Brazil at the crossroads: the SDGs, the crises and the impact of COVID-19

Ana Cernov and Iara Pietricovsky1


The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to rethink routines, supply chains and modes of consumption. It caused people and businesses to rethink day-to-day routines, work and production and governments to reorganize decision-making processes and budgets to be able to respond to the impacts brought by the new virus. It also puts part of the population in the frontlines, as essential workers in health and other sectors classified as such; but without guaranteeing to our societies collective responses that match the challenge we are facing. Some governments are responding better than others, but what we see everywhere is the mobilized civil society supporting the population in the most vulnerable situations and seeking short, medium and long term solutions.

The main effect of the pandemic (and the lack of preparedness to respond to it) is the loss of lives. By May 10, 2020, the new coronavirus had been responsible for the death of over 280,000 people all over the world, in numbers certainly reduced by the under-notification of cases and difficulties in accessing tests. But there are also its socioeconomic effects, which require immediate, coordinated actions focused on keeping people alive and guaranteeing their human rights.2 We are accompanying the intense pressure economic sectors are placing on governments to reopen economies and allow non-essential activities in commerce, industry and services to take place, even though the anxiety to resume a “normal life” is unrealistic. People will get out of their quarantines transformed by this experience, but not only that: the world beyond that awaits, after the control of the epidemic, will be something else.

Studies carried out by United Nations agencies indicate that the global economy is expected to shrink by about 3% in 2020, international trade should decrease between 13 and 32% and unemployment will affect an additional 25 million people, in very conservative estimates. This picture is complemented by several analyses, including the astounding numbers brought by Oxfam International in its new study “Dignity, not Indigence”, which shows that more than 500 million people could be living below the poverty line, and the scenario remains similar in the calculations for the different poverty line references: US$1.90, US$3.20 and US$5.50.

In Latin America, the projections by ECLAC, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, follow the same trend. Domestic aspects and the new ones brought about by COVID-19 could lead the region to its worst recession since 1914 and 1930. And the forecast is that, in 2020, these economies may shrink 5.3%, unemployment could increase by 3.4% (28.7 million additional workers) to reach a total of 34.7% of the regional population, about 214.7 million people, which would consequently lead to an increase in poverty, reaching a total of 83.4 million people living below the extreme poverty line (US$1.90). This scenario is even more desolate for women, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, informal workers and migrants, who suffer the effects of overlapping social, gender, ethnic-racial and migratory inequalities that intersect and are so characteristic of the region. For these groups, resuming normal life often means surviving in a context of growing violence and systematic violations of rights.

Brazil follows this tendency as well, adding to the fact that it still has to deal with a context of multiple crises converging in recent years. The latest being the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018 and the negative impacts that his government has on the protection of human rights and promotion of sustainable development. Maybe the country would have been better prepared to fight this pandemic if it had elected someone that believes COVID-19 is more than a simple cold; but the effects of the austerity measures put in place in recent years would bring the check for whoever was the president to pay.

The social policies budget cuts were intensified still during Dilma Rousseff’s government (2011-16), in 2015 and heightened in 2016, with the beginning of Michel Temer’s government. Temer took advantage of the limited duration of his term (2016-18) to move forward with decisions that were considered unpopular, including a spending cap for non-financial public spending, the Constitutional Amendment (CA) 95/2016, in force until 2036.3 After the approval of the CA, the federal budget of one year is calculated based on the expenses of the previous year adjusted for inflation, which in practice reduces the capacity to enforce rights, even more so with a growing population. This spending cap was widely criticized nationally and internationally, causing reactions even from the UN Human Rights Council, through statements by its independent experts. During the pandemic, a coalition of 192 civil society organizations, social movements and academic institutions filed with the Federal Supreme Court (STF) a document showing that the current scenario requires that the austerity measure be immediately suspended to give conditions to the Brazilian state to face COVID-19 and its impacts.

Another reform initiated by the Temer government in 2017 weakened the protection of workers and therefore weakened - as the spending ceiling - the country's possible response to the pandemic. Changes in labor legislation have made contracts more flexible, removed rights and obviously have not reduced unemployment4. Temer also tried to approve a pension reform but it was only in 2019, already under the Bolsonaro government, that a version of it was approved in Congress. These reforms (the austerity measures, the spending cap in 2016, the labor reform in 2017 and the pension reform in 2019) ended up further undermining the relationship of a portion of the population with the Brazilian state. Social policies were no longer supported in the same level as before, when they were already insufficient; at work, unions have been weakened and in labor negotiations, employers have greater bargaining power without having to comply with guarantees provided by formal contracts in their pre-reforms model; and the precariousness of labor relations has led to a reduction in social security contributions, putting into question the justification for the reform5 and feeding the loss of rights spiral for citizens. And not even the health crisis prevented the decision by the Bolsonaro government to further relax labor legislation, allowing for a reduction in wages and layoffs.

In 2019, under the justification of balancing the public accounts, more rights were sacrificed with contingencies in the public budget that reached R$ 31.225 billion and with the pursuit of obtaining extraordinary revenues by preparing privatization of public companies without taking into account public interests on the Union's assets and natural resources.

In order to better understand how these cuts and adjustments affect the State's ability to fund rights and promote social justice, it is necessary to look at the public budget to see if the allocation of funds corresponds to the promises of governments and if the collection does not reproduce and exacerbate inequalities. As a result, since the beginning of the 1990s, Inesc has been working with budgets, having developed in 2004 its own  methodology that has been updated with time. This approach supposes that a public budget can only promote the guarantee of human rights if it meets the criteria: 1) State financing is done with fiscal justice, through a progressive tax system; 2) it uses the maximum available resources; 3) it invests in the progressive realization of human rights, through universal and inclusive public policies; 4) it values non-discrimination, to reduce inequalities; and 5) it has popular participation, ensuring transparency and social control in its process.

