“Corruption kills people and death is forever”

Some people asked us to publish an interview with the local project coordinator, Fábio Oliva, who is an investigative journalist, active blogger (http://blogdofabiooliva.blogspot.com/) and founder of the Friends of Januária Association (Asajan). Asajan has been fighting corruption and monitoring public expenditures in Januária for seven years. Since then, the association has investigated corrupt politicians and, as a result, many mayors were driven from office due to wrongdoings in public administration. Oliva thinks Friends of Januária Citizen Media project will show to the youth of Januária how important it is to monitor the town’s administration. Besides, says Fabio, the project can give them the opportunity to become citizen reporters, which will give voice to people from Januária. We made a long interview with Fábio, which we will publish in 3 or 4 posts. We also made a short video with him! Stay tuned! See below the first part of the interview:


How did the interest in monitoring public administration start?

I was born in Januária and have always heard my parents and also my grandparents speaking about the problems faced by the town, which hadn’t been growing, hadn’t been developing. At that time, the re were many people who made up reasons for the underdevelopment of Januária. They used to say that the town would not develop because the road to Montes Claros [the biggest town in the region] was not paved and, besides, that there was no paved road because there was no development. Well, the pavement was completed. And Januária continued unchanged. Further, these people started to make up other excuses: Januária would not grow because there was no bridge crossing the São Francisco river [the most important river at the Northeast part of Brazil] and, besides, there were no bridge because there was no development. Well, the bridge was completed, and Januária did not grow.

I grew up hearing these kind of excuses. I moved to Montes Claros – and so did thousands of young people from Januária – because there were no opportunities in the town. Then, something happened to my father. He had a heart attack and died inside an ambulance, which ran out of fuel in the middle of the road to Montes Claros [Januária hospital could not look after him and, then, he had to be removed to the biggest town nearby]. The only cause for this reality – backwardness, underdevelopment, lack of medicine and doctors, an inadequate hospital – is corruption. I myself suffered from a problem that was caused by corruption.


How exactly does corruption affect peoples life in Januária?

Incredible though it may seem, corrupt politicians prefer to withdraw money from the most important areas: health and education. I use to say that the thermometer of corruption in most of Brazilian towns is the quality of the food provided to children at school. In towns where corruption is a big problem, the school lunch is garbage. When the school lunch is good, you can be certain that corruption is less. This has two different impacts: long term and the short term. The short term impact is that people die because of corruption, as my father died. They arrive at the hospital and there are no gloves to undertake medical procedures, there are no syringes, there is no medicine, there is no doctor (because they do not want to work if they do not get paid).

The long term impact happens when money is embezzled from education and you cannot offer children good nutricion when they are at school and you can not offer them goo d course materials, like books. The lack of good education generates a problem in the future: the lack of civic consciousness and lack of a concept of civic rights in youth and adults. And that is exactly what the corrupt politician wants. The fewer people to fight corruption the better for him. These kinds of impacts (the short term and the long term) are not accounted by politicians in their illegal bank accounts. Neither can authorities count them. State attorneys only count the amount of money that has been embezzled, they do not count how many people die because of the embezzlement of public funds. That is a very important calculation.


Was it after your father’s death that you decided to create Asajan?

Actually, a second problem happened with my nephew. Once, my brother, who is parent of the child, called me very upset. He said: you help so many people, you do a lot of good things in Montes Claros – I had always been connected with social projects and I work as a journalist since I was 18 years old – but you do nothing for Januária. Then, I told him: the problem in Januária is that people don’t have courage to fight against corruption. However, if you succeed in bringing together between 8 and 10 people who want to do it, I will come back to Januária and we will create a NGO to fight corruption.

