My Challenges: Oded Grajew, Founder of the World Social Forum and Sustainable Cities Program, Brazil

Asked to assess the health of democracy in the U.S. and compare it to his home country of Brazil, Oded Grajew comments on the power of business in a democracy to both negatively influence politics and to bring positive social change.


By Richa Mishra and Tim Glynn-Burke

Below is an interview with Oded Grajew, a businessman and social entrepreneur from Brazil who founded the World Social Forum. Grajew also launched various social movements and institutions in Brazil, including PNBE (Brazilian Businessmen Thought), the Abrinq Foundation for Children and Adolescents’ Rights, the Brazilian Association of Businessmen for Citizenship, the Ethos Institute of Business and Social Responsibility, and most recently the Our Sao Paolo Network’s Sustainable Cities Program. Grajew joined the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation as a Democracy Fellow in 2013.

This post is part of an occasional series named ‘My Challenges’ in which we ask respected scholars, public intellectuals, practitioners, politicians, artists, and others what they believe to be today’s greatest challenges to democracy in the United States—and our most promising solutions. Each contributor is encouraged to share personal or professional experiences as well as broader insight into our system of governance. Tim Glynn-Burke sat down with Grajew at the Ash Center; the interview is posted below, edited for length and clarity by Richa Mishra.


Tim Glynn-Burke: How did you end up at the Ash Center as a Democracy Fellow, and what specific issues will you be studying and researching while here?

Grajew-OdedOded Grajew: I have been working toward strengthening democracy in Brazil for many years. I have been working toward helping Brazil’s transition from a dictatorship to a democracy, promoting transparency in government, improving people’s participation in politics, engaging businesses to support better public policies, fighting inequality and making Brazil a more democratic and just society.

This is also the reason that brought me here. I intend to listen, study, discuss and understand not only what is happening in the United States, but also other parts of the world. The Center allows me to interact and learn from experts in democratic governance from all over the world. And this is the reason that I’m here, to learn new ideas that will help me improve my work in Brazil.


TGB: Tell us more about your experience at the Ash Center so far?

OG: It has been very interesting, because it has given me an opportunity to reflect, to think about what I’m doing. I have been interacting with experts within and outside the Harvard community and learning more about ideas like using technology to engage people, and to make the government more transparent. It has been very interesting and useful. I hope that in the future, we can partner with some experts or some schools in Harvard or even MIT.


Big Money and Military Interventionism

TGB: How would you describe, or diagnose, the health of democracy in America today–either at the federal or local level?

OG: I think the increasing influence of money in politics is a big challenge. This is not specific to the United States; it is true for Brazil, and many other countries in Europe and Latin America. This is a very big threat to democracy because this means that politicians work for the interests of a very small part of society and political processes become part of big business.

The causes are very similar across countries. The business sector has some strong skills. It is based on competition and effectiveness, and is result oriented. This means that the business sector pushes for its interests by advancing into and influencing the political and media spheres. The fact that candidates need more money than ever before to contest elections adds to the problem. This is a trend we see in many parts of the world and is not unique to the United States.


TGB: Could you talk more about challenges to democracy specific to the United States?

OG: The United States has been involved in conflicts all around the world, almost constantly for many years now. These interventions have created many enemies for the country. The United States has imposed some restrictions on its own people in order to protect the country from these threats. The Patriot Act is one such example that limits democracy, because it imposes limits on expression, on criticism. It allows the use of national security as an excuse to limit meetings, associations, movements that are the base of democracy.

In the name of national security, you can control what people are doing, what kind of emails they send, you encroach on the privacy of people, to create political control. The American culture places so much value on privacy. And this is something that I think must be looked as a threat to American democracy. I think that American involvement and intervention in so many countries in the world has created a threat to American democracy. This is something unique to the United States.


TGB: What does this mean for democracy, individual and civil liberties?

OG: It creates resistance. People don’t like it when other countries spy on them or intervene in their country. As I said, this creates a lot of resistance to the United States. People want to fight this kind of situation.


TGB: Does the willingness to actively participate in the civic sphere require trust in the political system; or the confidence that your voice will be heard?

OG: For people to mobilize and express themselves, they need a transparent government that they can control. They need to be able to trust that the democratic process is fair, that it expresses the will of the people, not that of narrow, powerful interests. This is crucial.


TGB: What is driving military interventionism, in your perspective? Does the policy represent the preferences of the general public? Does it represent the federal government’s view to protect its citizen? Or does it represent the preferences of more narrow interests?

OG: I think it represents and protects business interests. These interventions are not about democracy, because in many instances they protect dictatorships like Saudi Arabia and many others. Interventions in Latin America and Central America also supported dictatorships. Specific business interests are the reason. And this, I think, is a problem.


Democracy in the U.S. versus Brazil

TGB: Would you describe Brazil as more democratic than the United States, or that decision making more accurately reflects the preferences of Brazilians?

OG: No, Brazil is not more democratic. Not yet. We have the same problem of the influence of money in politics. But, we have fewer restrictions on organizing. You can talk about anything and nobody would say, this is national interests, or put you in prison and so on.