It is based on this methodology Budget and Rights and Inesc’s Brazilian Budget Analysis of 2019 that the fulfillment of Brazil's commitments under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN 2030 Agenda will be assessed. This study organized data in the following areas: health, education, right to the city, socio-environmental policies, children and adolescents, racial equality, women and indigenous people. Therefore, without encompassing all the goals of the 2030 Agenda, but clearly showing the lack of commitment by the Brazilian government regarding the implementation of public policies in all areas linked to the SDGs.

Brazil and the 2030 Agenda in 2019

If, in times of greater tranquility and prosperity, recording progress in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda would already be a challenge, in the midst of this pandemic and the second year of Jair Bolsonaro's government, it becomes incredibly discouraging. It is clear that his cabinet is inept and that his group of supporters, a third of the population, behaves as if he were still on an election campaign. The political situation is so tense that, unlike6 other countries, there was no public debate to assess results in regard to social policies that were (or were not) implemented in response to the pandemic. In Brazil, the approval rate for the president is discussed, the approval rate of his enemies and ways for the aggravated political crisis to end: with an impeachment or dissolution of his electoral ticket.

In the process of reviewing the SDGs in recent years, Brazil has abandoned many of its commitments, especially since the beginning of the Bolsonaro government. Therefore, it was surprising to see that at the 2019 SDG Summit, out of 100 countries, Brazil offered a specific additional commitment - to reduce premature mortality caused by non communicable diseases to ⅓ in 2030 (Goal 3.4). It was an unexpected action because there is no transparency regarding the actions of the federal government in the policy areas covered by the Agenda 2030. The government channels aimed at disseminating them and the SDGs are all out of date or offline7, with the exception of the monitoring portal SDG Brazil, maintained by Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) and the Government Secretariat of the federal government. In addition, the notorious Decree No. 9759/2019, published in April 2019, extinguishing and limiting the creation of collegiate bodies in the federal government, also extinguished the 2016 National SDGs Council.

To monitor the goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda, it is necessary to have quality data that can be used by the UN in assessing the progress of the agenda at the global level. But data producers in the government - IBGE, IPEA, among others, are under attack and are prevented from carrying out their recognized work. There are reports of intimidation to researchers, changes in the Demographic Census 2020 - against recommendations from experts and increased opacity with the non-compliance to the Access to Information Law. There was also an attempt to make the compliance to this law more flexible, included in the emergency decree approved on March 23 in response to the pandemic (MP 928/2020), but overturned. few days later by the Federal Supreme Court (STF).

There is also a lack of political will to respond appropriately to the health crisis and many others present in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro's modus operandi has not changed with the new coronavirus. His government remains taking care of private interests and betting on the erosion of institutions so that its political group can continue to destroy protection laws, cut spending in crucial areas and dismantle the mechanisms of social participation provided for in the Federal Constitution, such as the extinction of councils. National plans and resolutions of national conferences agreed with civil society were ignored by the government and the new Pluriannual Plan (2020-23) was prepared without any social participation. Within states and municipalities, local political leaders are taking on the management and response to the health crisis. This movement of governors, mayors and subnational legislators has produced less tragic results than those of the federal government in controlling the pandemic and has also affected the country's political board in election year8. This is a dynamic that can also be seen in the localization of 2030 Agenda with good experiences of dialogue and social participation.

In view of this scenario, it is urgent that the functioning of governments is available to ordinary citizens so that they can follow the discussion of ideas, the generation of solutions, the design of public policies, their proper application and their monitoring. Not by chance, a Brazilian singer among the most influential social media personalities in the world, is taking advantage of this status to hold online meetings on Politics and the State. It is in this spirit that Inesc shares its methodology and analysis of the public budget in 2019, so that it becomes a tool of political struggle for rights. Looking at the situation of the SDGs from their financing allows us to demonstrate what civil society has been exposing for a long time: that the protection of human rights is not a priority for the federal government. But it also shows that there are other paths to follow and that setbacks in the area of social justice, while disastrous, can be circumvented.

For the thematic review of the SDGs progress that will take place at the High Level Political Forum (HLPF) in 2020, the objectives were combined in 6 major categories (see table in annex 1) - to organize the online meeting program and also to guide debates, recognizing the importance of an interconnected approach. We will follow this roadmap to discuss the impact that the current budgetary policy in Brazil and the spending cap have had on the attention to public policies, especially its constitutional obligations and the commitments agreed by the country with the international community under the 2030 Agenda, for which Brazil was a great articulator.

Thematic Review of the SDGs, as proposed for the HLPF in 2020

Protecting and advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty

This area focuses its analysis of possible agreements and sinergies capable of improving people’s wellbeing, particularly in regard to the fight against poverty in all its forms and dimensions. The SDGs that are more closely related are: SDG 1 - No Poverty, SDG 4 - Quality Education, SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation, SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

Within the goals included in this debate for the HLPF, the available data do not fully encompass their scope and not always have updated or comparable information for the SDGs review period (2016-30). In IPEA’s calculation though, the percentage of the population living below the international poverty line (US$1.90 per capita per day) was 6.6% in 2016 and 7.4% in 2017, about 15 million people. "Considering the level observed in 2017, on average, Brazil will need to reduce extreme poverty by between 0.3 pp and 0.4 pp a year to reach the 2030 eradication goal."9 And according to data from the IBGE Synthesis of Social Indicators (SIS), for 2018, 73% of people living below the poverty line are black, showing the persistence of racism in Brazil. Access to water and sanitation (SDG 6) is still a problem of relevance in the country, since 38 million Brazilians do not have access to drinking water, about 48% of the population do not have access to sewage collection and only 46% of the collected sewage being treated, according to data from the National Sanitation Information System (SNIS 2017).

