A few weeks ago I traveled to Brazil. Early Sunday morning I got on a plane from Amsterdam to São Paulo. My seat was in row 62, the last one just next to the toilets. This is not a fun experience when you have to fly for more than ten hours. As I sat down I was unable to hide my discomfort and didn’t even smile at the lonely lady sitting next to me. She also seemed clearly unhappy and did not stop staring through the window during the first half of the flight.
After a few hours of flight, the lady suddenly turned to me and asked timidly if I could help her get some water. This was the icebreaker. I found out she is a Brazilian citizen put on the plane by the Dutch immigration authorities and her passport given for custody to the crew. Paula -this is not her real name-was being deported.
She is originally from one of the poorest areas in Northern Brazil an area so remote that it takes three days to reach her village by bus from São Paulo. Four years ago Paula moved to Spain. She worked illegally there in order to earn a relatively stable income to support her mother and 6-year-old son back home.
During the flight, Paula told me about her worries; how she was devastated because of the new challenges the deportation from Europe will bring to her family. She started sharing with me ideas on how she would try to return to Europe once again. My first reaction was to try to cheer her up and motivate her to stay home, close to her family. I explained that due to the financial crisis in Europe it would be hard to secure jobs and that, on the contrary, Brazil was on the rise. Brazil currently has good economic perspectives. Maybe now is the time to stay home and benefit from the Brazilian surge?
It took me a few minutes to realize that my economic explanations, the flashy figures of Brazil recently becoming the 6th biggest economy in the world overtaking the UK, or that unemployment figures in the country are at a historical low, meant nothing to her.
This realization made me remember the link between corruption and immigration. Corruption is an important force that drives migration flows, particularly involuntary economic migration. By wasting resources and distorting policy making, corruption perpetuates poverty and hampers the economic prospects of families. I finally understood, my neighbor on the plane was, at least partially, a victim of corruption.
Most of Latin America is doing fine economically. That is good and should be celebrated. However, inequality is still a big problem. Besides stable and growing economies, what the region urgently needs are the policy decisions and programs that support better distribution of wealth and create opportunities for more Latin Americans. To get there, the region needs governments and political leaders that think about the long term and not only about the next elections. It needs leaders that are honest and willing to act in response to the well-being of the majority and not captured by the interests of few powerful groups.
After spending a week in Brazil, I believe that President Rousseff understands this and wants to have the right policies in place. Thus, it is no coincidence that she has no tolerance for corruption among the members of her cabinet. The country needs the best, or at least the most honest, decision makers, both politicians and public servants.
I also believe that President Rousseff recognizes that this is not only an issue of individuals, but also of the systems that control and incentivize good decision making. That is why recent accomplishments in Brazil such as the approval of the Access to Information Bill and the Ficha Limpa (or Clean Record Bill in English, which prevents politicians from being candidates if they have been convicted of a crime), are more than welcome. Although still much more needs to be done especially at the provincial and local government level, Brazil seems to understand the problem and is making an effort in the right direction.
Of course, I am not naïve and am conscious that the changes will take time, most likely years. But they already seem to start taking shape, which I consider a major achievement in itself. Probably my neighbor on the plane will not feel the effects immediately. But at least, if things continue in the right direction in Brazil, as they seem to be going also in some other Latin American countries, her 6-year-old son will be able to live in a country that opens opportunities for him and that does not drive him to leave his family and friends behind.
Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter @ASalasTI The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.
Alejandro Salas is the Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International, the global civil society organization leading the fight against corruption, active in more than 100 countries around the world. Twitter @ASalasTI. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Transparency International.