The Political Arena of Major Public Works


Maria Rita Loureiro, Marco Antonio Teixeira e Alberto Ferreira



Article in Focus: Democracy and development in contemporary Brazil: The conflicts and articulation of interests in the São Francisco River project

Unlike what occurred with the major construction projects of the military governments, such as Itaipu and Sobradinho, large contracts are currently not being implemented without the participation of various participants from the political powers, government bureaucracy and civil society. In “Democracy and development in contemporary Brazil: The conflicts and articulation of interests in the São Francisco River project”, FGV-EAESP researchers Maria Rita Loureiro, Marco Antonio Teixeira and Alberto Ferreira analyze how this process occurs based on a study of the project for transposing the São Francisco River.

This project has been on the public agenda in Brazil for more than a century and a permanent object of dispute. Historically, some coalitions were favorable about the transposition. These coalitions essentially consisted of government technicians, state ministers and political leaders from the states that would benefit from the project (i.e., Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Norte, Ceará and Paraíba). However, other coalitions opposed the project. These coalitions consisted of political leaders from states that potentially would be harmed by the transposition (i.e., Bahia, Minas Gerais, Sergipe and Alagoas) and economic groups linked to irrigation and power generation, organized civil society movements, academics, religious institutions and judges.

The project finally left the planning stage when the government prioritized it and included it in the Growth Acceleration Program (PAC). However, when the research was conducted, the execution level was 70% below the planned level of execution. Loureiro, Teixeira and Ferreira believe that underachievement occurred because of not only technical problems but also the legal challenges filed by the Public Prosecution Office and civil society organizations and audits and inspections by control bodies. “In other words, unlike what one reads in the press, the delay in executing large developments is not always only associated with supposed government inefficiency but on the contrary with the functioning of Brazil’s democratic control institutions”, they state.

According to the researchers, in the project to transpose the São Francisco River, “a possible new pattern of relationship between the state and society” was established. The “old political rules of cronyism” persist, such as incorporating construction work into the project that was demanded by representatives of the states that might be harmed and assigning positions to leaders who opposed the work. However, the relationships were also based on an increased sharing of decisions, with more participative formulation and implementation arrangements.

Therefore, the work was renamed the Integration Project because it aimed not only to transfer water to the semi-arid region but also to revitalize the São Francisco River basin and to advance other programs for improving economic conditions for the social groups that would suffer if the policy were only to consider the transposition of the river.

Loureiro, Teixeira and Ferreira note that this process presented the managers with challenges, which required that they possess the political skills to articulate interests and construct consensus in addition to technical and administrative training. “The introduction of the São Francisco River project became a highly politicized process, since an attempt was made to neutralize or recover from the political losses that had occurred when it was first formulated. As a result, the bureaucratic agencies were frequently transformed into places for representing interests”, the researchers observe.

The authors of the study believe that this reveals the institutional weakness of the political parties with respect to constructing and articulating projects for the nation and in contrast to the prominent role played today by state bureaucracies in public policies. This politicization of the process occurs in the bodies that introduce the policies and in those responsible for their control, which create the need for negotiation to overcome operational obstacles in demanding adjustments to the project.
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