities all over the world, including 46 in the US and Canada, often with help from Northern universities and the World Bank. How does it work? City governments turn over a percentage of their investment budget for the public to decide on. Every year, a series of budget meetings is held in one public building, usually a school, in every neighborhood. An attendance average is taken and for each ten people who show up, they get to elect one voluntary delegate. The delegates hold an assembly where budget priorities are established, money is allocated and construction contracts are awarded from the pool of companies that bid on them. Although investment usually only represents about 10% of the average Brazilian city budget and usually less than half of this amount is deliberated on by the public, projects that are implemented through participatory budgeting continually prove to be more cost effective and better suit the needs of the local residents than traditional public works.

5) Job Stability

When I worked as an assistant manager at UPS in Chicago during the 1990s I had a boss who threatened to fire me every day. I was continually stressed out and my hair began turning gray. Thanks to Brazil’s much more progressive labor laws, this type of thing does not happen here. When you are hired at a job, you start off with a 3 month grace period in which the employer has to decide if they want to keep you or not. At the end of 90 days it signs your labor card. This guarantees that from that moment forwards, if the company decides to fire you it has to pay you a severance package representing a small percentage of everything you earned there, plus a 50% fine. To give an example, I worked as an international NGO manager for five years in Rio. When the organization restructured and I was laid off, my severance package came out to around $30,000 USD. It was depressing to become unemployed, but this money provided a cushion of stability that enabled me to support my family while calmly searching for a new job. This legislation forces the employer to carefully think about and plan its human resources strategy. It creates a much more pleasant work environment than anything I ever experienced in the United States and, together with other benefits such as one month paid vacation and an annual 13th paycheck, constitutes one of the main reasons I prefer to live in Brazil. It’s hard enough raising a family and paying your monthly bills as it is without worrying that you could be fired at any moment.

Foreign journalists based in Brazil, most of whom work as freelancers, have absolutely no experience with the pleasure of working in the lower stress environment that Brazilian labor legislation guarantees its citizens. Could one of the reasons that they tend to support unpopular labor reforms be that they are jealous?

Unfortunately, after over 60 years of guaranteed labor stability, unelected president Michel Temer is attempting to dismantle these laws in the name of “flexibility” for employers. Whereas the kind of labor flexibility that you have in race to the bottom countries such as Bangladesh will certainly make wealthy business owners happy, it does not reflect the will of the people.

These laws could never be removed in a healthy democracy. It took a coup and an unelected president, supported by the international business elite, to try to remove these rights.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.