Territories in Transition report: Exploring the social and third sector agenda of Brazil

9 març 2023

Welcome to the “Territories in Transition” initiative by the Third Sector Platform of Catalonia seeking to explore and connect the social and third sector agendas of territories from across the world. Ahead of the ongoing transitions (social and economic, enviromental and technological), Territories in Transition claims the fundamental role that transnational action and solidarity between social organisations plays in building fairer and more democratic societies. This initiatives is supported by the Ministry for Foreign Action and European Union of the Government of Catalonia and the City of Barcelona.
Brazil is experiencing convulsive transformation processes. The social progress achieved after the struggle of several generations has stalled and the young Brazilian democracy has faced unprecedented threats. 2023 has put the country at a crossroads and the social, ecological and democratic challenges overlap. This report has been developed through interviews with renowned Brazilian organisations to explore the role that the social sector can play in this historic moment and to propose social alliances between organisations from Brazil, Catalonia and the rest of the world. We would like to thank Fernando Santomauro, Henrique Frota, Rodrigo Faria, Athayde Motta and Isabel Pato for making this report possible. You can also watch a series of interviews with the Brazilian organisations Instituto Polis, ABONG and Ponte a Ponte developed in collaboration with Xarxanet and Nonprofit.

The social agenda of Brazil today

Inequalities deeply mark the functioning of Brazilian society, one of the most unequal in America. Social and economic polarisation has worsened in the last five years and one of the most obvious symptoms is the increase in poverty and food insecurity. This last one now affects half of the country’s population.

Inequalities intersect with racial, indigenous, gender and LGBTQ issues; factors that exacerbate the risk of poverty and exclusion. Being a deeply diverse society, it is not surprising that the equality and non-discrimination movement has taken the lead in many of the popular demands, claiming political but also social, economic and cultural rights.

Access to decent work is another priority. It is estimated that more than half of the population lives without a formal job and, therefore, with little access to social benefits. A couple of decades ago, Brazil started bold programs to reverse these shortcomings, such as Fome Zero or Bolsa Família, which wanted to ensure a shared and intergenerational prosperity which has now stagnated.

From metropolises to the rural environment

Urban and territorial planning has been one of the main policy axes to fight poverty. Territorial contrasts, but also urban ones, are key to understanding Brazil today: a country that, despite being one of the most extensive and rich in resources, accumulates struggles for land and space from economic, social and environmental confronted perspectives.

The issue of housing and access to urban land has been one of the most important claims in cities. Access inequality marks the day-to-day life of those having an informal job or living in an informal settlement (favelas). Historically, great innovations have been generated to reverse this situation, which ultimately had a great international relevance: the protection of the social function of the land and housing, the advancement of participatory budgets, of local citizenship or urban rights and the right to the city. All these proposals have sought to reverse the socio-spatial segregation that characterises many Brazilian cities through policy and political innovation: the democratisation of the city, the promotion of social organisation and the political participation of groups more excluded.

In the rural world there are also land and resource use claims. This issue often deals with the fragile balance between threatened biomes, especially the Amazon rainforest, and the logic of development that fosters a certain type of agro-industry. The process directly affects the original, indigenous and quilombola groups that live symbiotically with the natural environment. In other regions, the conflict is centred on access to water; a challenge that is worsened by periodic droughts and which particularly affects vulnerable groups. The case of Brazil demonstrates, like few others, the links between social and environmental challenges.

On democracy: Memory, culture and institutions

The most current social challenge is undoubtedly the state of democracy and how recent policies have addressed social challenges by putting people at the centre, confronting them or leaving them behind. The 2023 Brazilian Congress attack, which coincided with the inauguration of a new presidency in the country, has culminated a cycle of polarisation and institutional crisis that has been going on for some time. How did it get this bad?

We can start with historical memory. The young Brazilian democracy, instituted just over three decades ago, may not have sufficiently digested three traumatic legacies: that of colonialism and the treatment of indigenous peoples, that of slavery (Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery) and that of the human rights violations perpetrated by the last military dictatorship, which ran between 1964 and 1985. This unresolved past can explain part of the polarisation and political impunity that exists in Brazil today.

The other causes are more topical in present-day analysis: from social networks or the interference of external agents to populist communication techniques, the proliferation of hate speech and the normalisation of political manipulation. These external factors, added to the institutional deterioration which happened from the inside of government, have ended up establishing a state of permanent tension among citizens, parties and social and economic agents. The main victims have not only been the most vulnerable groups, but also their defenders and human rights organisations, who have once again experienced episodes of violence, as tragically anticipated by the murder of the councilwoman of Rio de Janeiro, Marielle Franco, in March 2018. Reconstructing the possibility of understanding between now-confronted visions will be fundamental to redoing democracy.

A great diversity of social organisations

It is estimated that there are more than half a million social organisations in Brazil: not all of them are institutionalised or dedicated to human rights. Of course, many of them have been forged in the struggle for democracy, recent or current, therefore, they must play a fundamental role in its reconstruction. Let’s see, however, first which typologies we find.

