Unlike China’s 2008 Olympics, Displaced Slum-Dwellers in Brazil Will Not Go Quietly

No political pundit would argue that democracy and transparency are conducive to swift action and efficient development. That is exactly the approach of state-led development, championed by China and its ability to remove squatters and slum-dwellers as they see fit in order to build infrastructure, especially for the 2008 Olympic in Beijing, where an estimated 1.5 million people were forced to move.

Brazil, on the other hand, is learning that their sloppy, dead-locked, often corrupt politics, combined with an open news media and internet is putting a thorn in their ability to demolish slums to build their Olympic park for the 2016 games. If they wish to continue their ascent to the ranks of the Westernized developed world, it behooves them to relent and rethink their Olympic preparations. The scandal is exposing the fragility of their ascent at the same time as it validates the power of open media to hold governments accountable.

Ten years of economic growth and stability has seen Brazil rise as a regional power for cleaning up its act and helping lift millions out of poverty. At the same time, the government sought to rid itself of ghosts from its dictatorial past by allowing for open news media (a rarity even among Latin American democracies) and creating so many checks on government that it is a wonder that anything ever gets done (or, perhaps the point is that nothing should get done).

However, since it is now widely accepted that a country’s level of foreign investment is directly correlated to expectations, it is easy to imagine how any indication of mismanagement or corruption could derail their train. Messing up construction on one of the world’s most-watched events would be a start.

Rio de Janeiro’s planners should study-up on past Olympic failures and re-assess their approach. For example, they could check out reports from human rights groups that criticized Beijing for displacing so many citizens. Unlike 2008, slum-dwellers in Rio have expressed their discontent on local news outlets and through international social media, such as YouTube and Twitter. This openness is making the difference between Beijing´s Olympic development, and the messier, yet more accountable Rio version.  

Additionally, there is no guarantee of long-term economic or social benefits for cities that host the games. Does it really benefit the city to demolish whole favelas only to build monuments to an Olympics that no one will care about 10 years after the fact? Sure, some cities are transformed after hosting the Olympics, such as Barcelona after the 1992 summer games. But its draw is wonderful architecture and walkable boulevards. No one visits Barcelona to check out the Olympic Park. Likewise, tourists go to Rio for the beaches and beautiful people, not for monuments to state-power and inequality.

Not to mention the 2004 games in Athens, Greece. The government spent nearly $16 billion (from a budget of $1.6 billion) to pay for new stadiums that are now barely occupied. Now, at least part of that debt is leading them and possibly the rest of Europe into a downward spiral. 

Effectively, Brazil is battling over how to build an adequate Olympic Park to match the size of their growing ambition as a world power. London should be their model, not Athens or Beijing. For the games this year, London is building a new “sustainable” stadium that is lightweight. Also, their effort to build within the already-existing infrastructure should be commended and standardized as a new blueprint for cities who strive to host games in the future.

Brazil must evaluate what kind of legacy they wish to leave behind for their Olympics. It is an opportunity to stand against housing evictions and build on their reputation in favor of sustainable development. But, if poorly managed, they risk running up debt, damaging national unity, and propagating inequality. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Jessica Rudder

Jessica is a master's student in the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington. She is a researcher for agriculture and development institute on campus. She cares about food policy, poverty, and sustainability.

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