Since 2016, Brazil has witnessed a slew of policy overhauls affecting different demographics and sectors, prompted either by political shifts or government spending cuts. A book recently published by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) shows that certain sectors, like healthcare and culture, have better withstood pressures to cut costs or reevaluate government programs compared to other domains, such as the environment and indigenous rights, with the latter suffering from what in academic circles is termed as “policy dismantling.” The book also draws parallels between Brazil’s experience and that of countries such as the US, Poland, and Hungary. In these nations, the revamping of public policies was championed by right-wing populist leaders, some of whom were hostile towards the checks and balances integral to the separation of powers in a liberal democracy.
Titled Desmonte e reconfiguração de políticas públicas (2016-2022) (Policy dismantling and reconfiguration [2016–2022]),” the book’s 18 chapters and 570 pages were the work of over 40 different authors, including IPEA experts and researchers affiliated with the National Institute of Science and Technology in Public Policies, Strategies, and Development, based at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. In the following interview, economist Alexandre de Ávila Gomide, a researcher at IPEA and presently director of advanced studies at the National School of Public Administration (ENAP), distills the main conclusions from the book, of which he was a coproducer.
Alluding to the book’s title, has Brazil’s experience since 2016 been more a case of policy dismantling or reconfiguration?
It depends on the sector. In the economic domain, it was more a case of reconfiguration. There were several policy changes at BNDES [the Brazilian Development Bank] that, as one of the chapters in the book shows, significantly scaled back funding instruments for infrastructure. As another example, I may not agree with shifting the responsibility for sanitation investments to the private sector, but this policy was changed within the confines of democratic processes and political alternation. If a government is more on the liberal or developmental side, it’s going to reshape policies according to its platform. However, a number of public policies were dismantled outright.
Long-standing policies, anchored in strong organizations and a wide coalition of beneficiaries, are more difficult to dismantle
In which instances was this most acute?
The book doesn’t attempt to measure which areas were more affected than others. But one prominent example of dismantling was in relation to environmental policies, which were heavily affected by the elimination or weakening of environmental protection programs and instruments and the loss of administrative resources within federal agencies. What somewhat restrained the extent of the dismantling was the response from a portion of the agribusiness sector, which is now highly globalized. This sector realized that if the dismantling went unchecked, they would struggle to sell their products internationally. Government programs for indigenous peoples also suffered significantly. There were government officials within FUNAI (the National Indigenous Foundation) looking to evangelize indigenous peoples.
The book places what unfolded in Brazil within a wave it terms as “illiberal populism,” a trend also observed in countries like the US, India, Poland, and Hungary. What does Brazil have in common with these countries?
Policy dismantling is a topic that is well explored in the literature. In the 1980s, US president Ronald Reagan [1911–2004] and UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher [1925–2013] were elected on platforms advocating for the reduction of social welfare programs, yet they pursued these changes within the democratic framework, and their impact was less extensive than initially proposed. More recently, post-2008, several countries grappled with fiscal crises, leading to a curtailment of social welfare programs. However, the current wave is different. A shared element between Brazil and other nations is the use of hardball strategies, characterized by a confrontational stance towards institutions. Some administrations have pushed the boundaries of legality, with the government proposing policy modifications that could be subsequently declared void by the Supreme Federal Court or vetoed by Congress. In other cases, institutional dismantling has been pursued. Consider the case of Fundação Palmares. While there is no legal requirement that the foundation’s president must align with its mission, which is to combat racism, this would be an expected prerequisite for the job. However, since the law does not expressly prohibit otherwise, an individual who was hostile to the foundation’s purpose was appointed. The same dynamic played out at IBAMA [the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources]. In the US, Donald Trump accused the “deep state” of undermining his administration — a term he used pejoratively in reference to the civil service. He was alluding to government officials trained to adhere to due process and who resisted his hardball tactics. Here in Brazil, as well as in countries like Hungary and Poland, the policy dismantling occurred amid a period of institutional stress and the threat of democratic regression.
Was there anything unique about the Brazilian experience?
Absolutely, and it also has to do with the civil service. Public servants are cornerstones of stability in democracies. In principle, they’re individuals with expertise and are chosen based on merit. They understand the legal framework they’re bound by. Here in Brazil, institutional stress was introduced by placing military personnel in leadership positions. The military has a different culture; they aren’t trained for these kinds of roles. This was a significant feature of the Brazilian experience. Right after President Jair Bolsonaro took office, he flew to the US and delivered a defining statement, saying that a lot had to be torn down in order to rebuild. Democratic regression was a key part of his agenda, as he and his supporters attribute many of our problems to democracy. Another particularity of the Brazilian experience is the fusion of this reactionary approach with neoliberal economic ideology. This sets it apart from what unfolded in countries like the US, where Trump adopted a notably nationalist rhetoric.
What factors contribute to public-policy resilience against dismantling and reconfiguration? Could you provide recent examples within the Brazilian context?
