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A Backlands Hit

A Backlands Hit

The most innovative part of the Ceará story is not the budget cuts
but the steps which were taken to make government work. The social democrats
decided, for example, to define the area’s chronic drought as a social
problem, not an agricultural one. The families with the greatest need were
allocated one minimum wage job per household getting jobs close by, so
the workers could sleep and eat at home.

Ted Goertzel

The northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará is winning fame as
one of the best examples of modern social democracy in action. New social
democrats such as Great Britain’s Tony Blair and Brazil’s Fernando Henrique
Cardoso are sometimes accused of being no different from the “neoliberals”
who want to slash government spending and let the “invisible hand” of the
market take care of everything. The social democrats agree, of course,
with the need to cut government waste, and they support a free market economy
when it works, but they also believe that government must be reformed to
make it stronger and more effective. They want to use modernized, strengthened
government programs to solve social problems and guide economic development.

This is an attractive vision, but critics doubt that they can make it
work. On a recent visit to Brazil, I asked one of President Cardoso’s advisors
where I might go to see the social democratic model in action. He suggested
a visit to the impoverished northeastern state of Ceará. The social
democrats have had ten years in office in Ceará, since 1987 when
Tasso Jereissati was elected governor. And they have accomplished so much
that Johns Hopkins University Press has just published a book, Good
Government in the Tropics, by Judith Tendler, which uses Ceará
as a case study of effective government intervention. Brazil, which has
so often provided scholars with case studies of waste and corruption, is
now being used as proof that reform can work.

Although European social democracy was based on the labor movement,
in Ceará it got its start among a group of young businessmen. Tasso
Jereissati, who was 36 at the time of his election, was part of a group
of young entrepreneurs who organized to challenge the state’s traditional
leaders. These young businessmen were active in modern industries such
as soft drink distribution, television, retail marketing or services, which
depend on the buying power of local residents for their sales. The traditional
elites in the Brazilian northeast had exported agricultural products to
foreign markets, and were more interested in keeping wages down than in
expanding buying power. These traditional leaders maintained old-fashioned
political machines with patronage jobs.

Ceará’s patronage system was in crisis in 1987, as it is today
in many Brazilian states, because payrolls had simply grown too large for
the state to pay. Salaries were eating up 87% of the state government’s
revenue. The social democrats promised to trim down government, and they
kept their promise with a startling alacrity. One of the first acts of
the Jereissati administration was to cut 40,000 “ghost” workers from the
state payroll of 146,000. These were people who never showed up for work,
or who had two or more full time state jobs at one time. The administration
also slowed down the indexing of state salaries to inflation, cutting real
salaries, and put a cap on state salaries. It also insisted that all new
hiring be done through competitive exams. As a result of these measures,
salaries were down to 41% of state revenues by 1991.

This administrative reform was bitterly resisted by many of the state
employees and their supporters in the state legislature, just as Fernando
Henrique Cardoso’s reform is being resisted by the “maharajas” of the federal
civil service, a tiny elite of whom earn as much as $30,000 a month early
retirement pensions while working other jobs. Some of the early votes in
the Ceará legislature were 90% against the reforms, and for several
months party leader Ciro Gomes was booed every time he entered the legislative
chamber. All kinds of legal tactics were used in attempts to sabotage the
reforms. Ultimately, however, the governor was successful because the fiscal
crisis made emergency measures unavoidable. There simply wasn’t money to
keep paying everyone.

The most innovative part of the Ceará story, however, is not
the budget cuts but the steps which were taken to make government work.
A key figure in this effort was the Secretary of Labor and Social Action,
sociologist José Rosa. Rosa was a native of Ceará who had
studied and worked in France, and had moved to Brasília to teach
and work in the federal government. When the social democrats took power,
Rosa eagerly accepted Jereissati’s request that he return to Ceará
and put his ideas into action. Rosa is an energetic man, bubbling over
with ideas and enthusiasm, who loves Ceará’s frontier spirit. He
insists that “the Cearense does not have the soul of a slave.” Ceará
was settled by ranchers and cattlemen, including many blacks who had escaped
from slavery on the plantations of neighboring states, and the work required
free laborers who could be trusted to work on their own.

When Rosa took office, there was no time for leisurely planning or long-term
goals, because Ceará was hit by one of the periodic droughts, which
are the bane of the Brazilian northeast. In the past, something of a “drought
industry” had developed, as the state and federal governments channeled
relief money to big construction projects on the land of wealthy landowners.
These projects had large overheads, but provided employment for only a
small number of workers. Many farmers and cowhands had to move to the capital
city of Fortaleza, or to southern Brazil, in a desperate search for work.
The social democrats decided to define the drought as a social problem,
not an agricultural one. Aid was channeled through José Rosa’s Ministry
of Social Action instead of thorough the Agricultural Ministry as it had
been in the past.

In keeping with the new spirit of democracy, Rosa used participatory
planning techniques to develop a drought relief program. Instead of staying
in his office like a traditional bureaucrat, he traveled tirelessly throughout
the state, by auto and helicopter, meeting with community organizations
which had sprouted up as part of the democratization movement. The people
told him that the most important thing was for each family to have at least
one income, so they designed projects which were close to home and labor
intensive. The families with the greatest need were allocated one minimum
wage job per household. The jobs had to be nearby, so the workers could
sleep and eat at home.