In fact, my brother got his hands dirty and brought together a group of people. So I searched the Internet for information about fighting against corruption. The first site I came across was Amarribo’s [Friends of Ribeirão Bonito Association, the first NGO in Brazil to dismiss a corrupt mayor from the town’s administration]. Amarribo gave us all the support we needed to start Asajan. They explained to us how to create a statute and other bureaucratic procedures. Two weeks later, we came together in Januária to create the first NGO to fight corruption on Northern Minas Gerais [one of the poorest regions in Brazil].


(to be continued…)

Crowds can also help Friends of Januária

Since Rising Voices gave us the opportunity to make this citizen media project a reality, we have had great surprises! Thanks to RV’s support, we have been connecting with many people and other organizations that like the project and want to help it somehow! That gave us even more enthusiasm to do the best we can!

Some people has given us fantastic ideas, others have offered to publicize the project’s activities and, finally, there are those who want to help fund the project with small amounts of money. Well, we have always imagined what a better project we could do if we had more funding… especially because the final RV grant ended up being a little bit smaller than the amount we asked for.

Meanwhile, we have also connected with a nice brazilian crowdfunding site, called Catarse (http://catarse.me). We sent our project to its crew and told them the amount of extra money we would need. They really liked the project and decided to support it by adding it to Catarse!

At last, our biggest news is that the public can also help Friends of Januária at Catarse! Anyone with a credit card can donate. The smallest contribution available is only R$ 10 (around US$ 6)! Our final deadline is August 14th! If you know someone that may want to support us, you can help us by sending the following link to those interested:
http://catarse.me/en/projects/198-amigos-de-januaria-jornalismo-cidadao
We already have an English version of it and we will see if we can publish it as well.

We are asking for R$ 3.500 total. Catarse has some administrative fees and after accounting for the rewards we will offer to those who support us, the sum of money that would become available to the project is R$ 2.800 (something like US$ 1,750).

This funds will be used, for example, to buy multimedia equipment (our estimated budget for this was US$ 600, which could only buy a very simple video camera in Brazil), pay for one or two extra visits to Januária, print better course materials, and help trainers pay for their accommodation in the town.

But don’t panic! If we don’t succeed in achieving this extra funding, the project will still happen. With the Rising Voices grant – in addition to some volunteer aid from the trainers – we can make it! The main reason we are looking for more money is because we believe the project could become stronger with extra support!

Anyway, we are being positive! We think we will get the extra support we asked for from brazilian crowdfunding site! On the second day, we already got 19% of the amount we asked for! Great, isn’t it??! : )

Barriers to access to information in Brazil

Today we will to talk a little more about the situation of access to information in the municipalities of Brazil.

Brazil has a lot of norms with instructions on access to information (you can see some of them in Portuguese here). On the municipal level, there is a federal law (see the text in Portuguese here) that says that information about public budget and expenditures should be made available in real time through the Internet.

Although this law was published two years ago, until now 68,5% municipalities with population between 50.000 and 100.000 have transparency websites. And this doesn’t mean that they have proper information on public budget!

If a person tries to access information by making a formal request to the responsible party, there are still a lot of barriers to the access. Some of the common excuses given to restrict information are:

“I can’t give you this information because it is secret”
“We don’t have enough employees to do this”

They also argue that the person that demands information should pay for the xerox copy of it. Another strategy is to mix a lot of documents and give them so the requester has to find the information there. So, although the law assures citizens their right to information, it still doesn’t details basic procedures how information should be given.

And what all this has to do with Januária?

Access to information is a powerful tool for the ones that want to change the situation of corruption. The case of Asajan (Associação Amigos de Januária) is an example of how information can empower the citizens: with help from people that gives them data on public expenditures they have helped the Judiciary in finding important cases of corruption.

Updates

The citizen media project Friends of Januária has had some important achievements in the last weeks. We are just waiting for some confirmations to share them with you, so be prepared for some good news in the next posts!

If you are interested in knowing more about access to information, here is a nice article by Suzanne J. Piotrowski: The Operationalization of Municipal Transparency: Primary Administrative Functions and Intervening Factors.