Brazilian NGOs and progressive political action: An interview with Avanildo Duque

When Brasilians talk about the organized left, they usually refer to the social movements, labor unions and the organic intellectuals who support them. There is another category of civil society, however, that has  a positive influence on progressive advances in Brasilian society, the non-governmental organizations, or NGOs.  Over the past few decades a number of progressive Brasilian NGOs managed to successfully pilot strategies for poverty alleviation and insert them in public policy and several of these initiatives were duplicated by other governments around the developing world. During the 1980s, the Catholic Church’s liberation movement had a big impact in the formation of some of Brasil’s best NGOs. In Recife, Bishop Dom Hélder Camara, who is famous for saying, “when I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why people are poor, they call me a communist”, founded and financed many organizations that are still active to this day. In Rio de Janeiro, NGOs that were originally funded by dioceses connected to the liberation theology movement, such as FASE and IBASE, were influential in founding the World Social Forum. Unfortunately, times have changed in the Brasilian NGO community and many of the country’s best organizations are now on the verge of bankruptcy. First, during the 1990s, conservatives within the Catholic Church, led by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who later went on to become Pope Benedict XIV, punished key liberation theologians and cut off funding. Then in 2011 when the UN removed Brasil from the World Hunger map and announced that Brasil was on the verge of eliminating extreme poverty most international aid organizations that supported Brasilian NGOs left the country.  It’s important to remember the influence that NGOs had on the Brasilian left, however, because it forms an integral part of the story of how the nation nearly eliminated hunger and extreme poverty and moved 50 million people into the middle class during the first decade of the 21st Century. This is a success story that was minimized by the commercial northern media during its master narrative change from 2013-2016 during the lead up to the coup, in which it began portraying Brasil as a failed state. The Northern media seems intent on continuing to downplay this, as evidenced by the recent attention companies like Bloomberg have given to a flawed study published by the World Wealth and Income Database, which argues that  Brasil’s inequality reduction was exaggerated based on a disproportionate reliance on income tax return data, in a country in which only 15% of the citizens, those who make over R$2000/year, file income tax returns.

In order to recuperate some of the history of how progressive NGOs contributed to record poverty reduction in Brasil during the PT party governments, I spoke with Avanildo Duque. Mr. Duque grew up in a poor household in the rural Northeast and, against all odds, managed to get degrees in agronomy and geography from the Federal University of Pernambuco. He became an important member of the agro-ecology movement as part of the Articulação no Semiárido movement (Semiarid movement network/ASA) which was created to develop new strategies for dealing with drought. He currently works as the programs manager for ActionAid Brasil. Active in the woman’s and LTBT rights movement for decades, in 2017 the  woman’s magazine Claudia elected him as the most feminist man in Brasil.

Recife has some of the most effective and innovative civil society organizations in the World. What are the local characteristics of Recife and Pernambuco that caused the conditions for so many good non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to develop there? 

I believe that this is the result of two factors. The first is that Recife has a long history of struggle and confrontation led by a progressive left.  At the moment of the military coup of 1964, for example, we had  a socialist state government headed by Miguel Arraes that supported the popular education methodology pioneered by fellow Pernambucano Paulo Freire.  Pernambuco also had a tradition of the Ligas Camponensas, (the peasants’ leagues) which fought for agrarian reform and were  strong before the coup.  So Recife has a progressive tradition that created the conditions  to motivate a lot of people to defend citizenship and human rights. Furthermore, we had a very strong liberation theology movement here.   Dom Hélder Camara, the  Bishop of Recife and Olinda,  created various structures within the church that subsequently transformed into NGOs. CENDEC (Centro Dom Hélder Camera/Dom Helder Camara Center) is an example of one of these which is still around today.  The Centro Nordestino de Medicina Popular (Northeastern People’s Medicine Center) is another one, and there are other NGOs that were either started directly by  the Catholic Church or were influenced indirectly,  such as many NGOs connected to the agro-ecology movement, which received a lot of support from the dioceses. A third factor is indirectly related to the first.  There were a lot of people exiled from Recife during the military dictatorship. These people left but they kept their connections to Recife and they started building various organizations while they were still in exile. To give you an idea, most people who were exiled started by moving to Chile and after the Coup there they moved to Europe, especially Germany, France and Switzerland. While in exile some important women activists from Recife began to interact with the European feminist movements. When they were allowed to return home,  they joined with women who were still here  and created a new woman’s’ social movement that created three important feminist NGOs. 30 years later two of them are still around and  are among the best of their kind in Brazil. The first is SOS Corpo (SOS Body) which grew out of the need for women to discuss sexual and reproductive rights. The second is Casa da Mulher do Nordeste (Northeastern Woman’s House) which grew out of the need for women to have economic autonomy. The fourth and final factor that I will mention here is that, due to international relationships within the progressive sectors of the Catholic Church and citizenship rights organizations,  many  international development agencies began to view Recife as a reference for the non-governmental sector and began to set up permanent offices here.  By the 1990s and early oughties, Recife was full of offices from organizations like OXFAM, GTZ (The German Technical Cooperation Agency), and CARITAS.