When there was a man in the house, he usually took the job, but there
were many households headed by women with children. Often the men had left
to seek work in other parts of the country. These women couldn’t do a full
day of heavy physical labor and also meet their household and child care
responsibilities, so they were trained as home health aides. They went
from house to house giving advice on nutrition, vaccination and hygiene.
The program was dramatically successful in lowering the infant mortality
rate, which had increased during previous droughts.

Relief money was also used to fund day care centers, with local women
trained to work in them. At first the women were volunteers, but they found
that few of them could afford to put in the hours without pay. So they
were given half a minimum wage, later increased to a full minimum wage.
The jobs were temporary, however, in order to give the opportunity to as
many women as possible, and encourage them to find other employment.

The key to the success of this program was the fact that these day care
centers were not government agencies staffed by state employees. They were
organized and run by voluntary community groups, under contract to the
state. This cut down on bureaucracy, and gave the residents experience
in developing and administering their own programs. They learned to prepare
budgets, supervise staff and be accountable to clients and funding sources.
One of the few resources which poor communities have in quantity is the
energy and creativity of their citizens. Mobilizing this underutilized
resource enabled them to put the maximum into services and the minimum
into administrative costs. The number of day care centers in the state
mushroomed from 9 under the previous administration to over 470, and is
expected to reach 1800.

This new philosophy of helping people to help themselves is being promoted
throughout the Brazil by first lady Ruth Cardoso who directs an organization
called Comunidade Solidária. Comunidade Solidária does not
control programs, like a traditional bureaucracy. Nor does it just give
out help to the needy, like traditional charities. Instead, it encourages
neighborhood and community organizations to organize to define and meet
their own problems. This philosophy has worked well in Ceará, often
on a very small scale. A neighborhood group may, for example, lend a woman
money to buy a sewing machine so she can earn a living on her own. She
repays the money, with small interest payments so that she learns about
paying interest. The repaid money can then be loaned out again. When someone
comes with an emergency, such as an illness or a death in the family, they
are asked what they can do themselves and what help they need in doing
it. Last year, Ceará was able to loan out about $70,000 of money
which had been repaid from previous loans.

Another program in which Ceará has been remarkably successful
is in dealing with the problems of street children, many of whom are drawn
into prostitution and drug dealing. Social workers from community agencies
gain the confidence of these children, and make contact with their families.
They then work on improving the family’s situation, helping the parents
find a job or get help with health or addiction problems, for example,
so that they can help the children. The program, which has won funding
from international agencies, has dramatically reduced the number of children
on the streets.

Social democracy in Ceará has been good for business as well
as for social welfare. In the years between 1987 and 1994, Ceará’s
economy grew at an average annual rate of 4%, which contrasted to 1.3%
for Brazil as a whole. This growth was funded with the state’s own resources,
using money which had previously gone into salaries. State government is
funding a number of economic development projects, including irrigation
projects and an improved port facility which will be next to an oil refinery.
They are also promoting tourism in the state, which has a long string of
tropical beaches. The heavy reliance on state investment is not due to
an ideological bias in favor of the government enterprise. Indeed, the
main thrust of Fernando Henrique Cardoso’s federal government has been
on privatizing state industries. In Ceará, however, the social democrats
have found that private investment is simply not available for many key
projects, so they have used state money. At the same time, they eagerly
court domestic and foreign private investment. Small business is also encouraged,
with neighborhood centers that help people with the maze of bureaucratic
paperwork needed to legalize a business.

Planning director Cláudio Ferreira, like many of the young technocrats
leading Ceará’s development, was a leftist activist when Brazil
was ruled by a military government. Today, however, his vision for the
future of Ceará is not Cuba or any other socialist state, but the
state of California. He believes that, with irrigation, the interior of
Ceará can bloom like the San Joaquin valley. Cláudio Ferreira
is applying American ideas about “reinventing government” to the state’s
planning process. All programs are integrated by teams of working groups
which coordinate the activities of the state agencies which formerly functioned
independently within bureaucratic limits.

Perhaps the main disadvantage of the social democratic model is the
number of meetings people must attend. As every social program jumps on
the bandwagon of participatory management, citizens find themselves overwhelmed
with requests to volunteer their time. It is easy to mobilize energy during
a crisis, such as a drought, but it is harder to find volunteers to work
on more routine matters. Government officials sometimes find it hard to
get their work done when they spend so much time on coordination meetings.

Another problem, as Alfredo Lopes Neto, a young planning official and
another former leftist activist, explained, is that much of the new participatory
infrastructure duplicates the old structure of government. The mayors,
city council members and state legislators sometimes feel that the community
organizations are usurping their rights to represent the people. The officials,
after all, have been democratically elected while the community groups
are self-appointed. If funds are distributed through the community organizations,
they may become new sources of political patronage.

These are issues which will be fought out in the democratic process.
If political leaders from other parties want to compete successfully with
the social democrats, however, they will have to offer much more than they
did before 1987. The traditional culture of dependence on political bosses
has been broken. As the taxi driver told me on the drive into town from
the airport, the history of Ceará must now be divided into epochs:
before Jereissati and after Jereissati.


Ted Goertzel is a Sociology professor at the Rutgers
University in Camden, New Jersey. He is the author of five books, the latest
two being Linus Pauling: A Life in Science and Politics and Turncoats
and True Believers: The Dynamics of Political Belief and Disillusionment.
You can contact him through his E-mail: goertzel@crab.rutgers.edu

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