For so many years I have heard UK councils and the public sector in general, echo, “we are different”. While I believe that each local community has its nuances and therefore is different, my visit to Brazil during August puts that UK discussion in context. A Federal structure of state and municipalities is different from the UK but key areas of interest were the UK approach to strategic commissioning, the UK focus on outcomes commissioning, community budgets and procurement appear to be of major interest to Brazil. But Brazil also has useful lessons which the UK could learn from. Also clear was the inquisitive nature of those I met and their passion for public sector improvement.
I was there at the invitation of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and they had a packed schedule in place. I delivered a number of seminars to State Governments and their advisers, met with municipal officers, had guided tours of cities, advised Federal public sector organisations on strategic procurement, addressed the National Contract Management Association and had many one-to-one discussions with students. Of course I also had time to enjoy trekking in the world’s largest urban forest.
During my two weeks I discovered Brazil IS DIFFERENT. But that difference highlighted opportunities for the UK and Brazil to learn from each other.
My first observation of Brazil was from the window of the plane. I must have flown the equivalent of the length of the UK without any sign whatsoever of human habitation. Brazil is big, well, Brazil is very big and a lot of it is open space! Paradoxically a city like Rio is dense!
The image of Beauty and the Beast comes to mind but first let’s remember that the Beast in the story has a soft side and turns out to be full of virtue. As I travelled within Rio it wasn’t the majestic landscape of Sugarloaf and Corcovado, or beautiful old buildings recalling the days of colonialism which marked Rio as different, nor the modern office blocks which would not look out of place at Canary Wharf, nor the mind boggling 13km bridge to Niteroi.
No, what is indelibly stamped in my mind is that the architectural gems, both old and the new, sit side-by-side the Favelas, the self-constructed Brazilian equivalent of shantytowns which are the home of one third of Rio’s community. Wherever I went in Rio, I was less than a few metres away from a Favela.
One of the biggest challenges to Brazil is clearly realising the potential of these ‘Beasts’ and transforming those communities into Beauties. The Favela bring extreme poverty and crime challenges. How do the UK debates of Big Society and localism transfer to this society of need and difference? Having lived in Belfast most of my life I could remember the ‘no-go areas’. This was different. I asked my hosts if they had ever driven through a Favela (implying can we drive through a Favela). My impression was that they had never been in any of the Favela. I was regaled with the account of a UK chief police officer who when asked for solutions to the Favela just replied, “this can not be solved”. I was also shown YouTube films of favela ‘pacification’ – absolutely unbelievable in terms of the war on crime. Why is there so much deprivation? Well I don’t have an answer, but I think the lack of an achievable public sector blueprint for success is part of the problem and the control of organised crime. But perversely it also appears that these communities also have a remarkable sense of community.
While the security services have embarked upon a strategy of pacification of the Favela, removing the power of drug related organised crime – and I mean with heavy arms, it was here I heard of one of the lessons from Brazil in listening to the community. The biggest Favela have 200,000 residents and many have no roads as the buildings have been constructed so close together, no sanitation, no services, …. So as part of pacifying one Favela the community asked for a ski-lift. The ski-lift which covers miles, in a state which has never seen snow, has the sole purpose of moving residents across the Favela. A clear sense of local community is needed to become part of the wider citizenry of Brazil otherwise Brazil will be starved of some of the oxygen of improvement – could the UK help?