Rewarding good governance for children in Brazilian cities

UNICEF-BRZ-Alessandro Potter

Author: Anupama Nallari

Can competition between cities enable them to perform better? And if yes, for whom and in what ways? Several national and international city awards have mushroomed over the years. These recognise and reward good governance practices in cities around sustainability, mobility and transport, urban design and liveability. Few awards, however, have a specific focus on children. Even fewer are structured to develop capacities within cities to win such an award. In this post, I discuss a long-running United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) programme in Brazil: the Municipal Seal of Approval award (the Seal). The Seal works towards achieving better outcomes for children by enhancing the technical, administrative and networking capacities of municipalities in vulnerable regions of Brazil.

The Seal: a radical shift in programming

The Municipal Seal of Approval – or Selo UNICEF as it is known in Brazil – was launched by UNICEF in 1999. It began as an initiative to reduce child mortality in the state of Ceará. Following the Seal’s initial success, UNICEF’s country strategy in Brazil shifted radically, from funding numerous small programmes in children’s health, education and protection, to putting the majority of its funding behind this single programme – so that the Seal broadened to include a range of other child-related indicators. I highlight this programme because it:
• Supports children’s rights across the urban–rural continuum
• Reduces inter-urban disparities
• Uses existing funding, and
• Has withstood changes in political leadership and economic downturns.

Why the Seal is relevant now

The Seal is a certificate-based model developed to strengthen intersectoral coordination at the local level and to achieve children’s rights at scale. [i] In 2019, 87% of Brazil’s population lived in urban areas. As municipalities comprise both urban and rural areas, the Seal benefits citizens across the urban–rural continuum.[ii] To give you an idea of its success, in the first cycle of the Seal in 1999, 190 municipalities participated in the award process. Today, that number has increased ten-fold. The 2017–2020 cycle has attracted 1,924 municipalities, covering 16 million children in the Amazon and semi-arid regions of Brazil. That figure represents a third of all Brazilian municipalities and 90% of the poorest municipalities in the country. As such, the Seal is positioned to reduce inter-urban disparities.

The success of the Seal is a model that emerging nations can draw on to achieve children’s rights at scale in vulnerable regions. Many nations in Africa and Asia are becoming more increasingly urbanised and decentralised. But Brazil is already a few decades ahead in both aspects. As such, Brazil can offer model ways to tackle the complexities that arise with these transitions.

How the Seal award works

1. Setting goals

Each edition of the current Seal is structured around a four-year cycle.[iii] At the beginning of each cycle, UNICEF Brazil establishes a set of goals for children that municipalities should work towards. These goals are based on:
• Municipalities’ evaluation and feedback of the previous cycle of the Seal
• National priorities in areas such as education, health and social protection, and
• New challenges faced by municipalities such as adolescent violence.

Goals in various cycles of the Seal range from increasing birth registration and vaccination rates to reducing adolescent homicide rates. To enable municipalities to work towards these goals, UNICEF has developed a methodology that lays out policies and actions that need to be put in place as well as the indicators that measure their progress. UNICEF further supports the Seal by:
• Providing baseline data for indicators
• Hosting an online platform for monitoring progress on indicators
• Training municipal staff in policy implementation and intersectoral coordination
• Conducting independent evaluations at the end of each cycle, and
• Lending its brand identity to the award.

2. Cycles of improvement

The Seal methodology is improved every cycle, based on the learnings from previous cycles. This is seen as a crucial element of the Seal. In a recent evaluation, the Mayor of Ceará State[iv] emphasised that:

In the UNICEF Seal, the greatest assets are the guidelines, the indicators, which offer a clear road map to any manager taking office. All they must do is build the partnerships and maintain the relationships to execute this. Every municipality is undoubtedly changed by the Seal because they have this methodology to follow.
Mayor, Ceará State

Municipalities do not receive additional funding for participating in the Seal. However, the Seal methodology and various training sessions provided by UNICEF enable municipalities to prioritise their existing funds to achieving better outcomes for children. Mayors of municipalities who have participated in the Seal find it strengthens their technical and administrative capacities. It also builds broad-based support for achieving better results for children, helps them gain national recognition and attracts funding.[v] According to Mário Volpi, the national coordinator of UNICEF Seal in Brazil, the recognition and visibility they get from the UNICEF brand is a key motivator.

3. The power of working across sectors

Local officials find that being able to work across sectors and engaging with the community is key to reaching the most vulnerable children. Municipalities participating in the Seal commit to funding and appointing an intersectoral coordinator and a youth engagement coordinator. In addition to implementing the policy and programming interventions laid out in the Seal methodology, municipalities also hold two community forums and establish a youth group to enable participatory dialogue between local officials and citizens. As one official from São Caetano in Pernambuco State said,

If a child is not in school due to a health reason, we work with health to get them back to school. If they need social assistance, there is CRAS [Social Assistance Reference Centres].[vi] If the child is in a situation of risk, we can involve social workers.We work in an integrated way among the secretariats, with constant dialogue.
Municipal representative, São Caetano[vii]

4. Keeping track of progress

Progress is monitored and evaluated on two main aspects – implementing systemic policy interventions (like instituting youth participation) and improving outcomes on social impact indicators (such as infant mortality rates, school enrolment rates and vaccine coverage). UNICEF grants the Seal award to municipalities that have the required policy interventions in place and have performed better than their peers on social indicators. In the last cycle of the Seal, a third of the participating municipalities attained the Seal award. The award is valid for four years.

