Brazil’s Comunidade Solidária

by | May 15, 2002

In a dynamic, complex and unequal society such as Brazil, processes of change may take a while to mature but once unleashed they tend to move forward at an accelerated pace.

We are presently living through one of these periods of rapid change. The patterns of relationship between State and civil society are being radically reshaped.

Now, the public/private divide is being challenged. For too long the State tended to impose itself upon society. Now civil society is calling for a more efficient and accountable government. Private resources are increasingly being invested for the public good.

These changes are being driven by the converging trends towards stronger citizen participation and social responsibility.

The history of Comunidade Solidária in Brazil reflects this new environment. Indeed, our investment in building multiple partnerships is the explanation for Comunidade Solidária‘s rapid growth in seven years from a platform for experimentation and innovation to its current position as the hub of an expanding network of programs and partners committed to social development.

Comunidade Solidária was created under my leadership at the beginning of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Administration in 1995 as a tool to promote citizen participation and new forms of partnership between State and civil society.

Two basic assumptions informed our decision. First, we recognized that Brazilian society was more open, diverse and engaged than ever before in the history of our country. There is not one area of public concern around which groups of citizens do not mobilize to pressure the State and to take action by themselves.

By fighting the military dictatorship and responding to the needs of the poor, Brazilian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) accumulated a wealth of experience that positioned them as vital partners of the State. Hence all levels of government faced a demand to open fresh channels of dialogue with civil society.

The second assumption was that Brazil spends a considerable portion of public funds for social programs. But, more often than not, this money does not reach the poor. Lacking adequate targeting, public expenditure tends to reproduce rather than overcome inequality.

There was no excuse to create another governmental fund aimed at financing scattered social projects. Such centralized mechanisms result in a waste of resources. They treat people and communities as passive recipients of programs delivered from top-down.

In a country where a long history of injustice accounts for large segments of the population still living in a situation of poverty, fighting inequality and social exclusion requires:

  • strengthening the capacities of people and communities to act as agents of their self-development;
  • targeting social programs to the poorest geographical areas and the most vulnerable sectors of the population;
  • mobilization of public and private resources through multiple partnerships;
  • decentralized execution and community involvement as conditions for enhancing the efficiency and sustainability of social programs.

These key concepts are the cornerstones of Comunidade Solidária‘s strategy. They have inspired our dialogue with government and society. They have oriented our initiatives to promote sustainable development and strengthen civil society.

Let us have a look at some concrete examples of how these guiding principles gave shape and substance to the programs we have launched in the specific area of youth empowerment.

The reasons for focusing on youth were compelling. Low-income young people are one of the most vulnerable segments of the Brazilian population. They are directly affected by unemployment and exposed to violence, drugs, crime, sexually transmittable diseases and early pregnancies.

But youngsters are also ready to use their energy and creativity to learn what is needed for a life with dignity. Given the opportunity and the tools they play a leadership role in the improvement of their communities.

With this goal in mind Comunidade Solidária invested in the design of innovative programs in the areas of literacy education and professional training. Each involves a large set of public and private partners that provide the necessary capacities and resources. Methods, costs and results are carefully monitored to offer reliable guidelines for the program’s replication.

One of these initiatives is Capacitação  Solidária–a professional training program directed to poor urban youth, ages 14 to 21. This program has already empowered more than 100,000 youngsters with the skills required by today’s evolving job market.

NGOs were selected in a competitive process, trained and financed as the direct executors of the program. Most of them were small community-based organizations close to the youngsters’ environment. Strengthening these local organizations, many of which with no previous access to sources of support, has been a key reason for the project’s rapid expansion.

From a pilot experience, carried out with forty NGOs from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the program jumped to nine major Brazilian cities with the participation of 2,500 NGOs.

Another initiative is the Youth Literacy Program. Alfabetização Solidária aims to teach adolescents and young adults living in the municipalities with the highest illiteracy rates in Brazil.

By bringing together universities, private corporations, local administration authorities and mobilizing the community itself, the program was successful at the very low per capita cost of 14 dollars monthly. This investment is shared fifty-fifty by the Ministry of Education and a pool of private companies and universities.

The literacy program started in 1997 with a pilot project covering 10,000 students from 38 municipalities of the North and Northeast regions. By early 2002, it had reached out to 2.6 million students in more than 1,200 municipalities.

A support network linking 300 private and public universities was created to train 95,000 literacy teachers. These locally-recruited educators are empowered to play the role of development agents within their communities.

The model of the Literacy Program has been exported to East Timor and Mozambique, adapted to local conditions by Brazilian teachers. This was the beginning of a South-South cooperation that is being extended to other Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa.

The other major priority in Comunidade Solidária‘s Action Plan was the Program to Strengthen Civil Society.

Launched in 1996, it has three components: the promotion of voluntarism, the dissemination of knowledge and information about the Third Sector and the creation of an enabling legal and regulatory environment for citizen participation and social investment.

In Brazil as elsewhere volunteering is a habit of the heart and a civic virtue. By caring and sharing we overcome the risk of disconnection from our inner selves, from each other, from our natural environment. Far from being a nostalgic relic from the past, solidarity combined with citizenship is what enhances the moral texture of our communities, the social fabric of our societies.

In the last four years, Comunidade Solidária promoted the creation of more than forty Volunteer Centers in major cities. Their function is to mobilize people and communities to turn social problems into opportunities for voluntary action.

Having strengthened voluntary action infrastructure, the focus of the program has now shifted to the volunteers themselves. The young, the disabled and the elderly are being empowered to share their knowledge and solidarity with other sectors of society. Children are also being encouraged to express their compassion and creativity through voluntary actions appropriate for their age.

Through a process of dialogue and negotiation, Comunidade Solidária also has played a policy-making role at the national level. Thanks to our advocacy, new laws were enacted on the value of voluntarism, the legal status of civil society organizations, the access of NGOs to public funds and the lifting of restrictions to micro-credit initiatives.

These dynamics of citizen and community participation have been facilitated by the trend towards greater decentralization of power and resources from the federal sphere to the regional and local levels.

Conditions are ripe for unprecedented synergy between government initiatives and community participation. The mind-set of the different actors involved is changing.

Alliances involving multiple partners follow a pattern of “variable geometry.” They are flexible, action-oriented and problem-solving in order to build on their own success. Different people and agencies do not need to agree on everything in order to collaborate. Networking does not erase differences nor eliminates areas of disagreement and even conflict, intrinsic to any democratic society.

In a country like Brazil money may be scarce but social capital–mutual trust, webs of connectedness, expertise and will to act–is abundant. The challenge is to mobilize and invest these resources with efficiency and scale. In this sense, far from condoning the downsizing of the State, cross-sectoral partnerships actually increase government’s outreach and accountability.

To sum it up, our experience and that of an increasing number of actors in Brazil tells us that a vibrant civil society is a key development asset.

We are learning that there is no contradiction between the duties of the State and the responsibilities of the citizens. As there is no contradiction between “top-down” public policies and “bottom-up” community initiatives. Or between the provision of services by governmental agencies and the strengthening of local social capital.

And all these, for sure, are lessons worth learning and remembering.

Spring 2002Volume I, Number 3

Ruth Cardoso, First Lady of Brazil, Ph. D. in Anthropology, University of São Paulo, is president of Comunidade Solidária. Ruth Cardoso’s work in the field of citizen participation and social development dates back to the 70s when she played a key role in the creation of CEBRAP, a pioneering civil society resource and support organization. She has also been a strong promoter of women’s rights and gender equality in Brazil.

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