Wilts the darling of Latin American Left

NGOs as shadow pseudopublics: Grassroots community leaders’ perceptions of change and continuity in Porto Alegre, Brazil

– By Benjamin Junge:


In this article, I examine changing meanings of participation for grassroots community leaders in Porto Alegre, Brazil, since the 2004 defeat of the Workers Party (PT) municipal government and a subsequent rise in the presence of both the private sector and NGOs in community politics. Through an ethnographic analysis of community politics in one municipal district, based on interviews I carried out in 2008, I argue that the changing relationship between state, private sector, and civil society has contributed to destabilization of the narrative of active citizenship hegemonic in earlier years, implanting a market-oriented, individualistic ethos in its place.


Beira-Rio Stadium Project - Porto Alegre

Beira-Rio Stadium Project – Porto Alegre

I have used a heated district-level dispute in the longtime center of grassroots community politics, the PB, as the entrée to a broader analysis of continuity and change in a citywide political moment characterized by intensification of NGO activity and a governmental reaching out to the private sector. In the Beira Rio district, some community leaders have welcomed development projects that have been conceived of, funded, implemented, and monitored outside the PB structure, seeing additions like the new megamall as positive for their cosmopolitan leisure spaces, their potential to bring jobs, and their support for local community initiatives through partnerships. Similarly, several leaders have viewed the growing visibility of NGOs favorably and in some cases have become actively involved in NGOs or NGO-linked projects such as the CRC—projects that have benefited directly from the coresponsibility partnerships with the government and big business promoted under the Fogaça administration’s Governança program. Other leaders, however, have felt uncomfortable with or threatened by these changes, charging that they constitute a transfer of control over the district’s future from the hands of local, community-based authorities to outsiders with primarily economic interests in mind.

Within the tensions surrounding the PB assembly’s diminished status as the central hub for district-level politics and planning, NGOs have emerged as a galvanizing lightning rod in the articulation of a range of positions among grassroots community leaders. Indeed, the possible implications of an NGO link were the primary locus of contention over the outcomes of the 2008 distric tlevel PB elections in Beira Rio. On one side, Chapa 1, closely linked to the CRC, argued publicly that it had been transparent, democratic, and inclusive throughout and that its association with the NGO Communities in Action was but a legal formality. On the other side, Chapa 2, made up of newer leaders, attempted to characterize Chapa 1 and the CRC as what I have called “shadow pseudopublics,” that is, fronts for a secretive, undemocratic, and untransparent source of power—that is, the NGO Communities in Action—and demanded that the NGO adhere to the same principles of accountability as any PB-initiated project. Both inside and outside formal spaces of participation, however, leaders have articulated positions diverging in telling ways from each side’s formal stance. The envy accompanying Márcio’s accusations that members of Chapa 1 might be benefiting financially from their involvement in the CRC belies an emergent questioning of whether grassroots community work must always be voluntary and unpaid. In a similar vein but from the side of the other chapa, Bethe candidly asserted the right for a small group of leaders to develop a project outside the PB and to withhold accounting figures for funding obtained from “nonpublic” sources.

Beira Rio’s recent disputes within the PB reflect a growing destabilization of the models of citizen participation and community leadership established during the PT years. They also point to disagreement, uncertainty, and ambivalence about the relationship between groups with an interest in community development (chiefly, the PB, privatesector groups, and NGOs). Should NGOs and NGO-linked projects be held accountable in the same way that government initiatives and the PB are supposed to be? My study does not, however, support a triumphalist reading of neoliberalism but, rather, points to an intensification of encounter and conflict between different regimes of authority and practice. It is too simple to argue that grassroots leaders who come to embrace entrepreneurialism in their community work have been “neoliberalized” or represent “local neoliberalism” (Peck and Tickell 2002), because their entrepreneurship sometimes promotes cooperativism over atomism and partnership with government rather than a turn to the private sector as the state “shrinks.”