With regard to education “almost all of the targets of SDG 4 were foreseen by government actions that are underway at the federal, state and municipal levels (...). "Of the ten targets of ODS 4, seven were foreseen by the National Education Plan as well."10 The enormous challenges in this area were pointed out by the expert Cleo Manhas, from Inesc, in a 2019 report: “Significant progress was made in the first stage of education, which almost universalized vacancies, but in relation to secondary education, the country is still a long way from achieving the targets required to meet the SDGs.”11 In all the analyses made, the importance of the National Education Plan (PNE in Portuguese) is pointed out as a compass for more ambitious actions than the ones subsequently agreed in the SDGs. And, the PNE is the result of a broad struggle by social movements, which were able to guarantee important advances.

But it is necessary to verify how the Brazilian government is preparing to meet the agreements entered into nationally and internationally. In regard to education, Inesc looked at budget data for 2019 and the result is alarming. The examination reveals that the budget cuts associated with the spending ceiling imposed by CA 95/2016 prevent Brazil from meeting its domestic commitments to the National Education Plan (2014-24) and consequently overlapping targets of the SDG 4, and at all levels, from daycare to graduate school.

The national commitment was to ensure that education had financing equivalent to at least 7% of GDP in 2019 and 10% in 2024, which has not been fulfilled and should not be in the near future without a change of course, as resources have been systematically reduced. In addition, Fundeb,  a fund created in 2016 to guarantee investments in basic education, expires on December 31, 2020 and its replacement has not yet been operationalized. There is a new proposal circulating in Congress, but without the guarantee of continuity approved in time, it leaves the future of basic education financing uncertain, especially hurting states with lower revenues and increasing inequalities. It is impossible to achieve a quality and inclusive education in this scenario of fiscal austerity.

 “In addition to the total resources allocated to public policies, it is also necessary to analyze how the current government implements them, since what we have seen are proposals such as vouchers for early childhood education; public private partnerships (PPP) for universities, with the “Future-se” program; and inclusion of performance criteria for receiving more resources from the Fund for the Maintenance and Development of Basic Education and Appreciation of Education Professionals (Fundeb), privileging the privileged, since data shows that the poorest regions have worse rates in performance. And on top of that, the dispute over resources between health and education, in case the National Congress approves the Constitutional Amendment Proposal”12 PEC 22/2019 still in progress. Not by chance, the biggest protests of 2019 were in defense of education.

In education, the positive influence that civil society participation had on the achievements obtained is very clear. The goals of the PNE are more ambitious than the targets of SDG 4 because there was a lot of social pressure for that. With the extinction in 2019, by the federal government, of collegiate bodies between government and society, from MP 870/2019 and decree 9759/2019, this participation that contributed so much to the progressive realization of rights is undermined. There is no dialogue, let alone democratic management of educational policies. The same is true in other areas.

To meet the targets of SDG 16, Peace, Justice and Effective Institutions, it is necessary to reduce violence, the occurrence of crimes and guarantee access to justice for all, but it is also necessary to ensure participation and social control (goal 16.7) and public access to information (target 16.10). In addition to decree 9759/2019 that extinguished councils and instances of public participation in federal government in 2019, requests made via the Access to Information Law (LAI) have been ignored with no consequences for the government. Contrary to the efforts for transparency, contained in this objective 16, much information was removed from the pages of federal public agencies during 2019, making it very difficult to understand the government’s performance in a certain area, such as the 2030 Agenda itself. With the arrival of the COVID-19 epidemic, the government took the opportunity to include in provisional measure 928, the removal of the obligation by government officials to respond to requests made via LAI during the period of public calamity. This MP item was stopped by the STF, but the threat remains in the air. It is not the first attempt to increase the opacity of the federal government. Any measure that undermines transparency, undermines the implementation of all SDGs and should be a focus of concern, especially in a government that disdains the defense of rights, in speeches and in practice.

Ending hunger and achieving food security

This area explores policies related to strengthening the livelihoods of people living in poverty, guaranteeing food production systems that are sustainable and healthy and improving people's lives. The connected SDGs are: SDG 2 - Zero Hunger, SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

Brazil is a major agricultural producer and also a major exporter; however, it is the country that most consumes pesticides in the world in absolute numbers. It employs about seven liters per person per year, if the calculation of consumption is extrapolated to the population. In the same period of one year, the use of pesticides registered about 70,000 cases of chronic and acute poisoning. This scenario tends to worsen with the clearance of new pesticides in the country. It is quite worrying that in 2019, Brazil registered the highest number of new pesticides approved by the federal government since 2005: there were 474 products, with a significant portion of items that are prohibited in other countries due to the involved risks. Even so, the government has taken steps to speed up and relax the approval of other products. In 2020, 128 new products were registered, not even respecting the quarantine, since the application of pesticides is part of the list of activities considered essential for the Brazilian government.

The narrative of the Bolsonaro government, which has agribusiness representatives as an important part of its allied base, is that the release of more products increases competition, decreases the price of pesticides and brings down the cost of production. As part of the nod to allies, in February 2020, the Ministry of Agriculture published a decree determining automatic authorization of pesticides by the Secretariat for Agricultural Defense if the product is not evaluated within 60 days. The analysis made by the secretariat is the last stage of the approval process for pesticides, which also need to be screened by the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Health. Before the ordinance, the agency's term was of 120 days. The measure, which became effective in April, worries experts. It takes up part of the agribusiness demands contained in a bill of 2002, which has been pending in Congress since then and proposes to transfer the approval of pesticides to the Ministry of Agriculture, making the Health Surveillance Agency (Anvisa) and Ministry of the Environment only advisory bodies. Eliminating the complexities of approval processes regarding health and the environment will only increase the risks of using these products for those who work in the fields, but also for those who consume this food.