What impact has the Seal had?

After the second cycle of the Seal in 2001–2002 in the state of Ceará, participating municipalities found that infant mortality rates had been reduced by 35%, immunisation rates increased by 37%, child malnutrition reduced by half, the percentage of schools with clean water had increased by 18%, and the availability of childcare centres by 12%.[viii] The most recent cycle saw civil birth registrations of children up to one year of age increase by double that of the national average.[ix] While the Seal alone is not responsible for these improvements, it gives participating municipalities an edge over non-participating ones.

The Seal has also had unforeseen positive impacts. Several municipalities have gone beyond the Seal’s requirements to invest in areas such as early childhood education and special education. It has also become an invaluable platform to address crises such as the Zika virus epidemic in 2015 and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Crises such as these call for intersectoral coordination and response.

Additionally, municipalities that have participated in several cycles of the Seal have developed a deep-rooted child-focused lens to governance. For example, in São Caetano, where more than half of families depend of welfare assistance, the municipality prioritises some of its limited funds towards enriching children’s education and experience in arts and culture.

However, while the Seal has had significant impact on improving children’s rights in the areas of health, education and protection it has had less success in improving physical environments for children and protecting them from armed violence and self-harm. A recent evaluation suggests the need to go beyond engaging traditional child-related sectors such as health, education and social protection and to actively involve other sectors related to security and urban planning. This would help to more successfully address complex urban issues faced by children and youth.[x] At present, there is another programme supported by UNICEF that is adapted from the Seal called the Platform for Urban Centres (Plataforma dos Centros Urbanos or PCU in Brazil) to address children’s rights in the context of intra-urban inequalities.

Beyond Brazil: can the Seal be replicated?

When the Seal was first launched in 1999, Brazil was well positioned on several fronts that allowed for the Seal to become a success. Brazil had a strong pro-democracy culture, progressive decentralisation policies, a culture of civic participation, a nationwide statute for children’s and adolescent’s rights, and a culture for awards and recognition in civic administration. The Seal, in a sense, is a catalyst that enables all these aspects to work together so that municipal governments function in the best possible way to improve the lives of children and families, regardless of changes in political leadership or economic downturns over the years. It also works because the UNICEF brand carries significant weight in Brazil and because UNICEF invests almost US$1 million per year to support the Seal.
Other nations might not have such favourable conditions as Brazil. But there are several good practices like building capacities of local government staff around intersectoral coordination, supporting disaggregated data collection and analysis, planning and budgeting that can be adapted to other national contexts.

Taking it forward: ideas for children’s organisations and NGOs

The strength of the Seal lies in its ability to support local governments with a structured framework for achieving inter-sectoral coordination and effective management of resources to achieve maximum benefits for children.
• A first step for organizations could be to understand- through a collaborative multi-stakeholder mapping process – which sectors of local governments are related to the causes they support and in what ways.
• A second step would be to understand what type of coordination needs to take place across sectors for achieving scalable and sustainable results for the causes they support.
• And lastly work towards understanding what kind of support is needed to enable intersectoral coordination and finding ways to provide it.
While competition can spur action for children, it is enabling and nurturing capacities at the level of local governments and communities that can sustain this action over time.

Adolescent Citizenship Unit in Panelas city, Ceara State, as part of UNICEF Seal to engage adolescents discussing their rights. Photo: Raoni Liborio/UNICEF Brazil.

Adolescent Citizenship Unit in Panelas city, Ceara State, as part of UNICEF Seal to engage adolescents discussing their rights. Photo: Raoni Liborio/UNICEF Brazil.

About the author

Anupama Nallari is an independent research consultant who works at the intersections of child well-being and urbanisation, poverty, early childhood settings and public space.




[i]Fuentes, P and Niimi, R (2002) Motivating municipal action for children: the Municipal Seal of Approval in Ceará, Brazil. Environment & Urbanization 14(2).
[ii]In Brazil, municipalities include small towns, rural areas and cities with populations of up to 100,000.
[iii]Earlier cycles of the Seal were two years.
[iv]Cocco-Klein, S, Chatterjee, S and Sera, D (2020) Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings: Brazil case study. UNICEF. Pg. 19.
[v]UNICEF, UNICEF Municipal Seal of Approval.
[vi]Social Assistance Reference Centres (CRAS) are public entities focused on delivering programmes and services to vulnerable communities in Brazil.
[vii]Cocco-Klein, S, Chatterjee, S and Sera, D (2020) Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings: Brazil case study. UNICEF. Pg. 49.
[ix]Correspondence with Mario Volpi, the National Coordinator of UNICEF Seal in Brazil.
[x]Cocco-Klein, S, Chatterjee, S and Sera, D (2020) Evaluation of UNICEF work for children in urban settings: Brazil case study. UNICEF.



Note: This article presents the views of the author featured and does not necessarily represent the views of Global Alliance – Cities 4 Children as a whole

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