In the field of social action, there are first those known as “organisations for the defence of rights” dedicated to public advocacy and human rights awareness. Organisations such as the Instituto Polis or IBASE combine research and action to advocate based on evidence. Other organisations in the sector are mainly dedicated to the direct assistance of groups at risk of vulnerability: distributing food, offering a roof, etc. Between one and the other typology stand out less institutionalised organisations and those organisations which have been promoted by specific groups: Afro-descendant, women, LGBTQ, residents of favelas or quilomboles or urban youth. The historical contribution of many other agents must also be acknowledged in the emergence of this rich human rights ecosystem: the trade unions, the church and liberation theology initiatives, the pedagogical reform movement…

On a second level, in Brazil it is also common to find foundations with a social purpose, philanthropic organisations that finance the work of many of the aforementioned organisations or companies with advanced corporate social responsibility programs. They are essential for strengthening social action and coexist with more or less compatibility with non-profit social organisations with more mature political perspectives.

The role of organisations and social innovation examples 

Social innovation practices have often pioneered bottom-up responses to social needs and have ended up becoming, in many cases, public policies.

In rural settings, organisations have developed systems to make the most of rainwater and thus guarantee everyone’s right to water, such as community cisterns and awareness programs on responsible water consumption. In the Amazon, the local population has also developed a symbiotic way of life with the environment that sustains economic activity and guarantees social reproduction in harmony with the natural environment.

Many collectives have organised to universalize access to rights. A concrete example are the experiences of accompanying young Afro-descendants in university settings. Resources and mentoring proposals are channelled to improve their academic experience and achieve greater social progress; both for them and for the collective.

Urban organisations have promoted a myriad of interventions to dignify the favelas. These are focused on improving housing, public spaces and the neighbourhood environment (equipment, sewerage, transport) while boosting economic activity. In urban environments, the right to food is also ensured for the most vulnerable through urban garden programs or community ovens to pool resources needed for cooking and food. These are community initiatives that strengthen community cohesion and social entrepreneurship.

Good experiences have also been developed with regards to universalizing political participation: through participatory budgeting, municipal participation councils for the migrant population or citizenship schools to enhance civic participation and self-organisation among groups that are generally excluded or poorly articulated. Now, civil society can also contribute to reweaving political trust and greater understanding between actors.

Networked organisations and social alliances

Brazilian social organisations are well articulated and find in ABONG a space for dialogue and coordination: a network that works with human rights organisations from all over the country to represent their public advocacy priorities. A second reality of the organisation is the sectoral one. There is a CONAQ – Committee for the defence of territories and quilombolas, the APIB Association that brings together the organisations of indigenous peoples and a Black Coalition for Rights that defends the rights of Afro-descendants.

The progressive rapprochement between private organisations with a social orientation and third sector and human rights organisation stands out. They are establishing links between agendas that are to be worked on together and subsequently establishing more specific shared projects where resources can be channelled and policies strengthened.

These networked organisations often interact with public and government agendas. At present, there is no sufficiently structured financing from the public sector to the social sector, although many cooperation projects are being developed. The presidential cycle that Brazil has started in 2023 could strengthen the ties between social organisations and government, proposing new systems of support and financing of the social sector.

Cooperation priorities: Social alliances and the European Union

The last section of the report explores ways of cooperation with social organisations in Brazil. Our “Territories in Transition” approach meets many aspects of the Brazilian social reality: ensuring that the great global transitions – political, social and economic, ecological – do not leave anyone behind and turning groups in a current situation of vulnerability into an active stakeholder in the improvement of their own social and territorial environment.

Cooperation of Catalan, European or NGOs from across the world with Brazilian organisations can start from acknowledging our own social function: we are all agents of social and economic transformation, but also of policy and democratic improvement. Many Brazilian social organisations have worked in accordance with this vision with an internationalist perspective, as the experiences of the World Social Forums demonstrated a couple of decades ago and still inspire decentralised cooperation initiatives between Latin American and the world (see the Global Platform for the Right to the City).

This collaboration can address issues oriented at the local level – the transfer of social innovation experiences to improve society, territories and organisations – but also transnational – make an impact towards global processes and actors, around human rights and the 2030 Agenda. This is already a recurring vision of many South-South cooperation and Development Aid policies, as well as among Catalan and European NGOs, which can extend to all relationships between social sector entities in each territory.

The European Union implements an increasingly ambitious policy of relations with the world, which prioritises, among others, the strengthening of civil society in countries such as Brazil. This commitment is part of the Union’s natural projection as a global agent committed to human rights and democracy. Resources channelled should enhance the work of all these organisations at this particular time, marked by the rebuilding of democracy, and strengthen the rich diversity of Brazil’s social sector: the work carried out by human rights organisations to strengthen democracy and those movements that are less organised but end up generating relevant impacts. This renewed relationship should make access funding more accessible while continuing to expand the spaces of political participation for civil society and its relationship towards the European Union and its NGOs.