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Civil Society and Social Movements Programme Paper 4: Grassroots Movements, Political Activism and Social Development in Latin America: A Comparison of Chile and Brazil

10 Sep 2001

  • Author(s): Joe Foweraker


This paper examines the evolution of grassroots political activity in Chile and Brazil, and assesses its impact on social development. It scrutinizes transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, and focuses on the response of grassroots organizations to democracy and the rise of neoliberalism in the 1990s.

Today, the social movement activity of the authoritarian period is giving way to negotiation rather than mobilization, and to increasing interaction with the state. NGOs multiply and become more visible, but where they interact with the state they can be subordinated to state policy, and where they fail to interact they can be ineffective. Grassroots organizations have achieved some impact on social development, but the impact was on policy implementation rather than policy making, and more likely to be partial and patchy than comprehensive or fundamental.

The paper finds that closer involvement with state agencies inevitably left grassroots organizations exposed to clientelist controls and political bossism. It finds that "grassroots organizations across Latin America cannot survive now without state funding. 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".

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.

The present paper shows that these tendencies have been partly compensated by the proliferation of NGOs with external sources of support. But the NGOs themselves have suffered with the decline or constricted agendas of external funding.

In this context, the UNRISD paper calls on international agencies to seek to identify and support grassroots organizations that can take on the distinct task of criticism and advocacy, and so promote possible alternative futures for social development.

The agencies, for their part, should be less selective in their funding agendas and more selective about the specific organizations they fund. The relevant criteria should become organizational authenticity, legitimacy and voice: are NGOs an authentic response to community needs rather than a spurious response to international funding fashions? Are they the legitimate representative of indigent people or threatened nature rather than the narrow representatives of their own professional and pecuniary interests? And do they give voice to those who would otherwise be condemned to the "political silence" created by the combination of neoliberal policy and exclusionary democracy?

Joe Foweraker is a Professor of Government at the University of Essex and the Executive Director of the European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR).

Order PPCSSM 4 from UNRISD ($5 for readers in the North; $2.50 for readers in the South).