These disputes also reflect a growing problematization of an archetypal (and romantic) figure in leftist organizing— that of the volunteer community leader who pursues community work out of passion to help her or his community rather than a desire for status,money, or other forms of selfinterest. Although charges of personal interest and financial gain among community leaders have been documented in the PB back to its beginnings (Abers 2000), the recent growth of NGO activity (and visibility) around the city has intensified these charges, because NGOs may subvert local PB assemblies and, unlike PB-initiated projects, may provide community leaders and ordinary neighborhood residents with a legal source of income.

Take home a miniature of this particular stadium which will be the most beautiful in Brazil. Parcel up to 12 times!

Take home a miniature of this particular stadium which will be the most beautiful in Brazil. Parcel up to 12 times!

How should the transformed (and still-transforming) meanings of participation and leadership among Beira Rio community leaders be explained? What political, economic, or cultural forces—local, national, or transnational—have shaped the patterns observed? The most obvious explanation is that an erosion of the PB’s legitimacy and potency has taken place because of decreased political support from the city government since the defeat of the PT in 2004 and the rise of development projects and institutions (including those linked to NGOs) that operate outside the formal structures of the PB, as in the coresponsibility partnerships promoted under the Fogaça administration’s Governança program. Without careful interrogation, however, this explanation overstates and oversimplifies the significance of Fogaça’s election in 2004. It implies a decisive PT–post-PT rupture and evokes the image of a neoliberal onslaught on a participation-oriented ethos established during the PT’s years in power. This impression is mistaken on several counts.

First and foremost, in Beira Rio and elsewhere in Porto Alegre, cynicism, discontent, and accusations of selfinterest among PB delegates have been prevalent since the initiative’s beginnings in the early 1990s—and indeed grew quite strong during the final PT years (roughly 2000–04). In part, this was due to frustration over a backlog of approved but unimplemented PB demands. (By the time of my dissertation fieldwork in 2002–03, the upbeat “active citizen” portrayed in official PB discourse was usually someone new on the scene.) It was also, however, due to an organic maturing process: After success in gaining basic infrastructure and programs for many poor communities, the meaning of actual, lived participation organically shifted from demanding to occupying spaces and enrolling in programs secured through the PB. Again, this shift was well underway by the time Fogaça was elected in 2004. Hence, when Thais laments, “We’re not protagonists anymore” (as recounted in this article’s opening vignette), her nostalgia is not, strictly speaking, for the PT years but, rather, for a time within those years when she was still demanding basic needs for her community. The erosion of the district-level PB assembly’s authority was also influenced by the growing presence of other participatory institutions, most notably, the municipal councils (which, unlike the PB, are mandated by Brazil’s federal constitution). In Porto Alegre, these councils did not attract widespread citizen participation (or scholarly attention) until the late 1990s (see Cornwall 2008). By 2004, however, municipal councils in Beira Rio and around the city sometimes were on the rise and frequently found themselves in antagonistic relationships with PB assemblies.

The NGO story I have told challenges conventional narratives of neoliberalism necessarily entailing a shrunken or receding state, because the public–private “coresponsibility partnerships” promoted under the Fogaça administration have extended the reach of government deep into spheres of grassroots community development (see Collins 2008 for a similar account in northeastern Brazil). In my assessment, the growing visibility of NGOs in district-level politics, and the rise of public–private partnerships in local development projects, has intensified the destabilization of what participation means to grassroots leaders. Similar to the pattern Lesley Gill observed in her mid-1990s studies of NGOs in El Alto, Bolivia, a “blurring of organizational forms” (1997:146) has profoundly complicated the capacity for Beira Rio’s residents to represent themselves (also see Holzner 2007). The discourse of active citizen participation developed during the PT years still exists and continues to appeal to many leaders. It competes, however, with another discourse, within which participation is less about feeling like amember of a community or taking pleasure in public deliberation than about acquiring marketable training through involvement in projects and programs. It is tempting to deem this discourse neoliberal in character, because its implicit citizenship ethos is atomistic, is consumerist, and aligns individual happiness and well-being with marketplace engagement. Moreover, it bypasses any form of collective deliberation and relies on a technical– managerial solution to social problems rather than a macrostructural analysis of power. This discourse, reflected in both NGO activity and the business-friendly policy of the Fogaça administration, is identical to the discourse emphasizing “empowerment” through individual entrepreneurialism taken to task by critical NGO scholars (Kamat 2003:91; Silva 2004:71). By the same token, the ethnographic narratives I have presented suggest that neoliberal logics and discourses move through spheres of grassroots participation more like drops in a pond than a tidal wave, as they continue to bump into other regimes of authority and practice (including those put in place by the PB) and continue to be appropriated by community leaders in ways that cannot easily be labeled “neoliberal.”