Even with enormous agricultural production and the capacity to feed its population well, Brazil is at risk of returning to be listed on the Hunger Map prepared by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The annual publication records the prevalence of malnutrition in the population of each country. In 2014, Brazil was removed from the World Hunger Map. The organization considered two distinct periods to analyze: from 2002 to 2013 and from 1990 to 2014. According to the data analyzed, between 2002 and 2013, the number of undernourished Brazilians fell by 82% and between 1990 and 2014, the percentage of decrease was 84.7%. Its methodology showed that in both periods the percentage was below 5% in Brazil.

In order to reduce hunger in such a drastic way, it was necessary to implement food security and nutrition policies and support family agriculture. Part of this effort was the establishment of Consea - National Council for Food and Nutritional Security in 1993 and its re-creation in 2003. The consultative body, having two thirds of its representantes from civil society and one third from government representatives, has become not only a reference in the fight for food security, but also for its strategic use of the space for participation and social control. “Consea's performance is recognized nationally and internationally, as an example of its active participation for the inclusion of the right to food as one of the social rights contemplated by article 6 of the Federal Constitution.”13 But neither its national and international prestige, nor the fact that hunger seems to be returning to Brazil, managed to save Consea, which was extinguished by the Bolsonaro government along with other spaces of participation by MP 870/2019. Just when it would be most needed, in a time of crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

In an interview, former FAO director and Brazilian national José Graziano da Silva (2012-19), declared about the country: “Before the pandemic, when I was still at FAO, we made a calculation that pointed out that, if there was no reversal trend, we would return to the Hunger Map. The increase in unemployment due to the crisis and the reduction of social programs - seen in the increase in the Bolsa Família waitlist - could bring hunger back to the country. Our calculations suggested that Brazil would probably return to the Hunger Map by the end of 2021. But with the global recession, the prospect of zero growth or even a decrease in this year of 2020 is accentuated. If that happens, without any action to recover investments in social programs, Brazil is in danger of returning [to the Hunger Map] at the end of this year”.

The country has achieved important advances through policies against hunger and the recognition of the small rural producers’ role in it; but to stop the setbacks that are sounding the alarm, it would be necessary to act and reactivate the policies that had been successful in previous decades, mainly in the period between 2002 and 2014.

In the current moment, the importance of investing in public health systems is increasingly clear. Brazil is one of the few developing countries in the world that has a public health system, with universal and free access - the Unified Health System (SUS), established by the Constitution in 1988. Just when this system most needs available resources to deal with an unprecedented health crisis, the health budget in Brazil, which historically is insufficient, had the resources for 2019 maintained as in 2018 and at the same levels as 2014. The difference is that, in this period between 2014-2019, the Brazilian population increased by 7 million people.

“This stagnation is quite worrying, given the history of insufficient resources earmarked for the Unified Health System (SUS) and the growing health demands. But it was already expected, due to the austerity policy adopted by the federal government, in particular CA 95/2016, which established a spending ceiling and changed the way of adjusting by the 14 inflation rate the minimum amount to be applied (floor) in health.”14 If the impact of this would be huge in other times, in the midst of a pandemic it is even greater: “The lack of funding for health has limited the capacity for a quick and efficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic, mainly harming the most vulnerable populations, which depend15 exclusively on SUS."15

This scenario will certainly hinder the achievement of the targets stipulated in SDG 3 - Health and Well-being. At the SDG Summit in September 2019, almost 100 countries announced specific commitments to fulfill in the 2030 Agenda and Brazil joined that pact. On that occasion, the government guaranteed that it will make efforts to “reduce the premature mortality caused by non-communicable diseases to ⅓ in 2030”, target 3.4. However, the areas covered by this target should start to weigh more on public health expenditure as the population ages. In 2016, only 12.7% of Brazilians were over the age of 60, in 2030, the projection is that this age group represents 18.7% of the population. This, coupled with the reduction of the budget focused on health, will certainly impact the delivery of this commitment as well.

In the 2018 elections, health was already pointed out as the main issue for about 70% of Brazilians from all states of the federation. In 2016, it had also been identified as the most problematic area for the population. Insufficient funding has always prevented SUS from properly fulfilling its social function. The pandemic has reinforced the importance and value of having a public health system. But without the lifting of the spending cap or other drastic measures, it will not be possible to meet the guarantee of the right to health in the country, despite being included in the Constitution.

In addition, during the pandemic, in 2020, a significant part of the country's health budget should be directed to actions related to COVID-19. It will be important to monitor how these expenditures are being made. This is an important role for the National Health Council, which, unlike Consea and others, was fortunately not extinguished by President Bolsonaro's administration since it was created by law and therefore, it will be able to oversee the execution of this (very insufficient) budget.

Protecting the planet and building resilience

The main focus of this area of debates is to look for policies, investments and innovation opportunities to reduce the risk of disasters and protect the planet from degradation. The SDGs related are: SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 13 - Climate Action, SDG 14 - Life Below Water, SDG 15 - Life on Land and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

“Environmental policies have never been properly valued in the federal budget composition. Since the Ministry of the Environment (MMA) was created, its importance has varied according to the power correlations of the composition of governments. (...) But the lack of budgetary resources was not a limitation for several of the successful policies, such as those that preceded the Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDam) and prepared the ground for the reduction of deforestation. The MMA has always counted on significant international cooperation resources, which for many years supported structural actions, such as those that contributed to the creation and organization of state environmental institutions, implementation of projects such as the National Environment Program (PNMA), the Natural Resources Policy Subprogram (SPRN); the Pilot Program for the Conservation of Tropical Forests in Brazil (PPG7), or even the Amazon Fund, which came to relax rules to guarantee support for environmental16 inspection actions in the Amazon.”16

During his presidential campaign, Bolsonaro declared that he would extinguish the Ministry of the Environment and ended up retreating after intense pressure, but in practice he continued to empty the agency, including its budget. In 2019, there was “less budgetary execution and less effectiveness of environmental policy due to the deliberate will and 17 decision of a government, president and minister leading the way”17 with only 0.11% of the union's general budget destined to this office.

