The Evolving Relationship Between the State and Civil Society in Brazil

Civil society has exploded in Latin America as democratization has progressed over the last 30 years. By civil society, we mean a wide range of collective groups such as social movements, community-based organizations, and “third-sector” organizations.

Citizens form and join Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to advance both narrow and broad interests, from improving public security to challenging extractive industries to installing infrastructure in their respective streets to improving basic education and health care.

CSOs are thought to use their influence to improve governance, expand oversight, and increase social capital. Three interrelated political processes now frame civil society organizing in Brazil. First, the return of representative democracy in the mid- 1980s and the subsequent extension of basic protections permitted many CSOs to engage in contentious political activity. Second, the expansion of participatory institutions now allows CSOs to have unprecedented contact with public officials as well as their fellow CSO leaders in public policy-making processes. Third, Brazil moved toward a neodevelopmentalist state and invested much more heavily in social welfare policies during the country’s economic expansion between 2000 and 2009 (Sugiyama 2012; Montero 2014).

CSOs have lots of strategic options for influencing policymakers and the public. Protesting in public, helping to run political campaigns, forming community organizations, lobbying government officials, and providing expert advice throughout policymaking processes are just some of the ways CSOs engage the state.

But, what explains why some CSOs organize street protests against government policies instead of helping on political campaigns? What explains why other CSOs provide expert policy advice through direct contact with public officials instead of starting a letter-writing campaign? 

What we’re missing is an explanation for why CSOs choose particular strategies to pursue their interests in this new political environment.


How We Explain CSO Strategies

We surveyed 863 CSO leaders across seven Brazilian cities to fill this gap by evaluating what types of CSOs pursue which types of strategies, and why, in a recent paper in The Journal of Politics in Latin America (available here). Although this article focuses on seven Brazilian cities, we argue that our approach is sufficiently broad that our insights can be applied to patterns of political organizing across the region.

Our surveys focused on three distinct areas that served as dependent variables in our analysis: engaging in contentious politics, entering into direct contact with public officials (elected and civil servants), and participating directly in participatory policy-making institutions.

We also collected extensive information about the CSO and its local environment to test hypotheses across three different levels. First, at the macro level, we wanted to know whether CSOs in wealthy cities use different strategies than CSOs in poorer cities. Wealthier cities have greater levels of public resources to spend on social service contracts, a broader middle class, and a more robust administrative structure to support the proliferation of participatory institutions.

Second, at the individual level, we wanted to know whether CSO leaders’ socioeconomic status also influences the CSOs’ strategies. Wealthier leaders’ formal and professional training, their personal networks, and the intangible aspects of social status may be related to power in Brazil.

Third, at the meso level, we examined whether CSOs that hold a contract to deliver state services behave differently than those that do not. This is a meso level factor because it implies that CSOs are (a) formally registered with the state, (b) have the skills and infrastructure to provide social services, and (c) have connections with political leaders to secure government contracts. It thus falls between the individual characteristics of CSO leadership at the micro level and city wealth at the macro level.

The survey data allowed us to create a series of statistical models to explain why certain CSOs are likely to pursue specific strategies. This in turn provides us with a window into the broader issue of how Brazilian state-society relations are being reconstituted based on three outcomes associated with democratization in the country: protestors are now offered civil liberty protections, the government has expanded the contracting and outsourcing of public services to CSOs, and a broad constellation of participatory institutions has emerged at the local, state, and national levels.


Here’s What We Found

Our results show that multilayered explanations improve our understanding of CSO behavior and state-society relations in Brazil and Latin America.

We find that the combination of three factors most accurately explains CSOs’ political strategies.

CSOs from poorer cities–  whose leaders have lower socioeconomic status and do not hold government contracts to provide social services– are most likely to engage the state through direct contact with public officials, be involved in participatory institutions, and use street protests. It is noteworthy that CSOs from the poorest communities engage in a wide range of political activities. Surprisingly, they also appear to have a more diverse set of political strategies than CSOs from wealthier cities and those with wealthier leaders. We argue that the renewal of civil society, the creation of a new party system, and the establishment of new democratic institutions explain why relatively resource-poor organizations are now using a diverse set of strategies (Heller 2012; Sandbrook et al. 2007).

Second, third-sector CSOs in relatively wealthy cities– whose leaders are relatively wealthy and hold government contracts to provide social services– are less engaged with participatory institutions, have limited formal contact with public officials, and avoid protest activities. These organizations meet the profile of third-sector associations, which typically provide social services through government contracts (Bresser-Pereira and Spink 1998; Bresser-Pereira and Grau 1999; Lavalle, Acharya, and Houtzager 2005). Third-sector CSOs tend to be nonpartisan but often leverage their professional and technical know-how to shape and implement public policies. We anticipate the leaders of these organizations will be able to use preexisting networks (e.g., they went to the same university) to engage public officials and to mobilize resources.


Here’s Why it Matters

Our first set of results also reflects scholarship on contentious politics in a new moment, where the state is newly and heavily involved in the political life of the poor (Tarrow 1998). Direct involvement in new democratic institutions does not alter the probability of direct action (protests and contentious activities). Rather, holding government contracts (that outsource service delivery), decreases CSOs’ likelihood of using protest as a political strategy.

Our second findings illustrate the importance of opportunities within Brazil’s neodevelopmentalist state, which leads third-sector CSO participants to use their expert knowledge and technical skills to engage public officials in new ways rather than resorting to contentious politics. CSOs in poorer communities are not necessarily abandoning clientelism or contentious politics, but they are moving beyond a narrow set of choices in order to pursue their interests. Although the state has expanded and engages with the poor in some areas, the poor continue to seek the state out to make their voice heard and gain voting power at the same time.

Finally, our results support scholarship on the reconfiguration of civil society in Latin America following democratization (Brysk 2000; Booth and Richard 1998; Wampler and Avritzer 2004). Opportunities to engage in collective action are more readily available in the current democratic environment, especially in comparison to the extreme difficulties experienced under military dictatorships. New challenges for collective action correspond to the broad diversity of activities CSOs find necessary to achieve their goals. For instance, CSOs must mobilize citizens, engage in incremental policy making, work on campaigns and elections (but not get too close to party officials), and develop broader social and policy networks.

Achieving these goals has gained relevance in recent decades as CSOs build stronger connections between democratic states and society. Understanding how and why CSOs build these connections is thus critical to understanding how democracy works – particularly at the local level. We argue that Brazilian CSO strategies depend on the interaction between a political community’s wealth, the protection of basic civil liberties, the proliferation of new democratic institutions, and the outsourcing of state contracts. In this respect, our research describes and explains important connections between Brazilian democracy and civil society. It also provides a framework for exploring these connections elsewhere in Latin America and, potentially, around the world. 




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