In the preceding analyses, I have drawn attention to moments of confusion experienced by community leaders as they think and speak through these two discourses of participation. Jaime’s awkward “you are all in-vi-ted to participate!” is perhaps the best example of this. In my assessment, his firm conviction that he is being democratic and inclusive even as he finds himself embracing a technocratic, client-oriented notion of participation illustrates both the “perverse confluence” between the projects of participatory citizenship and neoliberalism (Dagnino 2003) and neoliberalism’s “paradoxical quality of . . . both expanding the ways in which citizenship can be defined and ‘hollowing out’ its substance” (Gledhill 2006:323). It is too simplistic, however, to tell this as a story of the “neoliberalisation of the political field and everyday life” (Gledhill 2005:82) because, as I have shown, grassroots leaders display not only confusion but also hesitance, refusal, and strategic subversion in their engagements with competing discourses of participation (cf.Wilson 2008). This is well illustrated in the contrast between how Chapa 1 allies publicly represent the inclusive, nothing-to-hide character of the recycling center and, as in Bethe’s statements, privately assert NGO exceptionalism when funding is nongovernmental in origin. Indeed, leaders associated with both chapas—old and new, proand anti-PT—show how people can perceive and strategize against the regimes of authority and practice to which they are exposed. These observations are reminders that, despite its “totalizing desire,” the project of neoliberalism moves through ethnohistorical contexts like Porto Alegre in a fragmented, contradiction-ladenmanner (Kingfisher and Maskovsky 2008).

These caveats about the limited reach of neoliberalism, however, should not be taken to suggest a widespread, explicit critique of neoliberalism among grassroots community leaders. To be sure, a few of the district’s leaders do articulate their positions with explicit reference to the hazards of neoliberal policy. (Some of the CRC’s architects, e.g., see the initiative as a form of “solidarity economy” that hinges community well-being on local, collectivist production rather than supralocal economies.) As of 2009, however, the majority had not made these connections. Indeed, strikingly absent from the heated debates about development in the district have been explicit concerns about the potential impact of the new mall on local small businesses and the possible risks of binding the district’s economic well-being—via the mall, the new museum, and so on—to larger national and transnational economic forces.

In the end, three members of Chapa 1 were confirmed as district PB councilors for the 2008–09 cycle, alongside the one member of Chapa 2 who satisfied the conditions of not being a candidate in the upcoming elections and having an established participation record in the PB. The decisionmaking process that led to this outcome—culminating in a vote—was exhausting and exasperating for nearly all involved and made explicit growing tensions and contradictions in the discourses and practices of “participation” in a city long considered a darling of the Latin American Left. Within contestation over the meanings of participation, “NGO” emerges as a powerful symbol, frequently invoked to call into question claims about transparency, accountability, representation, and democratic deliberation. Chapa 1’s partial victory notwithstanding, the growing, public scrutiny over what it means to be a grassroots community leader shows little sign of abatement. Whether the new forms of mediation opened up by NGO-linked projects will eventually lead to a “recentralization” of community politics in Porto Alegre (Wolf 2004) remains to be seen.

Read full article in American Ethnologist, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp. 407-424, 2012.

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