Taking into account that Brazil’s main international commitment in this area is to reduce and eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, their conduction of the environmental policies is a terrible sign.

Data on deforestation in the Amazon for the period from August 2018 to July 2019 show an increase in the loss of the biome within Conservation Units (UCs) in the order of 35%, the highest rate in the last 10 years and also higher than the deforestation rate of the Amazon biome itself, which in the same period saw the loss of forest cover increase by 30% in relation to the previous period. A study of satellite images also showed that 99% of the deforestation that occurred in the country in 2019 was illegal.

The worst part is that, in addition to not dedicating enough resources for the protection of the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes, despite the shocking increase in deforestation and violence around protected areas due to illegal extraction in the region, the Ministry of Environment and the government remain silent. There are no concrete steps being taken to reverse this dire situation in the region, let alone funding.

Sustaining efforts to ensure access to sustainable energy

This section deals with the guarantee of access to energy services that are affordable, trustworthy and modern for all and the promotion of sustainable energy. The SDGs more closely related are: SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production, SDG 13 - Climate Action and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

In this category that deals with access to energy and sustainable consumption, the country is supposedly well positioned to achieve the targets. Brazil, in data and even prior to the establishment of the 2030 Agenda, already had an energy matrix with a high share of renewable sources, especially due to hydroelectric power plants. In 2017, this figure was 43.7% and energy supply reached 99.8% of households.

But the data masks the enormous financial and social cost that the production and distribution of energy brings to the population, especially after the sector's privatization in the 1990s. Brazil has one of the highest energy rates in the world, a fact widely condemned by social movements such as the Movement of People Affected by Dams (MAB) which also shows how riverside, indigenous and quilombola communities and others affected by the construction and operation of dams in Brazil have had their rights systematically violated.

Through MAB’s pressure, the Brazilian government studied, through its former Human Rights Secretariat, the implementation of dams over a period of 4 years (2008-2011) and in 2011, concluded: “During the work of the Commission, it became evident the relevance and the magnitude of the negative social impacts resulting from the planning, implementation and operation of dams in the cases studied. The case studies allowed us to conclude that the current pattern of implantation of dams has, on a recurring basis, led to serious human rights violations, the consequences of which end up accentuating the already serious social inequalities, resulting in situations of poverty and rupture of social ties, for families and individuals.” (CDDPH, 2010. p. 12). But due to changes in government since 2016 and lack of transparency, the final report is no longer available for analysis, only excerpts that have been published by the social movement.

Responding to the economic shock, relaunching growth and sharing economic benefits and addressing developing countries’ financing challenges

This category will discuss policies to reduce inequality within and among countries, dissociating growth from environmental degradation and achieving sustainable development for the future generations. The related SDGs are: SDG 5 - Gender Equality, SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy, SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth, SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

The core issue of analysis in this category is the reduction of inequalities, a central issue for Brazil, the 7th most unequal country in the world according to the UNDP Human Development Report. But it is also fundamental because it dialogues with all the other SDGs and brings inputs to the debate on the importance of income distribution and equal opportunities to the detriment of the centrality of economic growth as a way to advance social justice.

The data on income and labor in Brazil show very clearly who the target audience of the austerity measures put in place in the last decade is. The measurement of the Gini Index, made by the IBGE with data from 2018, showed that the group composed of the richest 1% in the country saw its income increase 8.4%, while that of the poorest 5%, fell 3.2% in the same period. The index that measures the concentration of wealth reached 0.545, the highest level of the historical series started in 2012. To better visualize this data, the richest portion of the population has income 33.8 times higher than the 50% lowest, or even that, 10% of the population concentrates 43.1% of the country's income. Another survey by the same Institute - POF (Family Budget Survey) - reinforced what the Gini Index revealed; only 2.7% of families accumulated 20% of the total income between the years 2017 and 2018, while 25% of the poorest families had only 5.47% of the country's income.

Even with that scenario, the current government prefers to invest in speeches and practices that favor a minority of the elite and their allies. In the analysis carried out by Inesc on the public budget and on the implementation of public policies for the promotion of racial equality, and guaranteeing the rights of indigenous people, children and adolescents and women, historically excluded groups, this option is clear.

“Brazil is far from overcoming the racist historical inequalities arising from colonialism - where the division structure between the races was legalized, organizing all social relations, especially the economy. Proof of this are the negative statistics on the black population in all sectors: Afro-Brazilians represent 75% in the group of the poorest 10%; a black person is 2.7 times more likely to die from homicide than a white one; in the job market, black workers earn less: 46.9% of the black population is in the informal sector, when the percentage among white is 33.7%; and the white worker received, on average,18 72.5% more than a black professional in 2017.”18

“Even with this reality marked by structural, institutional and personal racism, the promotion of racial equality has always had few resources, on average 0.08% of the federal budget distributed in various bodies, such as the Secretariat for Policies for the Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR), Ministry of Agrarian Development (MDA), Ministry of Social Development (MDS), Ministry of Environment (MMA), Ministry of Education (MEC) and Ministry of Culture (MinC), and others. And besides the lack of resources, “the black and quilombola public underwent a process of invisibility in the planning of public policies by governments, until they disappeared. In the 2012-2015 Pluriannual Plan (PPA), 18 programs mentioned black and quilombola citizens; in the 2016-2019 PPA, this number dropped to 11 programs. (...) In the Bolsonaro government's PPA (2020-2023), there is no 19 mention of the black and quilombola public or the racism suffered by them.”19

A similar situation is faced by the indigenous people, who, like the quilombolas, are at the forefront of the territorial dispute against economic interests and, therefore, under constant threat. “2019 was a dramatic year for indigenous peoples in Brazil. The campaign promises of then candidate Jair Bolsonaro were confirmed as a political practice, and the government spent the year articulating with economic groups to open indigenous lands to20 mining, the construction of hydroelectric plants, oil & gas exploration and mining."20 In addition to this attack on the territories and the indigenous peoples' right to their lands, cultures and ways of life, the government bet on disrespectful speeches about them and often instilling attacks, but above all, it fought to dilapidate the National Indian Foundation (Funai), the agency responsible for the protection and promotion of indigenous rights.

