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Opportunities and challenges for CSOs: cooperation and philanthropy in Brazil

In the current situation, there are global challenges to cooperation and philanthropy relationships for civil society organizations (CSOs) that work in development to secure the rights and defence of democracy.  In Brazil, the emergence of new actors in public funding and the multiplication of community funds have suggested an new configuration of organizational processes and disputes for power and space within organized civil society.

This has emerged as a favourable context for new methodologies in relationships between CSOs and their supporters. It is a process that not only expands the possibilities of access to funding, but also constructs an exercise for agendas, one of power and creativity for the management of and decisions about social movements and grassroots organizations and their activities.  In addition to these opportunities, this new dynamic raises questions and concerns about the conditions of engagement within such relationships, the limits and possibilities for direct action and to influence agendas and possible scenarios, especially in a post-pandemic situation.

In order to better understand these new configurations and to discuss possible pathways to boost the rights agenda through cooperation, CESE ran two round-table conversations with its team and partner organizations: “Dialogue about Cooperation and Philanthropy for the defence of rights and development”, mediated by Julia Esther – Executive Secretary of the Process of International Networking and Dialogue (Processo de Articulação e Diálogo Internacional: PAD) and Domingos Armani – Consultant for the Institutional Development of CSOs.  The debate took place within a context of new institutional challenges, including the implementation of the “Giving for Change Programme” aimed at influencing North-South power relations in cooperation and philanthropy, and progressing new methodologies and metrics, enabling a repositioning of local contributions for development and the defence of rights.

The round-table conversation started with a historical overview of relationships with international cooperation and the asymmetrical power dynamic between agencies and CSOs, marked in recent decades by the professionalization and technification of supported activities.  Also addressed were issues about the valuing of political subjects who advocate for social transformations; advances in Brazilian philanthropy; and the implications for organized civil society when establishing connections with new actors.

Invitee Iara Pietricovsky, member of the Institute for Socio-economic Studies (Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos: INESC) and President of Forus, a global network of National NGO Platforms and Regional Coalitions, addressed the complexity involved in understanding social change processes. In her view, public authorities and the private sector have seen civil society organizations as accessories to democratic processes, meaning that competing for space is fundamental for survival and autonomy: “We need to recognise ourselves as effective powers, capable of competing for power in the recognition of our existence, as well as in defining trajectories, public policies and the decisions societies will make.  Our struggle is ethical and fundamental to realizing rights,” she declared.

Another aspect raised within the dialogue was the trend for new funding strategies to combat climate change and, more recently, the pandemic.  In this regard, Athayde Motta, Executive Director of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis (Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas: IBASE), warned that CSOs are better able to influence this agenda when they expand the internal discussion and involve all peer actors in this process. “We need to radicalize the politicization of this debate.  This is a key and fundamental factor.” He drew attention to the care that needs to be paid to the de-politicization of cooperation issues related to the COVID-19 emergency. “The pandemic involves the violation of rights that go beyond the limits of public health and the vaccine. It violates rights in totally diverse areas, such as education, gender violence and against the most vulnerable populations.  The impacts are multidimensional.”

In line with an expansion of the debate about changing the structures of relationships with cooperation and philanthropy, Mércia Alves, representative of SOS Corpo and PAD, noted the need for this agenda to prioritize the Brazilian context of structural social inequality issues: “The extermination of indigenous populations, quilombolas and young people, and attacks on the rights of women, the LGBTQIA+ population and human rights are issues that must be addressed in cooperation strategies.”

For Nina Madsen, from the Open Society Foundations, despite criticisms of the political approach and the explicit operations of big business in political disputes and decision-making processes, we can also see a strengthening of the organizational systems of historically-marginalized communities: “There are interesting examples of the reconfiguration of these arenas of philanthropy, of tensions in the strengthening of this agenda of diversity, equity and inclusion within the foundations. The multiplication of community funds is part of this and has influenced and created tension both inside and outside philanthropy,” Nina noted.

In their talks, all the participants explained the need to map the philanthropic field, in terms of concepts and content, in order to understand that, in addition to the political strengthening of human rights and social justice towards autonomy and for the defence of ways of life, the term ‘philanthropy’ has also been used for compromising actions.  “There are different types of donors and Brazilian CSOs are able to make a distinction between genuine philanthropy and that created for conduct adjustment or what might be called marketing philanthropy.  There is a lot of reflection about this, about separating the wheat from the chaff,” noted Aurélio Vianna, a consultant with experience of philanthropy, and traditional peoples and communities.

The environment is broad and diverse; debating it is essential and provides structure for the life of civil society organizations, particularly in the current Brazilian context of political and humanitarian crisis.  Strengthening community funds and solidarity action is extremely important for sustainability, but we cannot lose sight of the mobilization for an anti-racist, feminist and democratic society: “It is a competition for voice, for the power to construct an agenda and to demand action, by occupying arenas and putting forward responses to the challenges faced.  This has happened with huge potency in Brazil and in other countries around the world,” concluded Nina Madsen.

Avanildo Duque, who worked for 11 years as Programmes Coordinator at ActionAid Brazil, described examples of partner relationships from the grassroots arena in order to value the progress made, while Rui Mesquita, Master of Development Studies and Political Science, outlined other possible futures, with the creation of Brazilian mechanisms to access public and private funds as alternatives to strengthen CSOs.

In order to further support this discussion, CESE and PAD will produce a publication containing a systematization of these two round-table conversations.  These will provide shared analyses and readings from the invitees, from the places they talked about and their experiences of what it has been like to act in philanthropy and in dialogue with organized civil society.

About the Giving for Change Programme

CESE is beginning a five-year journey with the Giving for Change Programme, which involves eight countries from the global south, with support from Dutch cooperation.  The initiative’s aims include supporting the adoption of more equitable practices within the international development system, including ideas about domestic fundraising and community philanthropy.