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Steal This Plan for Civic Action
A model for preventing the misuse of municipal funds that was born in Maringá, Brazil, in 2006 has since been replicated in 56 Brazilian cities. (Aerial photo courtesy of the city government)

Steal This Plan for Civic Action

The UCLA Latin American Institute played host to five organizations that have been recognized by the Experiences in Social Innovation Contest, a United Nations initiative, for advancing UN-sponsored antipoverty goals through community participation. Last year's winner, the Social Observatory of Maringá (Brazil), seeks to prevent corruption in local government spending.

When a grassroots organization in Brazil scratched the surface of the bidding process for municipal contracts in Maringá, a mid-sized city in the country's south, it exposed plenty of irregularities to embarrass local officials.

Michelle Shimoda explains how the Social Observatory of Maringá uncovers and addresses local corruption issues.

Michelle Shimoda explains how the Social Observatory of Maringá uncovers and addresses local corruption issues.

Someone was repairing vehicles that Maringá no longer owned, for example, and washing the bona fide city vehicles for hundreds of U.S. dollars a pop. In general, overpricing was a big problem. Many bids and contracts were never compared with retail prices, or checked against one another. The cost of uniforms, toothbrushes and textbooks doubled or tripled their actual worth, and the shift of a decimal point in one contract set the city back a bundle. Meanwhile, the school district was holding a 133-year supply of dry erase markers and 83 years' worth of disposable cups.

Since 2006, Ethically Responsible Society (SER), a community group without political party ties, has brought such anomalies and abuses to light through a project known as the Social Observatory of Maringá. Although the observatory, or monitor, has no formal authority to intervene in contracting decisions, it has overcome initial resistance by city employees and now operates as a partner, training volunteers to conduct audits and dispensing free advice. By its own estimate, it has saved Maringá US$12 million through 2009.

"The Observatory doesn't do its job in order to penalize anyone. We're working to change the culture," said Michelle Shimoda of SER. "One day there will be no need for the Observatory."

At a symposium in the Faculty Center all day on Monday, Nov. 22, the Latin American Institute played host to SER and four other organizations that have been recognized by the Experiences in Social Innovation Contest, a United Nations initiative backed by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, for advancing the UN's Millennium Development Goals through community participation. Representatives of first-place prize-winning groups from Belize, Brazil, Haiti and Peru described projects – all of which have served as models in other countries – that take on poverty by addressing issues of environmental degradation, maternal and infant mortality, unemployment, and domestic violence.

In comments following Shimoda's presentation, UCLA Professor of History Bill Summerhill explained the strong connection between local anticorruption measures and economic development. Brazil, which ranks near the middle in Transparency International's worldwide corruption index, surrenders about 2.3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually because of corruption problems. Compounded over years, that has been a very significant drag on Brazil's growth rate.

Because most government outlays, including transfers of federal funds, happen at the local level, Summerhill said, it is a logical place to concentrate efforts. He added that, beyond civil and criminal penalties, there must be a political price for corruption, precisely because politicians use their relationships with cronies in order to remain in power.

A specialist in Brazil's economic history, Summerhill praised the observatory for the impact its audits can have on public opinion and the fate of local politicians: "That, in the long run, is the most important penalty to apply."

At the UCLA event, cosponsored by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL),  two members of the CEPAL Experiences in Social Innovation Contest selection committee formally launched a book, "From Social Innovation to Public Policy: Success Stories from Latin American and the Caribbean."