According to the literature, public policies must gain support over time from direct and indirect beneficiaries. Economic and social actors learn to navigate the system and organize themselves to effectively implement those policies. In general, longstanding policies anchored in strong organizations and a wide coalition of beneficiaries are more difficult to dismantle than newer policies tied to ministries lacking a robust bureaucracy to manage their implementation. Take the Rouanet Law as an example: it’s been around for years now, the entire arts sector is well-acquainted with it, banks have established cultural foundations to utilize it, and the government has put structures in place for its operation. Despite being assailed on all sides, it has survived. Largely thanks to the response from stakeholders, the attacks never went much beyond rhetoric, even though there were some setbacks. This is in contrast to the dismantling of the Bolsa Verde program under the Ministry of the Environment, which offered benefits to low-income families engaged in environmental preservation, as well as policies promoting racial or gender equality, which lacked robust supporting structures. Another important factor is the degree to which a policy has been institutionalized. Past governments attempted to downscale or even eliminate the Continuous Cash Benefit (BPC) program, which provides a minimum wage to elderly individuals or those with disabilities who are unable to support themselves. This policy carries significant fiscal costs. However, it has been in place since 1993, and Congress resisted efforts to dismantle it. Conversely, with the Bolsa Família program, there was more room for discretion. The benefit was retained because of its electoral dividends, but was operationally restructured.
Which sectors put up the strongest resistance to policy dismantling and reconfiguration? You mentioned the bureaucracy, the Judiciary…
The role of the bureaucracy was highly significant. For instance, the Foreign Ministry managed to get Brazil out of several diplomatic pickles. But the most decisive role was played by Congress. When the Executive branch’s policy preferences were not aligned with those of the average legislator, what we call veto points came into play. Even though Congress leaned conservative, its median position was less right-leaning than that of the Executive, which created certain barriers. The government had to put numerous policies into place through executive orders, including new policies on firearms and the environment, and many of these were either entirely or partially overturned by Congress or the Judiciary. The resistance came from our democratic-liberal institutions, which are built on the principles of checks and balances. Public opinion also helped when it had the power to mobilize society. However, those not empowered to do so were left helpless.
Could you provide examples of this?
Take, for instance, the situation of the Yanomami and the small-scale gold mines in the Amazon, which fell into lawlessness. Indigenous peoples had limited power for civic mobilization. There was nobody there to witness it, and we only found out much later about what was going on. This is in contrast to the episode involving the COVID-19 vaccines. Civil society rallied, and the government was pressured to actively procure vaccines. The National Healthcare System, or SUS, showed resilience during that period, largely due to civil society stepping up in its support throughout the pandemic.
What are the prospects for rebuilding these public policies?
In Brazil, I see several hurdles in the way. Our current Congress is moderately more conservative than the Executive, and there is very little overlap between different factions. In a typical democracy, there is common ground where consensus can be reached. This is most evident in the US. Even if a policy is associated with the Democratic Party, there are always a few Republican lawmakers who see it as aligning with the interests of their constituents and are open to backing it. So small coalitions form that support the policy. However, when polarization intensifies, these overlaps diminish and it becomes a tribal war. Two decades ago, when the dominant parties were the PT and the PSDB, there were more areas of convergence. Now the landscape has changed dramatically. The government is faced with an enormous challenge. It’s not just about rebuilding; it’s about recreating. Many things that may have worked in the past will no longer be viable. Society has changed. Consider the issue of citizen participation. Every social democratic administration believes in seeking consensus, engaging society in discussions, and convening both business leaders and workers in the same forum to find common ground. This approach is no longer as effective. There has been a shift in civil society. The reactionary right has reorganized. Illiberal populism has helped to mobilize this portion of society and is harnessing technology to do so. They dominate social media. Building consensus to pressure Congress and pass legislation is considerably more challenging. And the situation is not only challenging in Brazil. Observers of US politics have witnessed society there become highly polarized as well. In other nations like India, Turkey, and Hungary, leaders of illiberal populist movements have secured reelection.
In the US, Donald Trump accused the “deep state” of undermining his administration — a term he used pejoratively in reference to the civil service
Did Brazil’s previous administration’s failure to win reelection have to do with its dismantling of public policies, or is that an overstatement?
I’d say it did have an impact, indeed. Many voters were swayed by a perceived deterioration in public programs, with the pandemic magnifying this perception, as well as thrusting Brazil into an economic crisis. Had the government better managed certain policies, the election outcome might have been different. Typically, global studies reveal that politicians who dismantle policies attempt not to be perceived as dismantlers, because this is unpopular. In Brazil, on various occasions, the government deliberately positioned itself as a dismantler, even to mobilize its base.
Are other nations succeeding in rebuilding policies?
This is one of our current research interests, in a project analyzing public policies in countries like India, the US, Poland, and Hungary. The US might be the optimal study subject, with Trump having left office two years ago. This could be an interesting area of research for Brazilian scholars. The moment is ripe, in academic terms, to better comprehend what was undone and how it’s being rebuilt. This is a research agenda where Brazil can contribute significantly.