Brazil’s dying democracy
On November 1, 2021, Foreign Affairs published an article entitled “Democracy is Dying in Brazil.”1Oliver Stuenkel, “Democracy Is Dying in Brazil,” Foreign Affairs, November 1, 2021. The article describes how Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, had recently joined demonstrators calling for military intervention and the closure of congress and the supreme court. He has also promoted large-scale militarization, systematically undermined public trust in the country’s voting system, and threatened to maintain presidential power even if he loses in the 2022 election.“Despite having a progressive constitution, Brazil struggles to protect and uphold the rights of its citizens, especially poor and darker-skinned Brazilians.”
Bolsonaro’s policies represent the latest of Brazil’s many shifts away from democracy. Since the fall of the dictatorship in 1985, Brazil’s fragile democracy has been characterized by violence and racism thanks to high rates of inequality, corruption, and police brutality. Despite having a progressive constitution, Brazil struggles to protect and uphold the rights of its citizens, especially poor and darker-skinned Brazilians.2Danilo Henrique Nunes, Lucas Souza Lehfeld, and Carlos Eduardo Montes Netto, “A Desconstrução do Mito da Democracia Racial e o Racismo Estrutural no Brasil: Educação e Transformação Social,” Revista do Direito no. 63 (2021): 79–104. These citizens are regularly denied access to quality employment, housing, education, and healthcare. They also suffer from violence and extrajudicial killings at the hands of military police.3Edson Douglas Barreto da Silva and Fernando da Silva Cardoso, “‘Favela ainda é senzala Jão’ – Violência e Morte de Pessoas Negras no Brasil: Uma Leitura Sociojurídica Crítica,” Revista Ciências Sociais em Perspectiva 18, no. 34 (2019): 1–31.
Brazil’s democratic crisis was exacerbated during the pandemic, when over 620,000 people died from Covid-19 due in part to the spread of mis/disinformation about the virus and Bolsonaro’s attempts to limit federal expenditures on prevention and assistance measures.
Few places have felt the impact of this crisis more than Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or low-income informal neighborhoods, where nearly a quarter of the city’s 6.7 million inhabitants reside. Favela residents died from Covid-19 at twice the rate of residents of wealthier neighborhoods.4“Fiocruz lança Boletim Socioepidemiológico da Covid-19 nas Favelas,” Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, July 13, 2020. Unemployment rose to 54 percent, nearly four times higher than the national average (14 percent), and 63 percent of Rio’s favela residents had inconsistent access to water during the pandemic.5Akemi Nitahara, “Rio: 54% dos moradores de favelas perderam emprego na pandemia,” Agência Brasil, September 27, 2021. Not surprisingly, mental health in favelas worsened significantly, with over three-quarters of favela residents losing sleep and another 43 percent reporting depression.6Nataly Simões, “Nas favelas do Rio, saúde mental piora na pandemia,” Estadão, September 30, 2021.
The government has done little to help favela residents during the ongoing crisis. While the federal government provided a monthly stipend of R$600 (USD $125) to needy families for five months, this was grossly insufficient to cover the rising costs of food in the context of mass unemployment. Schools closed and parents had to quit their jobs to stay home. Meanwhile, the overwhelmed healthcare system remained underfunded due in part to corruption, as Rio’s governor was impeached for embezzling over USD$100 million of pandemic relief funds. As the municipal, state, and federal governments had already demonstrated a lack of commitment to addressing the needs of favela residents, all levels of the state withdrew social services and support from these neighborhoods. What had previously been a “disjunctive democracy”7Teresa P. R. Caldeira and James Holston, “Democracy and Violence in Brazil,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 41, no. 4 (1999): 691–729. was replaced by a near-total erosion of the national democratic project in Rio’s favelas.“Accustomed to fending for themselves, residents pulled together their resources and activated networks of civic associations to provide food, masks, and other basics.”
Favela residents responded quickly to the crisis, however, by mobilizing multiple forms of aid to distribute to people in need and creating new forms of organizing and collective decision-making to help each other and ensure their survival. Accustomed to fending for themselves, residents pulled together their resources and activated networks of civic associations to provide food, masks, and other basics.
This essay documents the mobilization tactics of civic associations in favelas to better understand how democracy is being reinvented under conditions of extreme governmental neglect. More specifically, we examine how the deterioration of national democracy inadvertently strengthens empowered deliberative democracy—the strengthened participation, shared decision-making, and collective action by poor citizens at the local level.8Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright, “Deepening Democracy: Innovations in Empowered Participatory Governance,” Politics & Society 29, no. 1 (2001): 5–41.