What role did the NGO sector play during the 13 years of PT party governments in Brazil?

When the process of political opening began, during the final years of the dictatorship, the formation of the PT party played a major role for the left. I wouldn’t say that the NGOs had the most important role in the rebirth of the Brazilian left at the time. The fact is that the labor union movement,  Movimento de Trabalhadores Sem Terra (Landless Workers Movement/MST) and the Catholic Pastorals,  along with remnants of the old left political parties that were re-legalized and came in as competitors to the PT were the most important factors, but there was a contribution that also cannot be belittled made by the civil society organizations that we now call NGOs.  Here in Recife, people like Adelmo Araujo made important contributions in the structuring of the PT party as organic intellectuals who had an important influence in terms of building political  platforms and bridged an alignment, that was sometimes a bit complicated, with academics. So they had an influence on the creation of the PT party and its arrival in power. When the PT disputed and almost won the elections of 1989 many organizations were preparing create a left government, which at the time was much farther left than the government that eventually took power when Lula won in 2003.   After the 1989 elections the PT created a parallel government platform along with other left parties. Civil society organizations contributed through the accumulation of local experiences and pilot projects  on the various themes that they worked on. One of the best examples- and something that I participated in- comes from the field of agriculture. There was an interesting dynamic between the Marxists, who supported an egalitarian distribution of the means of production in agriculture, and a group of  progressive agronomists who were more focused on the organic, sustainable agriculture movement. So there were two perspectives that dialogued within the process of building priorities within the PT during the 1990s that influenced policy later when Lula started building his government in 2003. the PT party recognized the agro-ecological NGOs as strategic partners but in my evaluation they were unable to create a full counter-hegemony. The unions, the social movements and the liberation theology branch of the church had more influence in the formation of Lula’s government, despite that fact that many people from the NGO field were hired. To give you an idea I was invited to join Lula’s agricultural team 4 times. I didn’t accept the offers, partially because of personal reasons but also because I had my doubts about the project they were building due to the electoral coalitions that I thought were very complicated.  But I know a lot of people who entered the government at that time and remained there for over a decade contributing their expertise to its programs. Without a doubt, they developed some interesting programs that greatly reduced rural poverty. I will give an example of development in the semi-arid region of the Northeast, the drought-plagued region that traditionally had the highest poverty levels.  Before the Lula government, while FHC was president, we created a coalition of NGOs called the Articulação do Semiárido (Semi-Arid Articulation/ASA). It was a network that linked NGOs with rural workers unions and Catholic church organizations spread through the 10 states in Brazil that have semi-arid biomes.  The ASA built a proposal to adapt to the semi-arid biome that radically transformed the vision that we have about droughts. Historically, you could say that the phenomenon of droughts were treated in a positivist manner, based on climactic determinism. For generations this led to policies that were designed  to “fight” the droughts, within the historic rural political system, called colonialismo, that concentrated water in the hands of the elite ranchers and plantation owners, which in turn increased the concentration of land and power.  We started a dialogue explaining that were other ways of thinking about the semi-arid biome, that droughts were a recurrent climactic phenomenon and that we had enough knowledge of their cycles and social technologies to prepare for them in advance, not to just react to them after the fact as natural emergencies, because emergency response continually strengthened the rich and increased the concentration of power. The traditional emergency response strategy involved rural laborers working for very low salaries on big public works projects to accumulate water, typically on the private property of local political families who would exploit the local population during droughts.  ASA began saying, “no. We have to think of the Semi-arid region as an area that has periodic droughts in which the people should have knowledge on how to minimize risks and prepare for them”.  