14 September 2011

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof of benefit for public works related to the World Cup and Olympics should fall on the government, not on civil society. What is happening in Brazil is that the master plans of cities have been altered to attend to the short term demands of Swiss-based NGOs, with the promise that the outpouring of tens of billions in public funds will generate short, medium, and long term benefits. Of course, the opening of public coffers for massive public project will inevitably generate jobs and secondary benefits for a limited range of social actors. However, the justifications (be they technocratic, economic, or geo-political/symbolic) for those projects and the ways in which they (ostensibly) fit into medium and long-term city planning mechanisms that will generate more just and livable cities are not in evidence at all. Herein lies part of the problem: mega-events, almost without exception, are predicated upon short term return on public investment for private industry – economic projections that indicate massive growth for small businesses are conducted by firms contracted to demonstrate just that. There is a farcical absence of independent economic analysis that justifies multi-billion dollar investments before these investments are made. The studies and reports that are coming out now about the World Cup and Olympics in Brazil are mechanism for justifying what is already underway. The inexorable, relentless carrying off of these projects at whatever cost, needs to be justified somehow. Much like the continual selling of various wars in the USA, the continual selling of mega-investment in Brazil is an exercise in public relations based in voodoo economics.

For readers new to this blog, I am attempting to cover the massive changes in Rio de Janeiro and Brazil from a perspective based in critical geography mixed with investigative journalism. That my comments here are almost wholly in opposition to the projects underway in Brazil is based on my decade of research into the ways that sports impact urban and social relations. There is a global tendency to de-politicize sports. No one likes to think of their leisure activity as yet another field of political action. However, everyone surely understands that the marriage of sports and nationalism in international competitions cannot be effectively separated from ideas of citizenship, notions of belonging, human rights, and the foundations of a global political-economy. The complications inherent to sport are multiplied and accelerated with the World Cup and Olympics, especially as they stimulate and accelerate myriad processes already present in the places / spaces in which they occur. Mega-events crystallize the articulations between the local and the national and the global wherever they occur, opening opportunities for the questioning of and resistance to the worrisome trends of social polarization and the implementation of ever more severe tactics of neo-liberal governance.

I changed the sub-heading of the blog to “Black Boxes and Trojan Horses” as an indication of the way I see these events unfolding. That the World Cup and (to a lesser extent) the Olympics operate in secrecy is no secret. We have yet to be presented with the governance structure of the 2014 World Cup. We don’t know how decisions are being made, just that there is little or no democratic input into the ‘system’ that is taking billions and restructuring cities and social relations, especially in relation to the use of public space, the installation of new security mechanisms, and the re-articulation of the right to the city. The Olympics have adopted a new governance mechanism that erects a non-governmental authority to direct the billions into project that are defined by the needs of the Games and not the city itself. That is to say, the city needs to be restructured to suit the Games, and not the other way around. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with this and am attempting to show how and where and when and why this is happening.
My comments are occasionally hyperbolic but always based in archival and field research that I am conducting. My interpretation of media reports and press releases is hopefully providing a different perspective into the euphoric vision of mega-events that dominates popular discourse. My ire and incredulity are not couched in anti-sport or anti-event rhetoric but rather come from my belief that the World Cup and Olympics are being used as opportunities to maximize capital accumulation opportunities in perverse and negative ways. The models currently being employed are simply not capable of bettering cities, making them more livable, more just places. Rather, the autocratic imposition of these events requires a restructuring of “democratic norms” in order to facilitate the transfer of public wealth to private hands. These are lost opportunities to implement projects that would bring lasting and not short term benefits.

These events need a massive restructuring, a dose of humility, and should attend to the demands of the places in which they are held. As it is, they are ever-larger, require ever-more public funds, and re-shape spaces and places to meet the exigencies of international sport federations and their corporate partners while stimulating real-estate speculation and re-enforcing false notions of “progress” and “social development”. Of course, the massive outlay of public money for these events is going to generate benefits, employment opportunities, and improvements in transportation, communication, etc. But shouldn’t these projects have long-term urban and social planning as their foundation? It is likely that without the events that the political consensus necessary for such a massive outlay would never be possible. However, the opportunity costs are extreme and rarely measured, if only because it is difficult to do so. But considering that the Brazilian federal government just cut R$50 billion from the education budget while it is projecting to spend at least R$60 billion on mega-events indicates that these costs are real and worth considering. 

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