Funder Advocacy

Learning Visit Reflection: Beyond Victories – Funding Human Rights in Brazil

crossposted from the website of the International Human Rights Funders Group


IHRFG recently held a Learning Visit in Rio de Janeiro exploring the changing dynamics of human rights and global philanthropy in emerging economies. Over the coming weeks, IHRFG will share reflections from participants. Click here to read more lessons and join the conversation!

Contributed by Diana Stefanescu, Programme Associate, Red Umbrella Fund

As wealth increases in the so-called “emerging economies”, social, political and further economic development is expected to follow. However, as so often, reality is proving to be indefinitely more complex. What is development? How inclusive can it be? What is the place for human rights and human rights grantmaking in this context?

This year’s IHRFG Funder Learning visit to Rio de Janeiro explored the very junctures of interplay between economics, state power and philanthropy in Brazil. The three intense days of meeting local activists, peer funders, researchers and civil society organizers shed light on a multidimensionally unequal society, marked by both great achievements AND distressing shortcomings.

Brazil’s economic growth and state efforts in poverty reduction have brought great change to the country. A rising middle class concurred with a recovery from the “neoliberal” era of the 1990s and had the government regain its capacity to regulate. Minimum wage, affirmative action and the famous “bolsa familia”, a cash transfer program benefitting millions of the country’s poorest, have even reduced inequality in some ways. But the achievements came at a price and were sometimes accompanied by heavy drawbacks in other issue areas. The prolific re-primarization of the economy meant more mining, more exploitation of resources and increasingly high concentration of land property in Brazil. Neglected urban areas (mostly in the so-called favelas) were “pacified” by resorting to state violence and police brutality, leaving human rights considerations out of the equation.

Religious fundamentalism has had major influence on government institutions in which minorities (Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people) and women continue to be heavily underrepresented. Most investments in infrastructure that were to be realized in the run-up to the two big sport events (Football World Cup 2014 and Summer Olympics 2016) have not been implemented. And all this happened while civil society was grappling with managing the hopes raised by an assumed “friendly” progressive center-left government and the deceptions of international funders “fleeing” the scene. At closer examination, the victories seem to have been accompanied by distressing casualties in Brazilian society.

The dialogues and discussions in Rio de Janeiro made a central theme surface: the need for structural change and reform accompanying economic growth in Brazil.

Inclusive and sustainable development which is respectful of human rights is not an automatic consequence trickling down from economic growth.

The current Brazilian democracy is reasonably well-structured but very young – a mere 30 years have passed since the end of the dictatorship. Its civil society is in dire need of substantial support – not only in the light of the country’s strategic role as an emerging global power – but also because Brazilians are facing a critical timing for political and social action within.

The recent criminalization of protests illustrates the government’s inability to productively deal with contestation. In view of the upcoming Football World Cup, entire quarters in inner cities have been “cleaned up” – a development by which marginalized communities such as sex workers are touched most heavily.

During IHRFG’s visit to Rio, a local group of self-organized sex workers that cooperate closely with a grantee organization of the Red Umbrella Fund, was brutally arrested and abused in a large-scale police operation. Sex work is not actually illegal in the country but the violent crackdown was part of a downtown re-urbanization (hygienization) campaign.

This case illustrates well how right the timing was for a learning visit. It’s time to turn our attention beyond the economic victories, to where there’s plenty left to do for human rights funders in Brazil.

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