The reduction in Funai's budget and its discredit do not begin with Bolsonaro, but take on other proportions in his government. In 2019, the budget was R$ 673 million, a decrease of 23% in relation to the 2013 amount of R$ 870 million. For 2020, Funai has an authorized budget of R$ 625 million, but due to the spending ceiling imposed by CA 95/2016, only part of this is guaranteed - R$ 495.6 million, with the remaining R$ 129.6 million subject to approval by the parliament. "Considering that Funai is already extremely lean and with reduced capacity to operate in the territories, the loss of authorized budget and the fall in21 the amounts paid had a heavy effect on the lives of indigenous peoples"21. In addition, with the change in the way of carrying out government planning, several policies and actions were extinguished or made invisible.

“Women are central to the current political situation. In 2018, they were the main opponents of Jair Bolsonaro's candidacy organized marches across Brazil around the hashtag #EleNao. The motivation was based on the fact that the then federal deputy uttered sexist and racist statements in different spaces (...). In 2019, there was an increase of 7.3% in femicide in the country compared to 2018: in São Paulo, cases increased 44% in the first half of the year, the majority of attacks occurred at home. Now, domestic violence is deepening in the COVID-19 scenario, as women in social isolation are forced to be22 confined with the aggressors.”22 And not only the violence that affects women during the pandemic, it is the care of children, the elderly and the sick, and all maintenance of the domestic routine, not to mention that women are the majority of workers in the health system. There are also day laborers, informal workers, temporary workers who will be left without income. These are structural situations that were not being met with public policies before the health crisis.

The Secretariat of Policies for Women (SPM) with ministry status has been extinguished in the current government and policies for women, the elderly, people with disabilities, children and adolescents and the racial issue are allocated in a secretariat within the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights under the command of a neo-Pentecostal pastor. In 2020, in the “first 4 months of budget execution, amid the pandemic of the new coronavirus, the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights, with a budget of R$ 400 23 million, executed only 0.13% of the resources authorized for 2020.”23 From 2014 to 2019, we saw a 75% reduction in the women's budget, from R$ 185 to R$ 46 million. There is no denying that the numbers show that there is no political will to advance women's rights, especially in an area where the debate is dominated by conservative religious representatives, who are not only promoting setbacks in the executive, but also in parliament, trying to pass laws that further restrict women's rights.

And for children and teenagers, the scenario is similar. “The PPA 2020-2023, prepared by the government of Jair Bolsonaro, is the greatest demonstration that the human rights principles of children and adolescents - absolute priority, universality, full protection and non-discrimination - will remain unfulfilled in the coming years. In the text in which the 24 government programs and goals are presented, the word adolescent does not appear.”24 In the period between 2012 and 2016, there was a significant drop in the allocated budget, from R$ 730 million in 2012 to about R$ 55 million in 2016, but specific actions were still foreseen in the 2012-15 Pluriannual Plan for “Eradication of Labor Children, Promotion of Childhood Culture and Support for Rights Defense Forums, among others. In 2019 these 25 strategies disappear or enter as Budget Plans for broader actions and with little funding.”25 For the year, R$ 686.36 million was authorized, but the total expense paid was only R$ 339.04 million, less than half of the total calculation.

There is no narrative to replace looking at the numbers and what they reveal: the current government's lack of commitment to defend the rights of vulnerable groups and to reduce inequalities, not fulfilling national and international commitments included in the 2030 Agenda and others.

Bolstering local action to control the pandemic and accelerate implementation

The focus of this area of debates is to deal with measures to build capacity and support cities, local authorities and communities, as well as issues regarding sustainable urban development, infrastructure and people-centered services. The SDGs more closely related to this discussion are: SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities and SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals.

In 2019, the government decided to extinguish the Ministry of Cities (created in 2003) with the aim of articulating debates on urban policy and creating legal frameworks so that the federal government and local governments could coordinate action on issues of housing, environmental sanitation and transport. “And what was already problematic, got worse in 2019 with the end of the Ministry of Cities, spreading agendas to other ministries and secretariats, removing the central role of cities and the representation of the urban reform and right to the city social movements. Funding also got dispersed and there is no support for improving urban management, for urban planning, for public transportation. On the26 contrary, we have seen incentives to end traffic laws that have saved and still save lives.”26

Most of the programs for the cities are within the “Urbanism” budgetary function, which combines urban infrastructure, urban services and public transportation. Between 2015 and 2016, authorized budget resources dropped significantly, so the small gain in 2017 was unable to make up for the loss. And in 2019, there was 50% less funding authorized than in 2012. As in education, for urban policy there was an active and representative council, which was extinguished by the Bolsonaro government with the aforementioned decree 9.759/2019. “(...) if with the existence of a centralizing body for urban policies, with strong and legitimate participation instances, such as the council and the conference, the right to the city was already neglected, now, with deliberate disrespect to the existing legal frameworks and the disintegration of policies, we will certainly be even more distant from27 the realization of this collective right.”27

For 2020, the budget allocated to the actions of the former Ministry of Cities is about 30% lower than in 2019. Lack of structure and budget ends up penalizing an area of rights that is essential in responding to the pandemic. Ensuring inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable settlements becomes an almost impossible challenge when more than 40% of the population28 lives in precarious settlements and there is no chance that this will be circumvented in the near future. “The pandemic underscores the need for stable, medium- and long-term public policies that prioritize urban infrastructure and mobility works to reduce the sad levels of inequalities that exist in all corners of the country, more explicitly29 in large cities where most of the population lives.”29

As with this category of SDGs analysis and the others exposed, it is clear that only with resources and political will it is possible to guarantee greater justice and equality. SDG 17, which permeates all others by the important mission of creating means to fulfill these agreed commitments, also reinforces the same certainty brought about by the analysis of the other objectives: there is, at this moment, no government priority in guaranteeing means of implementation for this or other human rights and social justice agendas. There is no availability for dialogue and cooperation, at the national level, but also at the international level, as shown by some decisions and attitudes in the international area, especially with regard to the UN system.

