A new study of drought relief in Brazil highlights the role of local media in political accountability

São Paulo is currently experiencing one of the worst droughts it has seen in more than 80 years. The Cantareira reservoir system, which supplies the city, is operating at around 10 percent of its normal volume. Some predict that water could run out in less than 100 days. Beyond the limits of South America’s largest city, the drought is affecting the country’s southeast and central provinces. Rationing has already raised tensions throughout the region. In years past, these regions and others like the hard-hit northeast have received some drought relief aid to soften the economic blow to crops, livestock and citizens. But on the eve of a presidential election many of these drought-stricken municipalities are wondering if they’ll receive discretionary aid.

In Brazil—what some have called “The Social Media Capital of the Universe”—recent research from Harvard and Fundação Getúlio Vargas is proving the effectiveness of a traditional media stalwart: radio. And banding together on the air could be a useful tactic, says the new study of local radio networks in Brazil.

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“40% of Brazilians use radios as a source of political information,” says Horacio Larreguy, an economist and professor of government at Harvard University. In a recent study, Larreguy and his colleague Joana Monteiro looked at the role of radio networks in influencing discretionary drought relief aid to Brazil’s municipalities. They found that municipalities which had banded together with a local radio network were more likely to receive more federal help, even if they weren’t in municipalities that were politically aligned with the federal government’s party. In other words, there was strength in numbers and in disseminating the effects of the drought across the radio network.

During the seven years between 2002 and 2008, the Brazilian federal government declared a state of emergency due to drought a total of 3,200 times. Brazil has 5,565 municipalities. Taken cumulatively, this translates to an average of just 8% of municipalities being declared in a state of emergency – upon which the disbursement of federal discretionary funds is contingent – per year. Significant red tape exists and though there exist accounts of politically-biased drought relief, Larreguy wondered if the aid approval could be correlated to the political party of a municipality’s mayor. Radio stations and the flow of information they enable allowed Larreguy to track the political influence of these non-aligned municipalities.

“There’s an indication that the federal government is biased against non-aligned municipalities,” explains Larreguy, “but we found that if you have the presence of a local radio network, it is more likely that you’ll get more federal help.” It seemed, at least through Larreguy’s analysis of 2002-2008 data, that even if your municipality wasn’t politically aligned with the federal government, the strength of your radio network could influence drought relief aid.

While Brazilians’ fervent adoption of the world’s major social media networks has already had implications on the direction of the country’s politics. Larreguy’s study offers hope that in rural Brazil, where internet penetration and Internet use is less developed there is power in more traditional media to influence politicians. As for São Paulo, the political cost of confronting drought will continue to leave the city parched.

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