The electoral victory of the Brazilian Worker’s Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in 2002 raised many expectations that conservative power relations would be shifted by a new political dynamic.
To date, it is clear that democratic governance is still a long way off, and that the challenges faced by civil society are increasing and changing shape. How can Brazilian civil society organisations (CSOs) best advocate for democratic governance and citizenship in this context? What are the place and role of notions such as “participation”,“power” and “rights” in their work? As activists and intellectuals address these important questions, not only in Brazil but worldwide, there is a need to revisit the way such widely used concepts are understood and applied in each situation. This was the focus of a recent action research project carried out by Action Aid Brasil with the involvement of a broad and significant range of civil society organisations.
While the research findings (see Pereira Júnior et al. 2004) offered interesting insights into these questions, much has happened during the intervening two years, so it will be necessary here to update the original reflections in relation to new challenges. The research explored the views of civil society activists about the ways they understand and link “participation” and “rights” in their discourse and practice. The first, and perhaps most important insight was the need to add a third vital concept: that of “power”, to qualify and develop the debate. Respondents largely agreed that “participation”, “rights” and “power” are seen by Brazilian CSOs as joined and indivisible dimensions of the same political process of the fight for citizenship. To overcome poverty and social inequalities means, in their view, to guarantee and to expand rights for excluded sectors of society. For this to occur, it is necessary to confront the relations of power and domination that drive processes of exclusion, which is only possible if society mobilises and becomes a protagonist in the fight for citizenship. But why do Brazilian CSOs make this kind of connection? To understand this orientation and to answer the questions posed above, we have found it helpful to begin with a review of the historical evolution of notions of citizenship and rights in Brazil. This review is followed by a look at the role of civil society organisations in constructing citizenship in recent decades. Key findings from the research are then presented, demonstrating the ways in which Brazilian CSOs understand and integrate “rights”, “power” and “participation” in their work. Finally, we analyse the challenges now faced by CSOs in seeking to strengthen democratic governance and build citizenship, with a focus on the dynamics of citizen participation in government Councils. These understandings of rights and participation, from the perspective of CSOs in Brazil, are critical to the way CSOs are working to influence rights in Brazil. In large part, they see rights more than formal legal standards, but as part of a wider process of social change that will address the fundamental inequalities that formal democracy has not yet been able to alter.
This article comes from the IDS Bulletin 36.1 (2005) Rights and Citizenship in Brazil: The Challenges for Civil Society