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Global Ethical Dialogues: Lessons from Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina

June 24, 2013

Rio Protesters. CREDIT: Devin Stewart

Most societies agree on a certain set of global norms. For example, in most countries, corruption is considered unethical.

But what happens when global norms are applied locally? How does a society define corruption, what is it doing about it, and are its methods of promoting justice effective? How does a growing global middle class use local institutions to push for greater equity?

As part of Carnegie Council's inaugural Global Ethical Dialogues, our research team, chaired by Michael Ignatieff, got to see firsthand this month how these forces play out in Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. Our interviews and site visits centered around two cases involving the three countries: the Mensalao (vote buying) corruption case in Brazil and a dispute between Argentina and Uruguay over a pulp mill in Fray Bentos, Uruguay, on the Uruguay River (known as the Papeleras case). We spent a day interviewing community leaders in Gualeguaychu, Argentina, which has claimed the mill pollutes the river and therefore lacks social license to operate, as well as officials in Buenos Aires and Montevideo.

On our first day in Rio de Janeiro, to the surprise of many people, Brazil witnessed the largest public protests in 20 years. Although the proximate cause of the protests was a rise in bus fares, the bigger issues were about ethics: political corruption, police brutality, and misguided government spending on sports stadiums rather than on hospitals and schools. High taxes without a return to the public.

One of the slogans in Brazil was that the country possess "first world stadiums but third world hospitals and schools." To that point, one of the participants at our public workshop in Rio told us that his aunt died at a hospital while in the waiting room. Unfortunately, this is a common story.

Later in the week, we had the opportunity to observe in Rio an even larger protest of about 300,000 people amid 1 million protesters nationwide. During that afternoon, we interviewed people participating in the protests, including a librarian, a lawyer, and several students. As the media reported, the crowd was mostly young, university-educated members of the large Brazilian middle class. As one meeting participant told us, Brazil's poor has recently enjoyed huge strides in income growth and the super rich have only gotten richer on Brazil's recent economic success, but "the middle class has felt alienated."

We witnessed a profound interaction during the Rio protest. "No parties" is a rallying cry the protesters have used to indicate their disgust with a corrupt political system. As the sun was going down and the crowd gathered in downtown Rio, we noticed a small group of union representatives affiliated with the ruling Workers' Party, presumably out to show their support of the protests (as President Dilma Rousseff has done). The crowd began jeering at the union reps. After a couple of minutes, several people from the crowd lunged toward the union reps, grabbing and destroying their signs and literature. As they threw the debris in the air, the crowd roared with excitement. (Video here.)

I was reassured by our hosts that this is protesting Brazilian style; "We want to make the demonstrations a kind of Carnival." Political carnival.

Welcome to the new politics of our day in which the middle class cannot be placated by socialist ideology, glimmering sports stadiums, or scapegoating foreigners. Previous stereotypes no longer apply. Newly empowered people demand more from their countries.

Moreover, there was not an ounce of the anti-globalization claptrap of the last decade; if anything, these protesters were inspired by news of mass protests around the world, such as in Turkey and Egypt. In solidarity, some protestors in Rio wore Guy Fawkes masks as a nod to the global Occupy movement and others (pictured above) stood in silence to honor the "standing man" in Turkey.

From this first trip, we have refined our research method.

Before the site visit:

We work with Carnegie Council Global Ethics Fellows located in the country being visited to create an itinerary for the site visit. In this way, we tap into the fellows’ local knowledge, expertise, and networks. We also make suggestions of experts we aim to meet. Ideally, the itinerary should be built around the experts on, claimants to, and officials involved with a specific case study.

A researcher prepares a detailed background brief on our research themes and expert biographies before each visit. This briefing paper includes the global, regional, and local perspectives of each issue being investigated as well as policy innovations and ways to measure progress. Has the country signed on to international treaties? If so, are the laws enforced? How does the country compare to others? What do local experts say about the issue?

During the site visit:

Over the course of ten days, the research team meets with politicians, journalists, writers, academics, police officers, lawyers, judges, and NGO and community leaders. The research team comprises: the Centennial Chair, the Carnegie Council project manager, a regional expert, and the local Global Ethics Fellow and his or her researchers and mentee. Global Ethics Fellows from other countries are invited to join the research team.

Some public workshops are useful in engaging in a public forum; the team was able to provide a public forum the day after the first big protests in Rio to hear public views. Most of the meetings should be conducted privately, however, so that participants can speak candidly and a dialogue, rather than scripted speeches, can take place.

The team visits sites in the country that illustrate a contested claim. For example, we visited a controversial pulp mill in Uruguay and were able to observe the mass protests in Rio. Visits are also made to sites that show a success story, for example the Santa Marta favela in Rio as a model for "community policing."

At the end of each leg, the Centennial Chair delivers a public lecture in the country being visited in order to report on the findings of the trip. This engagement is an opportunity to test hypotheses formulated during the trip as well as to raise the profile of the project.

After the trip:

The team compiles notes and media collected during the trip.

The local Global Ethics Fellow continues conducting relevant interviews and research on the cases studied. The fellow may also spearhead focus groups with students or mentees.

At the end of the project, the Chair will publish a report on the themes and a description of the Global Ethical Dialogues method.

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