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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements

Grassroots Movements, Political Activism and Social Development in Latin America: A Comparison of Chile and Brazil



This paper examines the evolution of grassroots political activity in Latin America, with special reference to Chile and Brazil, and assesses its impact on the policy and practices of social devel-opment. It traces this trajectory through the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, and focuses on the response of grassroots organizations to democratic governance and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s.

The social movement activity of the authoritarian period is seen to decline or change, leading to an emphasis on negotiation rather than mobilization, and on increasing interaction and in-volvement with state agencies. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), in contrast, multiply or become more visible, but where they interact effectively with the state they can be subordi-nated to state policy, and where they fail to interact they can be ineffective. Grassroots organi-zations did achieve some impact on social development in the 1990s, but the impact was on policy implementation rather than policy making, and was likely to be partial and patchy rather than comprehensive or fundamental.

Prior to the 1990s, grassroots political activity was already primarily urban and oriented to the state. Prior to the democratic transitions, grassroots demands were often driven by local and material concerns but came to be stated in terms of rights. With transition to democracy the fo-cus on the state has remained, but the cohesive effect of rights demands lost; and the combina-tion of “elite” democracy with neoliberal economic policy has pushed grassroots organizations to the political sidelines.

These tendencies have been compensated in part by the proliferation of NGOs with external sources of support. But the NGOs themselves entered into crisis with the decline or constricted agendas of external funding. This created an acute dilemma for grassroots organizations, with traditional forms of mobilization unable to achieve their policy objectives (the Movmiento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) in Brazil, the Mapuche peoples of Chile) and a closer relationship with the state (especially NGOs seeking financial survival) often leading to com-plete or partial co-optation. The grassroots organizations may simply deliver social services for the state (health and educational reform in Chile), or be split and demobilized by bureaucratic infighting (health reform in Brazil). In all cases a closer involvement with state agencies has left the organizations exposed to clientelist controls and political bossism.

Grassroots organizations across Latin America cannot survive now without state funding. But the price is often a loss of their capacity to maintain a critical stance or promote alternative development projects. With or without the state, they are increasingly preoccupied with their own financial survival, often to the detriment of the constituencies they are meant to serve. Many organizations disappear, and grassroots leaders leave to work elsewhere.

Yet there are more hopeful signs. Neoliberalism also means the reform of the state apparatus, and especially its decentralization, and this sometimes promotes new forms of popular participation. Grassroots organizations may begin to move from service delivery to influencing social policy—at least at the municipal level. Furthermore, NGOs in particular have begun to form local, national and even international associations to take maximum advantage of these opportunities. But decentralization does not always dissolve—and may even strengthen—clientelist politics, and so the risk of co-optation remains; and state policy may seek greater participation through the creation of its own “user groups” rather than responding to autono-mous grassroots activity.

This analysis does not suggest that grassroots political activity in the 1990s is unimportant, or entirely ineffective. But a realistic view must recognize that its influence on social policy is piecemeal, and that its role is more in social service delivery than in shaping social policy itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and may be a perfectly proper role in the context of decen-tralization and financial constraint. But international agencies should seek to identify and nur-ture those grassroots organizations that can take on the distinct task of criticism and advocacy, and so promote possible alternative futures for social development.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Aug 2001
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8178
    From: UNRISD