ASA began to create a ten state wide network of disseminating what we now call social technologies for accumulating water and decentralizing water management. Rain water capture through cisterns was the main tool, but together with the construction of these family and village cisterns there was a whole dialogue about the importance of water management and decentralization and the importance of thinking of ways to increase the kinds of agriculture and animal husbandry that work best in this kind of biome. The Lula administration went on to incorporate this into into federal government policy and built 1 million family rain waters cisterns in the semi arid region. So today we can say that the paradigm of coexistence with the semi-arid climate prevailed. There has been this 15 year experience of installing rain water capture technology which goes beyond the systems themselves to include  discussions about natural resource management, peoples’ autonomy and the possibility of living well in this environment and this caused huge improvement in quality of life for millions of people.  Obviously this process was greatly strengthened by two federal government policies implemented by the PT government. The first policy was the large, above inflation level minimum wage increases which also increased the retirement pensions for rural workers which provided retired family farmers and laborers in the semi-arid region with capital to stimulate the local economy. The second factor that contributed to millions of rural workers rising above the poverty line in the semi arid region was the bolsa familia income redistribution program which, although it was very timid from my point of view, made an extraordinary difference in the region, especially when combined with the social technologies that were pioneered by the ASA network. When these  factors were combined millions of people in what was once Brasil’s poorest region rose above the poverty line.  You can see the results the last drought, which was considered one of the worst in Brazilian history. For the first time anyone can remember we didn’t have riots, looting and mass internal migration. Up until the 1990s, every time there was a big drought people would loot to avoid starving to death, there was a lot of death. Infant mortality rates in the region were very high due to the food insecurity caused by the droughts and by diseases caused by poor water quality and this caused a huge exodus to other regions of Brazil which resulted in cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro seeing 500% population increases during the second half of the 20th century and a resulting exponential increase in favelas.  This scenario changed drastically but we see now, with the change in government caused by the institutional Coup d’Etat, that we are running the risk of regressing back to old paradigm of the drought industry. We saw this during last round of municipal elections in the rural northeast where the federal government, instead of strengthening the  Agua para Todos (Water for Everyone) program with its cisterns and other technologies, hired water trucks for its favorite candidates to go house to house giving away water as if it were a favor.  In conclusion, this is a specific example in which  Brazilian NGOs made a very important contribution to reducing poverty. They didn’t act alone but  they made an important contribution to moving sound public policies forwards in the region.

How did Recife’s feminist NGOs contribute to advancing woman’s policies during the PT years? 

Evaluating the situation coolly, Brian, I don’t think that the woman’s’ movement managed to influence the PT governments very much, even with the first woman president in office.  Despite the PT creating the first national Woman’s’ Ministry, which strengthened the dialogue on woman’s rights, it was very marginalized in terms of budget and autonomy to define policies. If we analyze this period there was some progress for women but these advances don’t correspond with the intensity of the Brazilian woman’s and feminist movements. We didn’t succeed in transforming many of the programs into official state policy and some of them that were approved during this period, such as the Maria da Penha domestic violence law, were very difficult to implement because there weren’t enough resources allocated to them. I believe we lost a big opportunity to move forwards on fundamental woman’s rights issues during this period. In terms of woman’s representation in political office, the PT party was unable to move forwards with a political reform to guarantee gender equity, despite this being one of the top priorities of the woman’s movement. Today Brazil is ranked 115th out of 138 countries in terms of gender equity in political office. In terms of woman’s rights I believe there were more lost opportunities than victories during the PT years.

