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One More Look at Rio: The Necessity and Complexity of Systems Change

By Joony Moon

Over the course of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, we’ve delved into some of the challenges facing Brazil. We began with the Social Progress Index’s (SPI) assessment of Brazil’s performance across key dimensions of social progress, and then gained on-the-ground insights from Saúde Criança and WITNESS, two organizations addressing some of those issues within the poor communities of Rio de Janeiro. To wrap up, we’ll look at the larger picture of inequality and systems change.

A complex problem stemming from systemic inequality

Throughout this exploration, I was struck by the complexity of Rio’s challenges as well as the underlying theme of structural inequality.

Rio’s city-level SPI shows a marked variance in social progress across different regions of the city. The Olympics put Rio under a magnifying glass, and it is through this lens that many outsiders saw inequality manifest—in things like forced evictions, disparities in infrastructure, and the exclusion of poor people from decision-making.

In the months leading up to the Olympics, the multidimensionality of poverty—namely that poverty involves a confluence of factors, not just a lack of income—was made clear.

To provide an example: due to the proliferation of drugs and gangs that often arises with poverty, police forces occupied Rio’s favelas, purportedly to make the city safer for foreign tourists. Unfortunately, this police presence only increased the violence, which drove important businesses like banks away from certain favela communities.

Additionally, the amount of resources the government expended on policing the favelas diverted money away from important infrastructure development projects, and even led it to declare a “state of calamity” that resulted in some hospitals shutting down and public school teachers not receiving their salaries.

Layered onto Rio’s existing challenges have been political and economic crises, as well as the Zika virus. While these problems have affected Brazilians of all socio-economic classes, the impact is greatest for the poor, who have limited ability to seek alternative solutions and depend heavily on government services.

Social entrepreneurs address systemic inequality

We saw in the examples of Saúde Criança and WITNESS that through access to the proper services and tools, poor people in Rio can seek solutions to effect permanent change in their lives. By enabling people to address the inequality gaps themselves, communities can build their own capacities and begin to transform their lives.

The role of the social entrepreneur in these models is to jumpstart that process by helping communities to develop an organized and influential voice, attract external investment, or improve their capacity to sustain themselves without public assistance.

The work of social entrepreneurs is important because it helps people address the root causes of their challenges instead of just the symptoms. Rather than attempting to fight the same small battles time and again, social entrepreneurs help communities see the larger picture that is needed to enable systems change.

Contextual challenges remain

Achieving systems change is complex and requires adaptation to each specific context. Even proven social interventions can face unexpected challenges unique to a given culture or environment.

For instance, while in many parts of the world waste collection is performed by the private sector, the prevailing view in Brazil is that all basic services should be delivered by the government, because the poor cannot afford to pay for them. This presents a distinct funding challenge and requires a creative solution.

Another unique challenge in Rio is small-scale deforestation for the construction of homes. While this practice is illegal, limited enforcement and space constraints in the city lead some people to cut down trees in order to build homes that are closer to their families and their jobs. This type of deforestation is problematic because these houses are built in places where there is an increased risk of landslides.

Finally, a compounding problem is that Brazil’s tax system does not incentivize charitable donations. Given the current recession, this results in significantly fewer individual and corporate contributions to social entrepreneurs to help tackle these issues.

It is our hope that this two-week exploration of Rio de Janeiro has offered tangible examples of the challenges and successes experienced by people trying to bring about systems change. Social entrepreneurs are at the heart of these efforts, helping to identify gaps in the system and presenting solutions.

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