Final Remarks

“Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Milton Friedman (Capitalism and Freedom, 1982)

“The future will be determined by whoever is willing to fight harder for the ideas they have lying around.”
Naomi Klein (Coronavirus Capitalism — and How to Beat It, 2020)

If there is no swift and blunt change of course, the prospects for the post-COVID-19 world are dire. The health crisis has shown that neoliberal policies are not meant to respond to emergencies, that social policies are essential to guarantee the life and dignity of the most vulnerable groups and that looking at the economy alone will only reinforce inequalities and widen the gap between social classes. In the case of Brazil, without a change that makes the public budget used to respect, protect and promote rights, the impacts of the pandemic - added to the scenario in which the country finds itself, will be very serious for the population.

But crises also put us at crossroads that present opportunities for change that at other times we would not have the openness, capacity or even the courage to experience. Standard procedures are meaningless when the state of affairs prevents the majority of the world's population from having access to a dignified life. Rescuing the private sector to the detriment of guaranteeing rights for people cannot be the parameter, as occurred in 2008. The unpreparedness with which the world received this pandemic showed that the simple continuation of the exploitation of labor and natural resources in the name of market health will not save lives or the planet. There is another way forward in a post-coronavirus future that is already being built and disputed.

“Crises have often been important in enabling progress – creating critical junctures or moments of possibility – but crises alone have never been enough to secure success for those fighting inequality. The 1929 crisis was followed by progressive change in the US, but was followed by fascism in central Europe. The oil and debt crises helped facilitate neoliberalism. The 2008 crash, which “should” have led to a resurgent progressive movement internationally, was instead more marked by the rise of the far right and the mainstreaming of xenophobic politics. They are moments to seize, but we are not the only ones who have seen that – the supremacists and oligarchs have seen that too, and they are30 making the case for a world that accepts mass suffering for the market.”30

With civil society off the streets, with limited spaces for participation and social control, with the legislative carte blanche that governments are taking31, the battle for a future centered on people and not on the interests of economic groups, seems almost impossible to be won. But it is not. The pandemic is creating a greater understanding that guaranteeing human rights and preparing governments and societies for ever more present emergencies, such as environmental disasters, if it is not the only possible answer, it is the best of them. Also because it is the only one that makes it possible to achieve the targets set out in the SDGs and other multilateral agendas to promote equality and justice.

A global survey32 shows that for 71% of people in the long run, the climate crisis is as serious as the current health crisis; 68% of people agree that their governments are failing to prevent climate change, 65% of those consulted support that the economic reconstruction resulting from the COVID-19 crisis is done in a green way and that 57% said they could not vote for one political party that did not support serious policies against the climate crisis.

For decades, environmentalists have been calling us to shift our modes of production and consumption in response to the climate emergency. Something that never seemed realistic was put to the test under the circumstances. “The first lesson from the coronavirus is also the most astounding. In fact, it has been proven that it is possible, in a matter of weeks, to suspend, all over the world and at the same time, an economic system that until now we have been told was impossible to slow down or redirect. To all the arguments presented by ecologists about the need to change our ways of life, the responses always pointed to the irreversible strength of the 'progress train', which nothing could take off the tracks, 'in virtue', it was said, of 'globalization'.”33 We found “that those who said it was impossible to stop producing, reduce the number of flights, increase government investments and radically change habits just lied. The world has changed in less than three months in the name of life. It is also in the name of life that we need to maintain the good practices that emerged from this period and press like never before for another type of society to be built, woven with other threads.”34

They are the mutual aid practices of anarchist groups that have been adopted by community leaders and ordinary people organizing groups in neighborhoods for neighbors to help each other. Or the tenants' strike, which changed its scale with the health crisis when more and more families have to choose to eat instead of paying rent. The community radio programs elevating women’s demands and the many initiatives led by them.. The maintenance of campaigns and the recognition that austerity measures urgently need to be revoked, such as the spending cap in Brazil, in order to enable States to respond to the pandemic in an appropriate manner. And also the reinforcement of alternative economic theories, such as the Modern Monetary Theory, which argues that States can create national physical or electronic money without limits, and that inflation would only occur if limits imposed by the finitude of natural resources and the available labor force were exceeded.

Many of these good practices that are developing in this time of crisis are based on feminist elaborations, building on their long history of resistance to racism, colonialism and anthropocentrism and the promotion of solidarity as the primary value of life. In a historic
moment when women's work - paid and unpaid - is in such evidence, it is unacceptable that tomorrow is decided by the same white men sitting in centers of power, in their high political or corporate positions. One cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that women are the majority of those on the front lines in controlling the disease: in the public sphere because they are the overwhelming majority of health professionals, and in the private sphere, through domestic work - paid or not, and the fact that they are the ones who suffer most acutely from the daily lives changes imposed by COVID-19.

Rescuing the economy along the lines of what was done in the 2008 crisis is an option that is on the table, but now unveiled as an intentional option and not as the only possible way out. The IMF itself has come to recognize that austerity measures have had no effect on the recovery of economies, let alone helped countries prepare for the pandemic. ECLAC, in its latest report on the situation of the new coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean, proposed the implementation of emergency basic income programs for six months for the entire population living in poverty in the region. Not even the traditional publications known for defending fiscal adjustments, like The Economist and Financial Times, have had the audacity to defend spending cuts at a time like this.

