Civil society in Latin America: Participatory citizens or service providers?

By Evelina Dagnino:


“The recognition of the heterogeneity of civil society is important not only in theoretical terms, as a field of conflict, but is also evident in empirical terms across the continent. From the paramilitary organisations of Colombia to market-oriented NGOs or entrepreneurial foundations in Brazil; from corporatist trade-unions in Argentina to indigenous movements in Bolivia and Ecuador, or to youth gangs such as the ‘maras’ in Peru, associational life varies enormously. In Venezuela, for example, ‘civil society’ has been appropriated by the middle class, and in President Hugo Chávez’s discourse, the term has a pejorative meaning when used to refer to the privileged sectors of society. “For this reason, the poor have rarely identified with the term civil society, much less felt represented by the middle and upper classes” (García-Guadilla et al 2004, p 13). In Brazil, after years of neo-liberal rule, ‘civil society’ has marginalised social movements and is increasingly restricted to denote the world of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), itself an extremely hetero-geneous field (Teixeira 2003). This heterogeneity is exemplified in the role played by NGOs in Colombia, considered by President Uribe as serious adversaries, and in the insistence of ABONG, the Brazilian Association of NGOs, to resist the homogenising denomination of ‘Third Sector’ in order to affirm its own political identity.”


“The Gramscian notion of civil society as a terrain of conflict and, therefore, of politics, included an integral relationship with the state, without which the central notion of hegemony would make no sense. This framework has been used in several countries since the beginning of their anti-authoritarian struggles, where the role played by civil society in the destruction and re-creation of hegemony was paramount to its embrace by the Left as an appropriate basis for the struggle for democracy. “Well familiar with ‘frontal attack’, the Left had to learn how to conduct a ‘war of position’ and the multiplicity of trenches it implies” (Dagnino 1998, p 41).”

“The notion of hegemony as a framework for analysing civil society and its relationship to the state was reinforced by the gradual ascension to power in several countries of progressive and/or leftist forces that, in many cases, represented political projects formulated by or originating in civil society itself.”


“The emphasis on the articulation of civil society and the state found expression in a whole variety of experiments around participatory democracy that developed throughout the continent, from the 1990s onwards. The nucleus of these experiments was the need to deepen and radicalise democracy in response to the limits of liberal, representative models as a privileged form of state–society relations. Plagued by a resilient ‘crisis of representation’ as a result of the exclusive and elitist nature of liberal regimes and their incapacity to tackle deep-seated inequalities across the continent, it was clear that representative democracy needed to be complemented by participatory and deliberative mechanisms that could increase popular participation in decision-making (Santos and Avritzer 2002; Fals Borda, 1996).”


“From a neo-liberal perspective, the role of civil society is two-fold. On the one hand, it should supply the state and the market with information on social demands in order to increase efficiency. On the other, it should provide social organisations with the capacity to execute public policies that are oriented toward the satisfaction of these demands. Thus, civil society is conceived in a selective and exclusionary way, recognising only those actors who are able to carry out these tasks.”

“These ideas have been put into practice in powerful ways, recon-figuring civil society through the accelerated growth and expanded role of NGOs; the rise of the so-called ‘Third Sector’ and of entrepreneurial foundations with a strong emphasis on redefining philanthropy in business terms; and the marginalisation (or what some refer to as the crim-inalisation) of social movements. The overall result has been a reductive identification of civil society with NGOs or the Third Sector. Latin American governments fear the politicisation of their engagement with social movements and workers’ organisations, and instead seek reliable partners who can effectively respond to their demands while minimising conflict.”

“This shaping capacity of state action is visible in what has been called the “ngoization” of social movements (Alvarez 1999), not only in terms of their organisational structures and behaviour, but also in their political practices. Attracted by the opportunities offered by the state to engage in the execution of public policies, few social movements have been able to retain both their independence and their involvement in other kinds of political action. The Landless Movement in Brazil (MST) is one of the few that has.”