We are a very recent democracy. The dictatorship fell in 1986. We have not realized our democratic potential essentially because of the influence of money in politics. Also, we don’t have some consolidated institutions like you have in the United States.

Certainly Brazil is not more democratic than the United States, but, we feel our freedom to act and to mobilize and to critique, gives us the potential to bring more democracy to Brazil.


TGB: What would more democracy look like?

OG: More transparency in government, so people have more information about what government is doing. More social control, we have a lot of movements to look at the government and to see if this is a good or bad government. More control on the budget, through participatory budgeting. For example, in many cities, we approved an amendment to the constitution that said that every mayor must present his goal plan 90 days after taking office. He must include all the promises of his campaign; he must discuss the plan with the population, create spaces for participation and then report how the goal plan is progressing.

We also try to engage the business sector to use influence, even political power, to make government better. We try to engage them on issues like education, health, reducing corruption. We try to encourage businesses that have interests in promoting a better city or better country, to be involved in public policy.

To produce this kind of change we need businesses that use their political power to influence politicians to adopt the change. For example, before Copenhagen, we organized a powerful business lobby that influenced the Brazilian government to accept and adopt the target of reducing emissions by 36% to 39%. The business community was a driving force in making this happen.

The case of public transportation in Sao Paolo is another example. There we have a powerful automobile lobby that wants to sell more automobiles. But there are other businesses that support public transportation as they are losing money because of the city’s traffic congestion. Together, we are making the case for shifting from private transportation to public transportation in São Paulo.


Aligning Business Interests with the Public Interest

TGB: In Brazil’s business community, there is no ideological view that less government is always better?

OG: It is not a question of more or less government, but good government. We need more government involvement in education, health, establishing rules for the economy and such. We need good government: one that works for all, not just some specific interest groups; one that works toward improving the lives of the people.

Let me give you another example. We worked very hard to convince the oil industry to invest billions of dollars in cleaner diesel. It was a challenge because the costs were very high. We tried to show one part of the business sector and civil society how they could work together for mutual and public benefit, even if was against some specific business interests. We had businesses and civil society organizations working together for this public cause. This was a powerful alliance and gave the movement legitimacy. This is the way we worked at the Ethos Institute, which today is the Sustainable Cities Program.


TGB: So the lifting of restrictions on corporations’ ability to lobby and advocate has allowed you to do this? Is there a way to prevent abuse of these freedoms?

OG: Yes, we have more freedom in Brazil to do this. What we do is to make we try to make the process more transparent. Then, if a business or a company is trying to do something that is against public interest, we make a lot of noise.


TGB: So, you don’t leave it to the media or to engaged citizens, businesses monitor one another?

OG: No, we work with the media. We work a lot in social media. We make things more transparent. For example, if a business in the construction industry wants to encroach on parks and public spaces, then we make a lot of noise and prevent it from happening because this is against improving the quality of life in the cities.


Navigating the Influence of Business

TGB: You have made an impact on social issues and children’s rights in Brazil and on global civil society using the business community as a platform. How can business be a force for positive change, versus the other challenges that you’ve spoken about?

OG: Having been a part of it, I know that the business sector is very powerful. And if we want to change things, we need to intervene some way. The business sector wields big power. We are working with the business sector to make it more socially responsible. We are also working with society to demand more responsibility from the business sector.

We try to convince the business sector that some socially desirable goals such as less corruption, better government, stability and cleaner environment can be good for business too. We also try to show them that some interests benefit only some businesses and are not good the business sector as a whole.

For example, here in the United States, you have the business sector involved with military expenses. This money could be used to improve the lives of people, reduce inequality, and improve productivity. So, within the business sector interests may vary.

Another threat, I think, is that of double standards and mixed messaging. If you preach democracy for example, but impinge on people’s privacy, if you practice one set of norms internally and a different one outside, or if you support dictatorships around the world, it shows double standards and sends a mixed message to people.

This applies to not just the United States but other countries as well. For example, in Brazil if we have one set of standards for multinational companies operating within the country and another set for other countries. It raises questions about our commitment to democracy and damages credibility.


Building Bridges to Strengthen Democracy

TGB: Your work, as you describe it, involves creating change by mobilizing business and corporate interests, which represent the wealthy, the elite or those in power. You organize them to promote and protect public interest. How do you incorporate the voice of the people into your work?

OG: We work with grass roots organizations in many areas. We work with both business and civil society organizations. This is what makes us unique, because of the legitimacy and credibility that we have on both sides. We have acted as the intermediary in many cases between the two.

We work with businesses, academics, artists, sport idols, grass root leaders, religious leaders. When you bring together these different groups, it is a powerful alliance that no city council can resist, and this is what makes us unique.

I think this happening in United States too. You have movements that also involve business to take money out of politics. Ben & Jerry, the ice-cream company has a campaign to reduce the influence of big money in politics. There is also a business alliance here in United States working to take money away from politics, because they know that it is bad for them as people and bad for their businesses. It serves only the interests of the powerful few and essentially makes bribing politicians legal.

Such initiatives strengthen democracy in the US. I believe that strengthening democracy in the United States is very important, because it’s good not just for the United States but it is good for the world.



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