3 lessons from Brazil on how to deliver on the SDGs — sans national government

Cities and civil society groups in Brazil are eager to implement the United Nations’ new development strategy, but they say their national government is not so eager to work with them.

The disjuncture comes at a time of intense political polarization in Brazil, which over the past year has seen its president impeached, its current president accused of bribery and a popular former president sentenced to prison. As the country’s economy struggles through its worst recession in a decade, that tumult has even come to affect discussion of the country’s implementation of the U. N.’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Last week, the United Nations hosted an annual review of progress on the SDGs, the broad anti-poverty framework that went into effect last year. The Brazilian government was among dozens of countries to take part, presenting a national report that under normal circumstances could be expected to rouse little excitement — but which this year turned out to be controversial.

Initially the report was going to be the product of close consultations with NGOs and local governments that work on the ground. But ultimately, the government largely sidelined those external voices, according to multiple sources. “In the end, civil society did not participate,” Jair Brandão, a member of the Brazil in the Agenda 2030 civil society coalition, told Citiscope.

Once it became clear that voices outside the national government would not be able to weigh in on the country’s national SDGs review, activists took matters into their own hands. They drafted a parallel report, the Relatório Luz (or Spotlight Report), presented last week across the street from U. N. Headquarters.

[See: With Local 2030, the U. N. seeks to turbocharge its engagement with cities]

“The official report offered a fantasy country that is not the reality in Brazil,” said Brandão. “It’s as though there are two Brazils,” he said. The Brazilian government was unable to comment for this story by deadline.

Despite the challenge of working without cooperation from Brasília, SDG advocates in the country are pressing on, focusing their attention on several strategies for working at the subnational level. Their recent experience translating the U. N.’s agenda to the Brazilian context offers three lessons applicable to any country.

Lesson 1: ‘Municipalize’

The seeming unwillingness of the Brazilian national government to engage with the country’s local governments and civil society groups in the run-up to a major U. N. gathering is a step backward for a country known for including mayors and activists alike in its official delegations to international conferences.

“This agenda provides the independence to talk about sustainable development in the face of this polarization.”

Vitor Mihessen
Casa Fluminense

At last year’s Habitat III conference, for example, activists who pushed for a controversial position known as the “right to the city” were nevertheless official Brazilian delegates. Indeed, the country’s diplomats defended the plank in the conference’s outcome document, the New Urban Agenda.

[See: How São Paulo is tackling poverty and urban sprawl by bolstering farming]

But this retrenchment has become the new reality in the world’s fifth-largest country by population. Last year’s ouster of president Dilma Rousseff of the leftist Workers Party led to the ascendancy of conservative Michel Temer, whose approval rating now hovers in the single digits. According to some democracy experts, political polarization in the country has become a vicious cycle.

“The political climate is very troubled. Everything ends up being contaminated by this unhealthy political environment,” lamented Gilberto Perre, executive secretary of the National Mayors Front, which represents local governments in Brazil.

Despite the political situation, local government and civil society are pressing forward with plans to deliver on the SDGs at the municipal and metropolitan level in a country that is 85 percent urban.

Last year, a group of Brazilian NGOs led by the Our São Paulo Network “municipalized” the 17 goals and 169 targets that make up the SDGs. They host the information under the banner of a nationwide programme, Sustainable Cities, that allows any Brazilian group to use a common set of tools and track progress toward sustainable urban development in their city. Already, over 100 Brazilian municipalities are set to be monitored under the rubric of the Sustainable Cities Programme’s indicators.

[See: North American cities are innovating on community-level development indicators]

City leaders are digesting that information internally, as well. The National Mayors Front hosts a biennial conference on sustainable development for municipal governments to share the latest information on data collection, governance strategies and project financing. After the fourth edition was held in April, the city of Jaguariúna adopted a strategy for ensuring the safety of children and adolescents during public events and festivals hosted by the municipality, such as the state’s largest rodeo.

This month, the Front signed a memorandum of understanding with the U. N.’s offices in Brazil to formalize a partnership for how Brazilian cities can use the SDGs to improve city services.

“We’re still waiting for an invitation from the central government,” Brandão said. But, he noted, this doesn’t mean cities can’t act on their own: “Mayors understand and they are moving forward.”

Lesson 2: Go metropolitan

One possible innovation that could come out of the Brazilian experience, with or without the national government’s stamp of approval, is not just “municipalizing” the SDGs but also “metropolitanizing” them.

“Rio-based NGO Casa Fluminense says the SDGs make the most sense in Brazil when thought of at the metropolitan scale.”

All of Brazil’s major cities are surrounded by smaller municipalities, but the issues affecting everyday citizens don’t restrict themselves to the city limits. Rio de Janeiro, for example, is home to about 6 million people. Add in the other municipalities that surround it, and that number jumps to 12 million people.