My next question is for Avanildo, the person, not the NGO director. You grew up as the poor son of a market vendor in Paulo Afonso, Bahia. You are black, gay and northeastern. In other words, you stand for everything that Jair Bolsonaro and his neo-fascist minions hate. Through your job, you interact a lot with poor young people in Brazil. How do you explain the rise of the far right among the poor and working class and what can be done to fight this tendency?  

This is a complex question since it is personal, as you say. First of all we’ve only experienced a few short periods of democracy in Brazil, and during these periods the democracy that we had was fragile. I think we just ended a practice period with the state as a guarantor of rights that, timidly, was moving forwards. The other thing is that for the vast majority of our history we have had very violent regimes. Our country was founded through the the total devastation of the Indian’s common goods, the importation of monoculture cycles and natural resource appropriation for the benefit of  Europe. We then imported an entire patriarchal foundation from the middle ages including the Inquisition and its courts and slavery. Brazil was built in a very violent manner against the native population, the African slaves and against women. It was also very violent in terms of class because from the beginning a feudal culture was imposed, first with the slaves and then with the rural laborers after slavery ended, with peasants feeding into labor force during the industrialization process. Consequently we  have a very strong conservative, elitist, racist and patriarchal heritage. In the brief moments when Democracy arrived here, in this cycle of periodic democracy in Brazil, we haven’t managed to build policies to counter this. The explicit return of the far right is generated by two factors. Firstly, because of our extreme conservative heritage, and secondly because the last progressive government did not use education as a tool for liberation. In terms of education, the government was orthodox and pragmatic within the capitalist structure and was much more concerned with increasing incomes, employment, production and the GDP,  and much less with strengthening education as a possibility for pedagogical deconstruction of these traditional pillars within Brazilian society. Nevertheless, the few changes that we achieved, some of which were significant in the history of Brazil such as affirmative action, generated class hatred that was incensed by the media. The PT party made a strategic error in aligning with the evangelical churches for electoral purposes.  The coup was orchestrated by the elites who were angry that the PT extended land rights to the quilombola communities and the landless peasants, despite the fact that this could have been done more aggressively. Brazil’s exit from the world hunger map and migration of 50 million people into the middle classes filled them with fear of loosing their privileges, so they developed a project to take back the power. They returned with an entire culture of hate, fed by other institutional powers like the judiciary, that fomented racism, sexism, and homophobia and naturalized the extermination of poor youth. I think the violence comes from long ago and the few advances that we had in terms of political rights during the PT governments generated a huge amount of hatred against people with my profile as you pointed out in your question.  Hatred against different groups of people is now in fashion, including against people here in the northeast, whose lives greatly improved during the PT years. The redistributive measures may have been timid but for a while we were actually reducing income inequality. The GINI coefficient may have only improved slightly but this was unacceptable for the Brazilian elites, who are the historic beneficiaries of slavery, patriarchy and class exploitation.

Today in Brazil many of the most respected NGOs are running the risk of bankruptcy. The social movements have an aging membership. The unions have lost a lot of members due to things like automation, computers and robots.  In a context in which the traditional pillars of the Brazilian left are weakened compared to 2002, how can the Brazilian people mobilize in 2018 to undo the coup?

