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Communities and Local Government: Three Case Studies in São Paulo, Brazil

  • Authors: Raquel Rolnik, Renato Cymbalista
  • Programme Area: Governance
  • Paper No.: 14
  • Code: PP-DGHR-14
  • Project Title: Urban Governance
  • No. of Pages: 17


This paper describes the fate of three forms of collaboration between the local government of São Paulo, Brazil, and civil society groups begun during the administration of Mayor Luiza Erundina (of the Workers’ Party, or Partido dos Trabalhadores/PT) from 1989 to 1993. These three instances of collaboration fell into and remained in disfavour during two subsequent conservative administrations (Paulo Maluf, 1993–1997 and Celso Pitta, 1997–2001). Nevertheless, the work begun by the community groups, civil society organizations (CSOs) and local authorities during that first PT administration survived the decade and contributed to important social and political advances that are still in progress not only in São Paulo, but also in many other parts of the country.

After a brief review of São Paulo’s political transitions during the 1990s and the first years of the new century, Raquel Rolnik and Renato Cymbalista present brief case studies of the three collaborations from their inception during the Erundina administration up to the end of 2002. The first case is that of the participatory budget, a citywide process that involved hundreds of CSOs, tens of thousands of residents and a large contingent of civil servants and PT activists. The second is the case of the Recyclable Materials Collectors Cooperative (Cooperativa dos Catadores de Materiais Reaproveitáveis/COOPAMARE), a cooperative of homeless and near-homeless men striving to create employment and decent working conditions for themselves as collectors and recyclers of materials discarded by other members of society. The third case is that of Apuanã, a revolutionary model for self-governed mutual assistance housing cooperatives.

The administrative rupture that occurred in the municipality of São Paulo at the beginning of 1993 had a negative impact on virtually all partnership initiatives between public authorities and civil society in the city. Instead of seeking political, economic and social arrangements aimed at making rights effective and achieving social inclusion, a type of urban management based on clientelism and corruption came into practice. From the point of view of public invest-ment, the so-called “inversion of priorities” that occurred during Erundina’s PT administration gave way under the Maluf administration to a reconcentration of investment in the southwest of the city, historically the area that had benefited the most from public investment and that contained the population with the highest income.

São Paulo was also affected by national-level policies. The city was one of the areas hit worst by the 1993 Real Plan, for example, which led not only to economic decline, but also to an increase in social inequalities related to the loss of formal employment, especially in the manufacturing industry. From the perspective of urban development, the loss of employment and income was reflected in the rapid growth of the most deprived areas of the city. Between 1994 and 1998, the number of people living in favelas (shanty towns) increased significantly.

In 1997, supported by an aggressive marketing campaign and in spite of strong accusations of corruption, Maluf succeeded in electing his successor, Celso Pitta. The finances of the city government were in a very precarious position, with investment capacity almost nil. Moreover, Pitta’s political support remained weak throughout his term, as did his ability to institute any changes to improve the city’s economic and social situation. As a result, voters of all economic and social sectors of the city abandoned him in the next election in favour of the candidate of the PT, Marta Suplicy. Suplicy took office in 2001 in the middle of a situation widely acknowledged to be a grave economic and institutional crisis.

The new mayor’s freedom of action was extremely limited, due both to external factors and to factors linked to the political approach that was adopted, that is, the wide spectrum of alliances made by the PT during the campaign and within the city council that resulted in a more conciliatory approach than had been adopted by Erundina from 1989 to 1993. This pacifying approach was similar to the one adopted nationally by the PT in recent years and which has become more inclined toward social pacts than social conflict, a fundamental element in Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s successful campaign for the presidency of Brazil.

The significance of the recent history of São Paulo city lies in the fact that the policies imple-mented in the period from 1989 to 1993 were highly exceptional, even in the context of the policies of the PT itself. Nonetheless, the partnerships between civil society and the municipal authorities formed during this period were not irreversibly dismantled by administrative discontinuity. As Rolnik and Cymbalista show in this paper, each of the three experiences of partnership between the city government and CSOs that originated during Erundina’s term in office subsequently suffered in the face of demobilizing conservative municipal power. Yet, to a large extent due to the political relevance of social leadership in the municipality of São Paulo, the adverse context did not prevent the exchange of information about experiences between cities or the establishment of links at the national level. Thus the experiences did not come to an end; and in order to understand the complexity of their evolution, it is necessary to look at the broader arrangements that emerged. This paper considers these forces of tension and investigates the consequences of the experiences at the local and national levels.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Nov 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8186
    From: UNRISD