[See: In Rio’s biggest favela, one flashy project thrives while another fails]

Most are clustered along Guanabara Bay, the picturesque water body where Rio was founded some 450 years ago that is today a polluted dumping ground. Addressing those issues in Rio alone won’t solve the problem, necessitating a metropolitan approach.

A map of the 21 municipalities in metropolitan Rio de Janeiro showing the percentage of commuters who work in Rio proper and each municipality’s performance on indicators for urban mobility. (Casa Fluminense)

That’s the perspective of Rio-based NGO Casa Fluminense, which says the SDGs make the most sense in Brazil when thought of at the metropolitan scale. Cities’ traffic woes, for example, stem from regional commuting patterns as lower-wage workers live in peripheral municipal areas and travel into the central city each day. And while the city of Rio has been lauded for cracking down on organized crime in the city’s favelas, neighbouring municipalities are complaining that drug traffickers simply moved outside the city limits and set up shop in their areas.

In Rio’s case, Casa Fluminense’s efforts come at a time when metropolitan-scale thinking is not just an academic exercise but a political reality. In 2014, the state government signed off on the Rio de Janeiro Metropolitan Chamber, a body consisting of the state governor, the Rio mayor and mayors from 20 surrounding municipalities. It’s not an elected body — although the 22 executives that sit on it are elected by constituents — so its role is mostly advisory.

[See: Why the world needs a Metropolitan Compact]

In turn, several dozen professional associations, universities, regulatory agencies, banks, NGOs, private sector associations, public-private concessionaires and state government agencies are involved in various projects. The most significant of these is the metropolitan strategic plan.

With a governance structure already in place that sees greater Rio as a distinct geographical and economic unit, Casa Fluminense is eager to roll up its sleeves and begin applying the SDGs’ goals, targets and indicators to the massive metropolitan area.

Lesson 3: Embrace the apolitical

In fact, the metropolitan lens was one that Casa Fluminense had already been using. Every election year, the NGO prepares a checklist to remind voters and politicians of the crucial issues facing Brazil’s second-largest city.

But there had always been risks to that type of approach. In a country where NGOs are sometimes used as fronts for political campaigns and money laundering operations, Casa Fluminense risked being seen as favouring one political party or another with its calls for more robust urban mobility options, better sanitation facilities and improved public safety.

[See: Need a guide for regional SDGs implementation? Look to Belgium and Kenya.]

So when the SDGs entered the scene, they offered convenient external validation of Casa Fluminense’s ambitions. “The 2030 Agenda complements our agenda,” Casa Fluminense’s Vitor Mihessen told Citiscope, referring to the broader framework that encompasses the SDGs. “It provides broad goals, and we localize them to the Rio de Janeiro metropolitan area.”

Most importantly, as an international agenda agreed by 193 countries, the SDGs are ostensibly free of any political affiliation at a difficult time for Brazilian politics. “This agenda provides the independence to talk about sustainable development in the face of this polarization,” Mihessen said.

Casa Fluminense’s work is just getting started with the support of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, a technical body mandated by the U. N. secretary general, and GIZ, the German government’s international development agency. One possible outcome would be an observatory to track the SDGs at the metropolitan level, similar to how the Sustainable Cities Programme follows a set of indicators at the municipal level. Ultimately that would require robust data collection not just in the central city but in the peripheral, often poorer, municipalities that make up the rest of the metropolitan area. (The national government also collects disaggregated data as part of its decennial census, but the most recent information is now seven years old, with the next census slated for 2020.)

[See: If cities are to ‘leave no one behind’, disaggregated data is invaluable]

The project’s goal is to prepare a methodology of official and non-official data sources by the end of this year, then pilot the effort next year in Rio as well as São Paulo and Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s other two largest cities. Casa Fluminense hopes to bring its initial results to next year’s SDG review, which is scheduled to have a significant focus on cities.

Not that there aren’t hurdles, given Brazil’s twin political and economic crises. In Rio, for example, the state government declared bankruptcy last year, and the former governor is currently in jail. The basic machinery of government, including projects such as the Metropolitan Chamber, are in an increasingly fragile state.

If Casa Fluminense is able to navigate the ongoing turmoil and come up with an accurate state of play for the SDGs in greater Rio, it will be in large part thanks to the neutral flag that comes with the U. N.’s imprimatur.

The SDGs are “an apolitical agenda,” said Cid Blanco Jr., an urban planner consulting on Casa Fluminense’s metropolitan effort. “It doesn’t have a political affiliation — it’s a universal agenda for good. Independent of your political affiliation, governments have adopted this agenda. This permits people from different political stripes to work together on the same topic.”

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.