This coup was very well constructed. The first strategy was to beat Dilma in the 2014 elections.  It didn’t work. Immediately afterwords, Eduardo Cunha, the president of Congress and Aécio Neves, the Senate president, led a strategy to paralyze the government.  Dilma reacted by giving into conservative demands and agreeing to enact moderate reforms in an attempt to hold onto power,  but the more she conceded the more inevitable it became. Working in tandem, the media and the judiciary launched an objective strategy to take control over the state and political hegemony. We saw the sudden, suspicious and apparently criminal death of one of the Supreme Court Justices and his replacement by someone who is totally unqualified from a judicial point of view, who was the minister of Justice in this corrupt coup government. Then we had a vindictive, partisan federal judge and prosecutor lead a totally biased persecution against Lula, and a new Federal Police director took power who is totally committed to this corrupt government. Along with these changes came a loss of rights- one after another.  The process continues and we are losing one human right after another, in total disrespect to the federal constitution, through economic reforms carried out in the name of the rentier capital that is represented by this government. This creates a huge challenge for the left because we resisted as much as we could against the coup. Symbolically, Dilma deserves credit for not resigning or turning over her mandate until the very end. But it is a scenario of aging, weakened and fragmented social movements in the face of worsening structural adjustments, with the most progressive and combative movements such as the MST unable to give an effective response.  Since the coup was very quick, the capacity to create dialogue and a response from the left was limited and the sequence of defeats which we are all suffering from is demobilizing resistance and weakening the chances for a more progressive government to take power. The left doesn’t have many options today. I think its a bad indicator that we have to bet on the candidacy of Lula as a possibility to rescue some of the rights we lost in the last year. It is a sign that we have been unable to build a successor on the left. And this succession is the responsibility of PT and Lula- they were not able to do this. I think that the choice of Dilma was incorrect because we had other perspectives and could have created a better field of possibilities. So today, the idea that betting on Lula is our best chance is a bad sign because it shows lack of renovation and a renewable program on the left. On the other hand Dilma said something astute in an interview last week. She said that the right doesn’t have any strong candidates, “because if it did, it wouldn’t have to work so hard to try to invalidate Lula’s candidacy”. If the right had a strong candidate it would be calm, letting the communications companies and governmental apparatus guarantee the victory of its candidate. In this vacuum on the right, Jair Bolsonaro steps in, but he is more of a populist than a neoliberal.  Bolsonaro’s entire campaign strategy is basically just being against the PT.  And he has a neo-fascist agenda that is resonating with the youth on the periphery who are living in a climate of religious fundamentalism. Its a complicated scenario but I don’t think it is favoring either side, because there are all kinds of possibilities now. There is only 10 months until the elections- if they have them – so there isn’t enough time to build another Fernando Collor. Some sectors of the right find it disagreeable to have to bet on someone like Jair Bolsonaro. I think it is a complex situation and there are two elements that will effect the outcome. The first is the extremely unpopular retirement reforms. If they pass, there will be such a backlash against the government that it may end up trying to cancel the elections in an attempt to hold onto power and this will strengthen the left. Another factor is the youth and the alternative and social media, which are taking an increasingly important role. They were important in consolidating of the coup. The right is more structured for active communications in these mediums and I think the social media represents a false democratization of access to information.  Nevertheless, the left has to develop a more aggressive media strategy because it is a field of dispute that is very important, that influences elections all over the world. I do not think that, in the current conjuncture,  the social movements, unions and NGOs have the power to generate a counter-hegemony. They have an important responsibility, however, to rethink their reason for existence in the current scenario. They need to reflect on their design, structure and dynamics in this current period which I refer to as a period of losses. If we don’t apply what we’ve learned from these losses to think how we can survive and resist and create political renewal, when the tides do begin to turn we will be weaker than before.  Therefore, the upcoming election is an important moment but its more important to reflect on the roles of the NGOs and the social movements so that that we don’t fade away, so that we can continue to resonate as much as possible so that when a more favorable moment comes along we can return with a greater capacity for action than what we are seeing now.  This is my humble, analytical contribution.


By Brian Mier

Writer, geographer and former development professional who has lived in Brazil for 26 years. Former directorate member of the Fórum Nacional de Reforma Urbana (National Urban Reform Forum). Has lived in São Luis, Recife, Salvador, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Author of “Os Megaeventos Esportivos na Cidade do Rio de Janeiro e o Direito á Cidade” (CEPR: Porto Alegre. 2016). Editor of "Voices of the Brazilian Left" (Sumare: São Paulo. 2018). Editor of "Year of Lead: Washington, Wall Street and the New Imperialism in Brazil" ((Sumare: São Paulo. 2019) Irregular correspondent for the Chicago radio show This is Hell.