FAPESP Week California discusses democracy and social inequality in Brazil

Researchers from São Paulo and the University of California, Berkeley examined possible research collaboration in the social sciences and strategies for citizen participation

By Diego Freire, in Berkeley (USA)

Agência FAPESP – Despite the social advances achieved through redemocratization, economic stability and, in recent years, rising income on the part of the poorest of its citizens, social inequality in Brazil persists. In order to examine the issue in a multidisciplinary and innovative manner, researchers gathered in Berkeley, during FAPESP Week California, discussed opportunities for research collaboration in the social sciences and strategies of citizen engagement through the use of new technologies.

The scenario of inequality in Brazil was addressed by Marta Arretche, professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo (USP) and director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies (CEM), one of FAPESP’s Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDCs).

Arretche presented data used in research studies by the CEM to illustrate the history of social inequality since redemocratization. According to her, the problem culminated in 1989, when income levels of Brazil’s wealthiest began to be 70 times higher than income levels of Brazil’s poorest.

“It was the end of the Sarney administration and the Brazilian economy was going through a rough period. Thereafter, income disparity has been declining systematically, through the Cruzado and Real Plans, economic growth and the social problems of the years that followed,” she said.

Nonetheless, according to the historical series presented by the researcher, the issue persists: in 2012, the average income of the wealthiest 5% was 33 times the income of the poorest 20%.

Arretche warned of the challenges behind the data. “There is still substantial social inequality in Brazil, despite the fact that income levels of the poor have risen because inequality is not limited to the issue of income, but instead refers to the quality of life and the offer of essential services such as public sanitation and electricity.”

Confronting inequality requires, among a variety of other things, the strengthening of democratic institutions. “In the developed world, democracy led not only to inequality reduction over the course of the 20th century, but also maintained it at low levels. In emerging countries, this process is complicated by the actions of problematic institutions, by historical social legacies and by the quality of the democracy itself,” she said.

For the researcher, social inequality reduction is not a direct result of democracy but rather “a combination of policies whose paths are independent and unfold over time.”

The same can be said about violence in Brazil, explained Sérgio Adorno, coordinator of the Center for the Study of Violence (NEV), another FAPESP RIDC. According to data presented by the researcher, in the past three decades, the rates of homicides, drug trafficking and crimes involving domestic violence, among others have increased substantially.

“The optimistic expectations for the development of democracy have not yet come to pass: there has been no regression, but the Rule of Law remains elusive,” he said.

To Adorno, institutions need to be strengthened. “The laws express the will of the people, and under the Rule of Law, as a basic democratic value, progress in this direction depends on the legitimacy of the institutions that operate in guaranteeing rights.”

Citizen participation

For anthropologist James Holston of UCB, also in need of strengthening is direct citizen participation in considering public policies that reduce inequalities and solve the problems of cities.

The researcher, who has been studied the social phenomena of São Paulo’s periphery since the 1980s, presented some innovations at the Berkeley symposium, developed in the Social Apps Lab, founded in 2010 at UCB for the purpose of designing smartphone and Internet applications that can be used by communities in the search for solutions to local problems.

“Social inequality reduction depends on developing smarter cities and they in turn need to be inhabited by smart citizens. That is what we are looking for by using this type of technology to promote actions that involve people in the challenges of social development in a participatory way,” he told Agência FAPESP.

Among the applications already in operation is the Dengue Torpedo, a digital game that encourages communities to identify and report foci of dengue. Registered users earn points for each notification, which can be exchanged for prizes, and help create a map of the locations.

“There is no vaccine for dengue and social engagement offers a powerful tool for controlling the disease because the best way to do it is to eliminate the places where mosquitoes can lay their eggs. The application promotes cooperation for the common good through technology, taking advantage of the ubiquitousness of smartphones in these communities and of digital mapping resources.”

In Brazil, the Dengue Torpedo is being used by residents of the Maré complex of slums in Rio de Janeiro, who have already identified more than 35,000 foci of disease in the region by using the application. The social app is also being used in the cities of Managua, Nicaragua, and Tepalcingo, Mexico.

Another application developed by the UCB Social Apps Lab (http://citris-uc.org/initiatives/social-apps-lab) is the CitySandbox website, designed to promote collaboration among neighborhoods in the city of Berkeley. The service combines a map of the city with social network capabilities that allow users to comment on problems in these areas and plan actions to solve them.

“These are experiences that can be applied to the reality of Brazilian cities like São Paulo, whose communities have ample access to this type of technology and are completely familiar with their languages, and, at the same time, suffer from recurring public health problems such as dengue and urban violence.”

Student participation

To promote collaborative research in this and other areas beginning at the undergraduate level, another Internet-based strategy was presented during FAPESP Week California: the international consortium Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) (http://www.cshe.berkeley.edu/seru), based at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UCB.

It was initially developed as a system for surveying student experiences in the various institutions that make up the University of California in Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego, São Francisco, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz.

In 2006, the system formed a consortium with other U.S. universities and since 2010, has been open to participation by institutions from other countries. The University of Campinas (Unicamp) is the only Brazilian university in the group.

“Our objective is to listen to university student experiences in order to involve them in developing topics of socially-relevant research, in a collaborative manner, suited to the local reality and their concerns,” said John Aubrey Douglass, one of the creators of SERU.

The researcher believes the addition of Brazilian academic communities to the consortium can facilitate collaboration between the two countries. “Based on data collected about Brazilian student experiences, we can develop comparative studies that help formulate partnerships. SERU is open to participation by Brazilian universities.”

In addition to Unicamp, the international arm of the SERU institutions includes China, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Russia and Japan.

Following the activities in Berkeley, November 17-18, 2014, FAPESP Week California continues at the University of California, Davis, November 20-21. The complete program is available at: www.fapesp.br/week2014/california.