Study questions, project location, and methodology
In our research, we focused on Cidade de Deus, a predominantly Black neighborhood of 60,000 residents well-known for high rates of poverty and police brutality.9Anjuli Fahlberg, Thomas J. Vicino, Ricardo Fernandes, and Viviane Potiguara, “Confronting Chronic Shocks: Social Resilience in Rio de Janeiro’s Poor Neighborhoods,” Cities 99 (April 2020): 102623. Although Cidade de Deus is an urbanized neighborhood, with most residents living in brick-and-mortar homes and having access to running water and electricity, the neighborhood struggled with access to urban services even before the pandemic. One-third of residents live below the poverty line, while another third hover just above it. Over one-third of adult residents have not completed primary school, and three-quarters of school-aged children miss school frequently due to shootouts and maintenance problems with their schools. Thanks to efforts by early activists, Cidade de Deus has a health clinic and an emergency room. However, in a previous study conducted by our team, residents reported having multiple challenges accessing healthcare, including a lack of staff, equipment, and materials. Finally, high rates of physical and economic insecurity have provoked severe mental health issues, with the majority of households reporting that at least one family member suffered from a mental problem.10Anjuli Fahlberg, Viviane Potiguara, and Ricardo Fernandes, Pelos Olhos Da Comunidade: Cidade de Deus e Suas Necessidades, Capacidades e Desafios (Rio de Janeiro: Coletivo de Pesquisa Construindo Juntos, 2020).
While Cidade de Deus is only one of many favelas in Rio de Janeiro whose residents struggle with access to basic services, we focus on this favela for several reasons. First, it was the first of Rio’s favelas to report a positive case of Covid-19. Both the challenges of the pandemic and residents’ responses could thus be tracked from an early point. Second, Cidade de Deus’ activists were quick to mobilize resources and activate local networks of care, providing us with a case of citizen leadership and engagement that reflects the questions of our study. Finally, many of our research team members are from Cidade de Deus; their status as insiders provided us with insights that outsiders might not have had, as well as connections with interview participants who were willing and interested to be part of our study thanks to their ties with and trust in our team.
The pandemic had a significant impact on Cidade de Deus’ residents. According to a previous study conducted by our research team, the rate of extreme poverty in Cidade de Deus rose from 12 percent to 20 percent between 2020 and 2021. Over 50 percent of residents lost their jobs during that time, and a full 83 percent of residents were struggling to pay their basic expenses. Residents also reported extremely high rates of mental health issues and chronic illness, in addition to illness and deaths from Covid-19.11Anjuli Fahlberg et al., O Impacto da Pandemia na Cidade de Deus: O Graves Estado Economico da Comunidade (Rio de Janiero: Coletivo de Pesquisa Construindo Juntos, 2021).
Civic organizations in Cidade de Deus—led primarily by Black women—immediately jumped in to fill the void. Existing community-based organizations (CBOs) and newly formed collectives rallied to distribute food baskets, hygiene products, and masks to needy families and spearheaded public health campaigns. According to our research, 46 percent of residents received food and other types of support from local civic organizations, 18 percent received help from local religious institutions, and 18 percent relied on friends and family members. Only 3 percent received help from government agencies.
To better understand the new forms of governance and citizenship emerging in a context of a disappearing state and a strengthening of local organizing, our team held focus groups and conducted interviews with relevant actors. These included the leaders of CBOs, informal collectives, and religious institutions; private funders who donated to local aid efforts; public servants who collaborated with favela residents; and residents who received aid from local groups. A total of two focus groups and 32 interviews were conducted between October and December of 2021.12The project was led by Anjuli Fahlberg and her research team, the Building Together Research Collective (Coletivo de Pesquisa Construindo Juntos), which is composed of researchers from outside and within Cidade de Deus. The project drew on the principles of Participatory Action Research, which emphasizes (a) the leadership of the research community in every stage of the research process; (b) the coproduction of knowledge between formal researchers and community members; and (c) social action that promotes the well-being of the research community. The themes presented below were thus identified through a collaborative process between Dr. Fahlberg, Cidade de Deus residents, and other members of the research team. For more information, visit www.construindojuntos.com.
Strengthening local democracy
The withdrawal of the state from Cidade de Deus (CDD) during the pandemic led to a strengthening of local democracy by fortifying existing organizing efforts and activating new groups, people, and networks. CBOs that had already been providing services to CDD residents became leaders of the mobilization efforts, contacting funders for aid and activating local networks to organize distribution to residents most in need. Some CBOs that had been inactive also joined these efforts, drawing energy and purpose from the crisis. One CBO leader whose organization had only a few activities going at the time of the pandemic explained how they mobilized:
I said let’s do something, we can’t do nothing. So, I volunteered at the Institution. I had been part of the previous activities, but I had stopped going for a while, but I said, let’s go there, let’s call people, let’s talk. And we created a group in WhatsApp, we invited some former residents, the [activity] coordinators, all the participants and teachers of the activities and everyone agreed that we would mobilize to help the families [in need]. And then those who could contributed financially, someone gave R$500, others R$100, others R$50, some donated food items, hygiene, and cleaning items, and we started to call people [to distribute what we had].