“Under neo-liberalism, participation is defined instrumentally, in relation to the needs derived from the ‘structural adjustment’ of the economy and the transfer of the state’s social responsibilities to civil society and the private sector. For members of civil society such as NGOs, participation means taking on the efficient execution of social policies, even though the definition of those policies remains under exclusive state control. Participation is thus concentrated in the functions of management and policy implementation, not shared decision-making (Teixeira 2003). The reform of the state that was implemented in Brazil in 1998 under the influence of Minister Bresser Pereira (who introduced the principles of the ‘New Public Management’) is very clear in relation to the different roles of the “strategic nucleus of the State” and of social organisations (Bresser Pereira 1996). The former retains a clear monopoly over decision-making.”

“All over the continent, the very idea of ‘solidarity’, whose long history is rooted in political and collective action, became the motto of neo-liberal versions of participation. As part of a broader move to privatise and individualise responsibilities for social action, participation is relegated to the private terrain of morality where an emphasis on volunteer work and ‘social responsibility’ (of both individuals and firms) becomes dominant. Along the same lines, the definition of the common or public good dispenses with the need for debate between conflicting views, replaced by “a set of private initiatives with a public sense” based on the moral thesis of “caring for the other” (Fernandes 1994, p 127). The ‘public’ character of the Third Sector and NGOs has been increasingly questioned on the grounds that they “lack the transparency and accountability in terms of finances, agenda, and governance necessary to effectively perform their crucial role in democratic civil society” (McGann and Johnstone 2006, p 66).”

“In this framework, associational life loses its public and political dimensions. In fact, Third Sector advocates and activists insist on emptying it of any conflictive or even political connotations (Franco 1999; Fernandes 1994). For these advocates, the replacement of civil society by the Third Sector would remove any sense of “systemic opposition to the State” (Fernandes 1994, p127). Thus, “[T]he notion of civil society, and the critical field belonging to it, lose their meaning and only cooperation remains, under a new homogenizing guise. The main effect of this change is the de-politicization of the state–society relationship, with the question of conflict disappearing from the scene” (Dagnino, Olvera and Panfichi 2006, p 22).”

“Neo-liberalism also redefines citizenship according to its own guiding principles, diluting exactly that which constitutes the core of this notion, which is the idea of universal rights. The way in which the meaning of citizenship is watered down can be seen in several dimensions of the neo-liberal project.”

“First, social rights, which were consolidated in some countries, in spite of the precarious nature of the Latin American welfare state, are now being eliminated, seen as an obstacle to the efficient operation of the market.”

“Second, in the management of social policy, the conception of universal rights as an instrument for constructing equality is replaced by targeted efforts directed toward those sectors of society considered to be ‘at risk.’”

“Third, citizenship is pushed into the arena of the market and a seductive connection between the two is established. To become a citizen increasingly means to integrate into the market as consumer and producer (García Canclini 1995). In a context where the state is progressively removed from its role as the guarantor of rights, the market is expected to step in to offer a surrogate space for citizenship.”

“Fourth, when social policies are transferred to civil society organisations, philanthropy and volunteer work, citizenship is both identified with and reduced to solidarity with the poor and needy. Those who are the targets of these policies are not seen as citizens with the ‘right to have rights’ but as needy human beings who must be taken under the wing of private or public charities.”

“These ideas have been implemented by neo-liberal governments throughout the continent with the heavy support of international agencies. After the pioneering Fondo de Solidaridad y Inversión Social (Solidarity and Social Investment Fund, or FOSIS) was created in 1990 in Chile – “especially tailored for NGO involvement” (Foweraker 2001, p 18) – a number of similar agencies and programs materialised in the 1990s in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Venezuela and elsewhere. In Brazil, during the eight years of the government of Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Comunidade Solidária, the agency in charge of social policies, became a powerful think-tank, which was extremely effective in developing and disseminating this framework (Almeida 2009). These efforts have not been able to hinder the deepening of both poverty and inequality in most countries during the same period, but the number of NGOs multiplied geometrically, as did the growth of Third Sector employment (Salamon and Sokolowski 2004). The processes of decentralisation that have taken place in most countries at different levels have contributed to this process through so-called ‘partnerships’ between local governments and NGOs, but have also made possible a range of more participatory, democratic and creative interactions between civil society and local governments.”

“These different forms of civil society participation coexist in Latin America, and their respective predominance obviously depends on the power correlation between neo-liberal and participatory democratic projects in the different contexts.”

Read full article at Uppsala University, Sweden – March 2010, Conference on Nature, Poverty and Power: Assessing Chalenges to Sustainable Development.

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