Civil Society and Nongovernment Organization development in Brazil: can a powerful tradition shift to embrace new models of social business and investment?

By Gláucio Gomes, Institutional Development Manager for Atelié de Idéias, Brazil


Friendship Park in Vitoria, Brazil: Volunteers turn garbage into gardens under the program “Good Effort – Valuing the place where we live” conducted by Ateliê de Ideias, Community Forum – Bem Maior, and CISV International, with the support of the City of Victoria and other partners. Photo: Olga Saxén – CISV Finland.

Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) in Brazil emerged from a distinct period in Brazilian history. Social movements developed as instruments to seek democracy, human and civil rights during the military dictatorship. These NGOs were born when the main focus of Brazilian society was on the big issues: freedom, free elections and free speech.

Most of the social movements came from the rural interior of the country, where land rights and basic social and political reforms were the main issues. Almost all of the local cells of those movements were born inside the Catholic Church, mobilized by community priests. As such, the origin of our non-profit and NGO sector was very politicized and religious. This sector is based on charity, following the principle that the government is a provider from which society must expect the absolute guarantee of all its rights, with no additional fee. The Brazilian constitution of 1988, which was built with the strong participation of social movements, accords with this view.

Organizations slowly formalize and receive funding from international sources.  Most of these social movements started to become formal organizations in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, when they needed to raise funds and hold contracts with foundations and governments.  In the 1990s, all the great militants and left-wing leaders, who were in social movements during the dictatorship period, started to work in NGOs and to help local communities to start their associations, cooperatives, etc. These militants and leaders were great intellectuals, artists, political minds, and community organizers, with the knowledge and skills to mobilize people. However, they were not managers, administrators, or practical leaders with the necessary skills to take care of organizational development and sustainability. Their organizations struggled with the many managerial tasks that international cooperation agencies required of them. In the early 1990s, nearly 95% of funding to non-profit and NGOs in Brazil came from international development aid agencies and foundations such as USAID, GTZ, Oxfam etc.

The public sector becomes a funder. Later in the decade, these international organizations and foundations began to reduce their funding to Brazilian non-profits.  The election of Luis Inácio Lula, our first leftist president (according to the Brazilian political thermometer), took the relationship between civil society organizations and government to another level. Federal and local governments filled the void left by international organizations, building strong partnerships with social movements and beginning to financially support non-profit and nongovernmental organizations. During the 2000s, about 50% of the money to civil society organizations came from governments (federal and local), 40% from international foundations and agencies, and 10% from the private sector.

Government funds enable NGOs to reach an entirely different scale. Now, a small organization from Pernambuco (a state in Northeast Brazil) can become the partner of a ministry or a local government and receive amounts in the order of US$ 250K to develop a social project in its community. That same organization, fundraising with companies and foundations (private sector) could raise, with a lot of difficulty, US$ 50K –but only if the organization had the communication skills to get approval in public selection processes to which more than a thousand other organizations also have applied. In the rural area of Pernambuco it is very hard to find a company willing to fund a local social project.

Independent or merely a conduit? Still, the challenge remains that resources coming through governmental programs have to be implemented using government methods, strategies and approaches. Essentially, those organizations are working as tools or operational means for government policies. We are now debating the main impacts of Lula’s administration. The political and economical relationship model with social movements produced a period of participative public policies, however it has installed some managerial vicious cycles, which threaten the sustainability of these very social organizations. Currently, the problem is that civil society organizations lack the skills in order to develop as sustainable organizations capable of functioning in the “real world”.

The future: moving toward a new model of social business? Prior to the election of Lula, in São Paulo, Brazilian companies had begun to think about social accountability and social investment. However, since Lula’s presidency, no significant private sector participation with social and nongovernmental sector has occurred.

We at Ateliê de Ideias have a different relationship between social organizations and communities/society. Most social organizations are outraged by the idea of building business relationships with communities, embracing self sustaining practices instead of charity, private sector participation in social programs.  Communities are also not prepared to be approached in that way by social organizations, yet. What social investors who want to work in Brazil must know is that there is a previous step – education –   to build the foundations of a new sustainable development model that is in accordance with our political culture and social history. There is place, opportunity and real need for change in this culture.

Gláucio Gomes is a strategic planner for Ateliê de Ideias in Brazil, a social organization producing solutions for urban and local development. Among its many services, Ateliê de Ideias provides access to finance and housing for the citizens of Vitória in Southeastern Brazil. Their flagship program is Bem Morar, an integrated package of services to promote access of low-income families to sustainable and affordable houses.

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