Once again, Brazil is in the midst of a political scandal tied to corruption. It’s not exactly a headline out of that country that surprises anyone. While we’re used to hearing about high-level misuse of power in Brazil, I experienced myself how corruption runs deep in Brazilian society.
Back in 2011 I worked on a project in the city of Sao Paulo. It was all about social inclusion and putting bicycles on the curriculum in over 40 schools in the city. It was an inspiring and visionary project and it remains one of the projects I am most proud of.
Because of bureaucratic rules, the City couldn’t hire my company directly so it was arranged that the payment would be done through an environmental NGO that was also involved in the project.
Payment was to be made in three installments over the course of the project. The first two payments were wire transferred without a hitch. When the time came for the final payment of €7500, nothing happened. We sent a barrage of emails but there was no response. Radio silence.
It was an odd culture clash when you come from Denmark, a country that tops the list of countries with least corruption every time. Not knowing why or what was frustrating and uncomfortable.
When I started to ask colleagues about this, the responses were suspiciously vague, even though they were not directly involved in the situation. Finally, when I realised that the money wasn’t ever going to show up, I started asking for answers from other Brazilians.
Gradually, the individuals I spoke to started to open up.
“The money won’t come. He (the head of the NGO) will just keep it.”
“Why?!”, I asked.
“It’s Brazil”, I would hear several times. Accompanied by an awkward shrug.
Most of the people I asked are well-travelled, with an international cultural awareness. They were reluctant at first to answer my increasingly frustrated questions about why the money wasn’t being paid.
When forced, they revealed Brazilian society with those two words. It’s Brazil.
One friend and colleague reluctantly spilled the beans. Explaining to me that this process of skimming off the top was completely normal. In my case it was 25% of the total. It was widely known — if not accepted — and she wasn’t at all surprised. She was sympathetic, certainly, knowing that a situation like this would rarely take place in Northern Europe. But also resigned to the fact this kind of thing was normal.
With the feedback I received from friends and colleagues I soon realised that the €7500 was gone. Put into the bank account of the head of the environmental NGO and perhaps earmarked for a house near the beach or a nice holiday.
Corruption on a national political level is one given in Brazil and countries like it. But the knowledge that this culture of crime has infiltrated every level of that society was saddening and depressing.
So much so that I have little desire to do business in Brazil, no matter how inspirational a social inclusion project for children might be. If you get ripped off by the head of an environmental NGO, you can bet that you’re going to be pretty much screwed by everyone else.
Few will shed tears when one politician or another is arrested or impeached. But take a moment to think about an entire nation where corruption -and basically theft — is a normal aspect of life.
I can only wish I was warned earlier. Now you are.