The pandemic helped energize the group and get inactive members involved. New collectives also formed, creating opportunities for residents who had not previously participated in civic organizations to become involved. Meanwhile, religious institutions that had not provided aid to the community became active in the neighborhood’s civic sphere. WhatsApp groups were established to help CBOs and other civic groups coordinate efforts and make collective decisions about how to locate and distribute resources. One particularly active WhatsApp group was led by two Black female CBO leaders and was composed of dozens of CDD activists, as well as some public servants wanting to aid in mobilization efforts. This WhatsApp group became a virtual space fpr organizing, sharing information, and making collective decisions about how to distribute aid, where to find funding, how best to create and market public health campaigns, and which measures they could enact to help slow the spread of the virus. Our participants explained how vital this group was to their organizing efforts and appreciated the dialogue and discussions that unfolded as diverse members decided which strategies to use and which to discard. Many participants noted that the group allowed them to meet new people in their community and identify new strategies to help their community. While CDD’s activist groups have historically struggled with collective action due to fragmentation between groups,13Anjuli N. Fahlberg, “Rethinking Favela Governance: Nonviolent Politics in Rio de Janeiro’s Gang Territories,” Politics & Society 46, no. 4 (2018): 485–512. the crisis’s urgency brought many together.“While Cidade de Deus has a long history of community engagement, the pandemic and the withdrawal of the state created a greater need for civic associations to not only increase their provision of resources but strengthen their ties to other groups and recruit more residents to help lead these efforts.”
This mobilization had several important consequences for empowered deliberative democracy. For one, it increased the importance, visibility, and coordinating capacity of old and new groups. While Cidade de Deus has a long history of community engagement, the pandemic and the withdrawal of the state created a greater need for civic associations to not only increase their provision of resources but strengthen their ties to other groups and recruit more residents to help lead these efforts. Second, new systems for shared decision-making emerged, along with new (virtual) sites for communication, aid distribution, the creation of public health campaigns, and leadership over the neighborhood’s social and physical needs. Third, CBOs transitioned into a more central role in providing aid to needy residents, given how little residents received from the state. Many interviewees told us about the long lines outside of CBOs as people waited for food, masks, and other services. Thanks to this very public neighborhood-wide distribution process, CBOs and collectives became much more visible to the community and allowed them to establish ties with extremely vulnerable families who had previously not accessed civic associations for aid. Consider this interview we conducted with someone who received aid from community-based organizations (locally referred to as “NGOs”):
Researcher: Did you already know the work of NGOs in the community before the pandemic?
Participant: I had heard about it, but I had never needed to take advantage of [their services] like this because there was no need, but due to the pandemic, things got more challenging, then I got to know a little more about this work.
Researcher: So, do you currently have an opinion about the performance of NGOs?
Participant: I think they just add to the life of the community, right? It just adds more.
The exchange above reflects other conversations we had with aid recipients, many of whom had not been well-connected to local organizations before the pandemic. Finally, these efforts were led primarily by Black women, whose leadership in the local civic sphere elevated them into both social, as well as political roles as they determined how resources would be mobilized and distributed.
The inversion of state-society relations
A second theme we noticed was the inversion of relations between the state and society, or more specifically between the government and residents of Cidade de Deus. We found that the less the government did to help poor residents in crisis, the more civic associations led by these residents intervened. Civic associations provided aid in many forms: food—both basic ingredients and prepared meals—hygiene items, masks, hand sanitizer, geriatric diapers, wheelchairs, formula and diapers, bus tickets, etc. They also created videos and posters with information about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, took people to get tested, helped people apply for legal documents and find jobs, provided space for vaccine clinics, and performed health screenings.
Meanwhile, public agencies were depleted of resources. The welfare office was forced to close after it lost electricity and suffered a sewage leak. The local branch of the municipal government had no computers or basic equipment. In many cases, employees working for public agencies remained actively involved in local relief efforts but volunteered their own private funds to donate resources and worked on their own time to help distribute aid. Thus, while the state remained absent, individual public employees remained committed to helping Cidade de Deus through personal donations. Ironically, we also documented many cases in which civic associations provided materials to public agencies, including masks and wheelchairs to the health clinic and the welfare office. Ultimately, we found that in Cidade de Deus, the withdrawal of the state pushed poor citizens into the forefront of local governance, not only taking on the role of the state but also becoming the providers of aid to the state itself.