It is precisely in the midst of the crisis that the dispute for the guarantee of human rights and social justice must be present, in narratives and actions. Monitoring the responses being put into practice by States and proposing futures is not a luxury, nor does it require us to be in a cycle of prosperity and/or clarity. Ideas that until recently were considered radical and inconceivable are being pointed out as the only possible ways to get out of this crisis. The debate on the search for solutions will allow the structural vulnerabilities of our societies to show themselves and with that, the need for a systemic change will become clearer, burying the neoliberal guidebook once and for all to free up space and energy so that we can reach other ways of life. Faced with the crossroads at which we are - transported by this crisis, the only question that needs to be answered is: How are we going to make the transition to an economy that is centered on caring for people and the planet?

Annex 1
Thematic SDGs Review, as proposed for the 2020 HLPF

Thematic SDG review in 2020

Related SDGs

Protecting and advancing human wellbeing and ending poverty

SDG 1 - No Poverty
SDG 4 - Quality Education
SDG 6 - Clean Water and Sanitation
SDG 16 - Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Ending hunger and achieving food security

SDG 2 - Zero Hunger
SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-being SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Protecting the planet and building resilience

SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production SDG 13 - Climate Action
SDG 14 - Life Below Water SDG 15 - Life on Land
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Sustaining efforts to ensure access to sustainable energy

SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
SDG 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production SDG 13 - Climate Action
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Responding to the economic shock, relaunching growth and sharing economic benefits and addressing developing countries’ financing challenges

SDG 5 - Gender Equality
SDG 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy
SDG 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth SDG 10 - Reduced Inequalities
SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals

Bolstering local action to control the pandemic and accelerate implementation

SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure SDG 11 - Sustainable Cities and Communities SDG 17 - Partnerships for the Goals



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1 We would like to thank Nathalie Beghin, Cleo Manhas and Carmela Zigoni, from Inesc, for their comments and invaluable suggestions to this report.

2 When we refer to human rights it is in the broad sense of embracing civil and political rights, as well as economic, social, cultural and environmental rights, such as housing, health, education, social policies, work, water and sanitation, food, the right to life and access to justice.

3 The amendment was considered unconstitutional and antidemocratic by many experts as it jeopardized the autonomy between the powers, in the withdrawal from Congress of decisions regarding the federal public budget. The office of the Attorney-General of the Republic even issued a contrary opinion.

4 For an analysis of the labor reform, please refer to the Inesc’s report on the SDGs situation in Brazil in 2019 - item SDG 8, available at:

5 The pension reform was debated and approved under the premise that the Brazilian Social Security is in deficit and an obstacle to the fiscal adjustment sought by the government. Thus, it would be necessary to reform it to cut costs, correct distortions and adapt the system for an aging population. Part of the government's argument in favor of this reform was that it would be possible to save R$855 billion in 10 years. But with the increase in unemployment and informality, the account of the economy that can be made loses its meaning, becoming just a hypothetical calculation.

6 In many countries, social policies that once would not have had public support are being discussed and supported by the majority of the population. In Japan, emergency income, rent control in the UK, nationalization of transport and the pharmaceutical industry in France, the use of hotels to accommodate the unhoused in Canada, among others. Sources from Ben Phillips on his social networks.

7 For example, the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a standard text on the SDGs, information on the creation of the 2016 National Commission for Sustainable Development Goals (CNODS in its Portuguese initials) and news of activities carried out with the participation of Brazilian representatives until 2017; the most recent page is about the 2030 Agenda, updated in 2019, but clearly from 2017, edited only to remove the link to the report prepared by the government at the time.

8 In October 2020, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect mayors, vice mayors and city councilors in all 5,570 municipalities in the national territory.

9 IPEA. Caderno ODS 1, 2019. page 8. (IPEA Journal SDG 1) Available in Portuguese at:

10 IPEA. Cadernos ODS 4, 2019. page 6. (IPEA Journal SDG 4) Available in Portuguese at:

11 Cleo Manhas. “Education - SDG 4 and the Brazilian Plan for Education, a necessary connection”, 2019,

12 Inesc. O Brasil com Baixa Imunidade - Balanço do Orçamento Geral da União 2019 (Brazil with low immunity - Analysis of the General Federal Budget of 2019). April 2020. Available in Portuguese at: Page 68

13 Instituto Alana. Nota em Defesa do Consea. 28/01/2019 (Statement in defence of Consea by children’s rights group Instituto Alana), Available in Portuguese at:

14 Inesc. Page 50

15 Idem

16 Inesc, page 107

17 Idem

18 Inesc, page 136

19 Idem, page 137

20 Inesc, page 170

21 Idem, page 170

22 Idem, page 155

23 Idem, page 167

24 Inesc, page 129

25 Idem, page 112

26 Idem, page 83

27 Inesc, page 88

28 Indicator 11.1.1, source: IBGE, Census 2010 data

29 Inesc, page 93

30 Phillips, Ben (2020). You are not being bold enough.

31 There are a number of authoritarian laws or laws that put civil and political rights at risk being passed. ICNL is monitoring these laws worldwide, including Brazil, and making them available in an online tool: COVID 19 Civic Freedom Tracker, available at:

33 Latour, Bruno. imaginar gestos que barrem o retorno da produção pré-crise. (to imagine gestures that would block the pre-crisis production to resume). Available in Portuguese at:

34 Brum, Eliane. O futuro pós-coronavírus já está em disputa. (The post-coronavirus future is already in dispute). Available in Portuguese at:

Human Rights International Treaties
ILO Conventions
C 87 C 98 C 105 C 100 C 111C 138 C 182
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