Marilena Igreja Lazzarini
Fellow Since 1990
IDEC- Instituto Brasileiro de Defesa do Consumidor
This profile was prepared when Marilena Igreja Lazzarini was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.
The New Idea
Marilena's decade of working on consumer issues in the Sao Paulo government taught her a great deal about the problems confronting consumers, not least the difficulty of attacking them from within government in the face of shifting political imperatives. Effective consumer protection, including reliable government response, requires sustained, independent citizen initiative.Marilena responded to the last few years' disruptions--inflation shocks, debt payment crises, wide political swings--by bringing together a group of lawyers, scientists, and former government colleagues to create the Brazilian Institute for Defending the Consumer (IDEC). Although they founded IDEC primarily to research product quality and safety, the group soon decided it could be more effective (and self-financing) if it also took up major consumer issues directly, especially in court.IDEC has subsequently demonstrated how to use collective suits to important direct and precedent-setting effect. She and her colleagues have won a suit against one of Brazil's largest health insurance companies, which was found guilty of illegally raising its already high premiums. IDEC lawyers have also fought to enforce an existing legal ban on the carcinogenic hormone DES, which had nonetheless been widely used by Brazilian cattle ranchers to fatten their stock. Most recently, IDEC took up the cause of some 300,000 residents of the state of Sao Paulo who had paid the state phone company for telephones only to languish indefinitely on waiting lists.These highly publicized successes and Marilena's credibility are bringing ever more people to IDEC's doorstep. Marilena reports that "IDEC is called upon to act on every consumer issue in the state of Sao Paulo and increasingly on the national level as well."The challenge now is to turn these successes and this demand into an institution that will last, an institution that will permanently improve Brazil's marketplace by giving consumers the information and voice to insist on better products and services. A successful and especially a financially sustainable institution will quickly be copied -both in other parts of the country and by groups specializing in a particular area of concern, be it medical care or airline service. Marilena hopes such a multiplication will be her biggest impact.