The ascendance of the private sector“During the pandemic…not a single civic group received a grant from the state.”
The third theme our study uncovered was the growing importance of the private sector in supporting the relief efforts of civic organizations during the pandemic. Large NGOs, individual donors, and private corporations have long provided aid to CBOs in Cidade de Deus and other favelas, though previously the municipal and federal governments also provided financial support through grants. During the pandemic, however, not a single civic group received a grant from the state. Meanwhile, all of them relied on the private sector for donations of money, food, and gift cards. One CBO leader explained: “There were businesses that had never contacted us before, even though we’ve been active [in CDD] for 19 years. But a business in a neighborhood near CDD reached out to make donations, [a large pharmaceutical company]…and some other businesses nearby also, including [a supermarket], which has been here forever and I’d never heard of them making donations. But then they started reaching out.” Businesses that had never donated before created new funding relationships with CBOs in Cidade de Deus. While the private companies we reached out to were unresponsive to our requests for interviews, CBO representatives hypothesized that companies’ sudden interest in helping was due to a combination of wanting to do their part during a global crisis and a desire to capitalize on these donations by marketing their contributions to relief efforts to potential customers. Regardless of their intentions, the financial involvement of private companies reflected a strengthening of ties between favelas and the private sector, which may continue to grow after the pandemic, even as the ties between the favela and the state weaken.
CBO leaders noted that private funders—whether for-profit or not-for-profit—were generally more flexible, accessible, and faster at providing aid than the state. However, civic associations also observed that the types of aid that donors were willing to fund changed during the pandemic: Where they had previously funded cultural, social, and political projects, as well as paid the salaries of staff and the electricity and other infrastructure costs, during the crisis they transitioned this funding toward basic food and health needs. While this was partly a response to the immediate needs of poor residents, it also hollowed out the administrative capacities of many CBOs and weakened their capacity to invest in the long-term social and political development of CDD residents.“If favela-based collectives become more dependent on the private sector than the state, they may be forced to increasingly cater to the interests of (global) capital.”
As favela organizations become increasingly dependent on private funders, the private sector appears to be replacing, or at least joining, the state as actors with decision-making power over the neighborhood. Private funders can decide who and what efforts they fund, what expectations they place on CBOs, and what they can demand in return. If favela-based collectives become more dependent on the private sector than the state, they may be forced to increasingly cater to the interests of (global) capital. This has begun to create serious challenges and questions for favela activists. As one participant in our focus group noted, “We are living in a neoliberal government, an emptying of the state, a disengagement from the state…We aren’t going to find support in neoliberal politics. So, my proposal is…that we have to rethink our form of fighting, because we aren’t talking about a government that thinks about the social. It’s the opposite…We need to rethink our fight and how we are going to talk to and pressure the government that isn’t willing to hear us.” Favela activists may also need to think about how to engage the private sector to make their demands, not as citizens but as potential consumers, workers, and beneficiaries of philanthropic donations.
Nós por nós: When citizens fix their own problems
A popular slogan across Rio’s favelas during the pandemic became “Nós por nós,” or “Us for ourselves.” The feeling of abandonment that permeates the history of favelas was so amplified during the pandemic that civic leaders stopped making demands of the state and instead focused on dealing with the crisis themselves. “If it weren’t for the Institutions [CBOs], a lot more people would have died in Cidade de Deus,” commented one CBO leader during our focus group. Neglect and inequality are eroding national democracy, but also energizing local democratic practices as civic organizations mobilized to save people by building local networks, taking over the role of the state, and consolidating their ties to private funders.
What might the future hold for this reconfigured democracy? While it is too soon to tell, our study suggests that the pandemic has weakened the little faith that residents may have had in the Brazilian government. The private sector is taking on a greater role in both supporting, but also controlling, what types of aid favelas can access. If this trend continues, it may lead to a reconfiguring of not only democracy, but citizenship itself, as activists are forced to activate their roles as consumers, workers, and philanthropic subjects. However, while the Brazilian government’s progressive constitution guarantees, at least in theory, protection for citizens’ rights and a range of social entitlements, favela residents do not have the same rights in their relation to private companies. At the same time, this shift has created new opportunities at the local level. New political actors, and Black women in particular, have gained greater visibility and power in the neighborhood as decision-makers and distributors of resources and services. As the state withdraws from Cidade de Deus and many other poor neighborhoods, both the forms of political engagement and the people needed to lead these efforts may shift as well.