Food for thought in the midst of Brazilian social unrest


Elaine Smith and Instituto Geracao

Elaine Smith

Elaine Smith

When you arrive back home after five weeks of travelling, all you want is to unpack and snuggle in your bed. After spending three weeks in a HBS program in Boston and later spending two weeks in Myanmar for the East Asia World Economic Forum, I wanted to reflect about all my learnings and use it in my social practice. But I found Brazil on 16 June in the middle of social unrest. Movements everywhere, people being called to streets. And so I answered the call and went too.

The movement started spontaneously, without leaders, based on a public transportation fare rise of BRL 0,20. It started on the internet and Facebook, and rapidly took over 90 cities and more than one million people. It surprised everyone, from analysts to politicians, government to opposition. People were expressing themselves politically and autonomously, without parties or a clear goal: complaints/demands included better public services (education, transportation and health), ending corruption and favouring political reform. All social classes were represented in the streets. The intellectual class formed by youth (students) formed the core, as it is the case in many social movements.

The social movements in Brazil during June caught the attention of a Young Global Leader colleague from the World Economic Forum, Srdja Popovic, a Serbian specialist in non-violent movements and founder of Canvas. With the awakening of the social conscience in many parts of the country, people were looking to empower their ideas and demand rationally, but the lack of clear leadership made the media focus on the violent groups. Popovic’s first instruction: leadership needs to gather and decide what to ask for. Create a manifest or a letter, talking about who you are, and what are you aiming for. It seems obvious, but is a hard task. In the last three weeks, I participated in three leadership processes, all of them trying to imprint their ideas, leaving the streets and moving indoors to plan, to publish and to create strategy to be listened. There is still a lot be done and several groups are still in the planning stage, but everyone is focusing on the non-violent movement. I read that the indigenous population delivered their ‘letter to the President’ on 10 July. The desire for transformation is alive and kicking and the population found it has a voice, a channel.

The first group I am involved is a group of social entrepreneurs represented by 62 NGOs and non-profit organizations. The second is a business group made up of some 40 business leaders from the new generation, covering 20 of the 27 states in Brazil. We are writing about the political reform.

The third gathering happened in Morro do Alemão, a hillside slum in Rio de Janeiro, on 6 July. Three players (a social organization called Gastromotiva, a local university called Unisuam and the press magazine Prazeres da Mesa) organized an event to gather students, community food entrepreneurs, media and food lovers to discuss the role of food in the ability to transform society. This Food Vision has been travelling with the World Economic Forum and one colleague Young Global Leader, David Hertz (founder of Gastromotiva) is the one carrying the torch. It was in Peru in April, Myanmar in June and now in Brazil amidst all the social unrest. The event in Rio also had visits from the tourism and new housing city secretaries.

With some 80 people, we discussed how food plays a role in education, health, social inclusion for the youth, culture, family and tradition, and economic development. The group discussed for hours and created a recipe with ingredients that will soon be published in the press as an idea for social transformation.

I am honoured to be in these three groups and to participate in such a historical moment in my country, representing all these segments of the society: 1) civil society with the social entrepreneurs; 2) corporates with the business leaders and 3) the focus group of gastronomists, including students from the community. But the future is far from clear as the actual scenario in Brazil is worrying for social investments. There is the social unrest that frightens the political front (elections in 2014, the same year of the soccer World Cup…), and the economy showing signs of weakening (which in the end may result in lower social investments or grants by the private side, or lower tax collection from government, as business slows down). Lower tax collection in a year of elections plus World Cup? My wild guess bets for infrastructure instead of health and education investments, along with some cancellations on current grant lines.

Investors are concerned about the slower economy. International capital fled recently to the US, which has a better outlook and rising long-term interest rates. Brazilian industrial production fell, retail sales already show weakening and now we are gearing up for Christmas orders (in an environment where families are highly in debt).

The local currency devalued against the US dollar and the inflation forecast skyrocketed to 7%. Rates are already climbing and trade balance is weakening (forced by weaker China and lower commodity prices). Banks are reviewing their GDP forecasts to 2% level, a technical recession. There are signs that unemployment may go up again from their current historical low levels. And unfortunately, when we talk about recession, the line that suffers the most is the social one.

Elaine Smith, director of Instituto Geração, is a Young Global Leader from the World Economic Forum, and helps organizations in their development process, focusing on innovative approaches to social issues.

Tagged in: Brazil Citizen engagement Food Leadership poverty Social change Social movement

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