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Back | Programme Area: Civil Society and Social Movements (2000 - 2009)

Civil Society and Social Movements: The Dynamics of Intersectoral Alliances and Urban-Rural Linkages in Latin America



The study of development has always been surrounded by debate about its driving forces, its facilitating and inhibiting conditions, obstacles to its achievement, and the appropriate agents for bringing it about. At the centre of this debate have been questions about structure and agency. To what extent and under what conditions are poverty and underdevelopment rooted in the institutionalized practices or structures of the prevailing economic and social system? What are the most effective agents and strategies for generating the structural changes and conditional improvements that constitute development? Over the years, these and other such questions have been raised and addressed with numerous permutations in different and changing contexts, most recently in terms of the role of civil society and social movements.

This paper aims to shed some light on these questions as they relate to developments in Latin America—and similar developments are unfolding elsewhere in the developing world. Part I discusses the alternative meanings associated with the term “civil society”. This term is at the centre of current discourse on development theory and practice. Part II reviews the available studies on the macro and meso dynamics of urban social movements in Latin America. Part III takes a closer look at the role of the urban poor in these movements, particularly in the context of conditions that prevailed in the 1980s. In part IV, the role of government and the state in the development process is briefly explored, as is the role of the “middle strata” in the social struc-ture of Latin American societies. Part V turns to the struggles and social movements of organized labour, while part VI considers development theory with a brief discussion on the sustain-able livelihoods approach to the problem of rural poverty. Part VII makes reference to, and use of, an alternative approach to development in exploring the dynamics of struggle associated with peasant-based rural sociopolitical movements, which, according to the author, appear in the current context to be the most dynamic forces for social change in the region. Part VIII examines intra- and intersectoral linkages and strategic alliances in the building of a popular movement of resistance against the system in place. In Henry Veltmeyer’s view, these linkages are critical for the dynamics of an emergent and vibrant civil society and for the coordination of the diverse struggles for social change and development.

In the conclusion, Veltmeyer identifies two modalities of change and development, both at odds with the recent (and dominant) economic model of neoliberal capitalist development and its associated project of “globalization”. One of these modalities relates to the political dynamics of Latin America’s social movements, while the other relates to a ubiquitous search in the region for “another development”—development that is initiated from within and below rather than from the outside and above. Despite (or perhaps because of) its reformist orientation (and its commitment to allay the negative effects of neoliberal capitalist development and associated policies), the author argues that the sustainable livelihoods approach has the greatest potential for bringing about an improvement in the quality of life of the rural poor—that is, for providing a theoretical and practical solution to the problems of poverty, social exclusion and underdevelopment.

Henry Veltmeyer is a Professor of Sociology and of International Development Studies at St. Mary’s University, Halifax, Canada. This paper was prepared under the Institute’s project on Civil Society Strategies and Movements for Rural Asset Redistribution and Improved Liveli-hoods, which was carried out between 2000 and 2003. The project was led by K.B. Ghimire, with assistance from Anita Tombez.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8208
    From: UNRISD