1992 Earth Summit was just over. Rio inhabitants suffered from an
exceptional worrying period of violence and widespread poverty. In this
depressing year of 1993, an exceptional person stood up, a man called
Betinho. He started a new “NGO”. This concept had become
popular to the Brazilian public opinion thanks to the Summit. They
suddenly found out that not just the State and business are entitled to
act, but also people : “civil society”. In Rio, 58
inhabitants per 100.000 inhabitants got killed by gunfire, whereas
Brazil' s average (which is pretty bad) is 17... Something needed
to be done about it. Betinho wanted to de-glorify violence and
egocentric wealth. He became extremely popular and was lovingly
referred to as “the Gandhi of Brazil”. The then president
of Network Cultures, Rubem C. Fernandes, worked hand-in-hand with
Betinho and developed a very interesting and unusual citizens'
movement in Rio, called “Viva Rio”. What follows is a
report on what I saw, when in Rio last fall, at the occasion of Network
Cultures' Board Meeting.
It was a good feeling to be back in Brazil after so many
years, ten years I think. Andre Porto, our friend who co-ordinates
activities for the Viva Rio movement with Rubem C. Fernandes, took us
to our first visit of the day. The van stopped in front of the main
barracks of the Rio State Police ! We entered this place, once the very
symbol of evil, of brutal repression under the military dictatorship.
Today, part of Rio' s police is notoriously brutal, corrupt and
arbitrary. Conversely, some enlightened officers are open to
constructive citizen dialogue and to a positive, friendly approach of
their job. To be driven into this ill-famous place by an NGO looked
almost surrealistic. There we were, NGOs having supported people,
organisations and human rights, greeted by bemedalled colonels,
military police in flashy uniforms and ... our own partner Rubem Cesar
Fernandes. It was not a bad dream. It was part of a campaign initiated
by the “Viva Rio” movement to invite policemen to become
aware of their potentially positive role in society. This is the
alternative to the old confrontational approach : tell the police how
important they are, what expectations civilian population has from them
... The miracle is : it seems to work ! Arbitrariness is on the
decrease as people cajole “their” police into playing their
role properly, without violence and with less corruption ... We were
taken to these barracks to witness a most astonishing event. This was
the celebration of the end of a big anti-weapons campaign entitled
“Rio deixa esta arma”, “Rio, put down this
gun!”. Violence, murders, stray bullets took an unbearably high
toll on the daily life of Rio inhabitants. Our friends from Rio started
this campaign and they were able to gather 1.300.000 signatures of
people in this megacity. They will be sent to the President of the
Republic who contemplates to present a bill banning the sale of weapons
in Brazil. The holding of the celebration in the barracks was a subtle
invitation to police to exercise restraint and to become aware that
peace and order are ideals cherished by a great deal of civilians. In
other words : they are not all potential criminals; civilians are
developing a culture of peace and the trigger-happy police is asked to
adhere to this new culture.
This is just one example of the imaginative actions launched
by “Viva Rio” (which means “May Rio live”).
Rubem' s vision is revolutionary. He thinks that left-right
confrontational politics have a limit and that it must be complemented
by a new vision of holistic citizenship. The idea is : nobody is happy
in a city where people die of hunger and violence. To be proud of
one' s city means to get involved so as to stop these unbearable
situations. The bishop and the prostitute, the banker and the student,
the manager and the housewife ... are all interested in a more humane
city. So let them all join efforts : the “Hare Krishna”
adepts, the black radicals, the tourist industry people, gays, the
samba schools and the Evangelicals ... The beauty of it all is : it
I visited the Rocinha favela, Latin America' s biggest
slum. “Viva Rio” has developed there, besides its
anti-violence campaign, a number of fascinating and innovative actions.
They are further explained in this issue. I loved talking to
Teófilo who created a bank for the poor, offering micro-credit
to slum-dwellers; to Monica, a young lawyer giving assistance to people
to resolve their conflicts; to Marcio helping brutalised youngsters to
rediscover beauty and tenderness by tending (public) gardens and
flowers; to Jorge Luis who sets up an insurance broker' s company
specialising in cheap insurance for the poor, to Fulano who
co-ordinates a schooling programme for young and adult slumdwellers who
dropped out of school, to Pedro who heads various “law
shops” which help favela dwellers solve their problems in common.
All of them enthusiastic and creative people.
What strikes me in the “Viva Rio” is that this is
not an ordinary NGO. I will try to say why :
1. “Viva Rio” is a fully autonomous Brazilian NGO. It was
not set up by a donor agency nor does it depend on foreign funding. It
gets state and municipality subsidies and is increasingly
self-sufficient thanks to its own profit-generating activities, e.g.
the insurance brokers company, the microcredit bank, etc. Business is
sponsoring its activities. Airlines offers it their unused lunch and
dinner packages. The electricity board adds a bank document for its
clients so they can make a donation to “Viva Rio” in
addition to paying their electricity bill.
2. “Viva Rio” works along a new paradigm which is insisting
on consciousness, change of mentality, the gradual acquisition of a
culture of peace and of renewed citizenship. Rubem C. Fernandes says :
this is a “post cold war” paradigm, where we must learn to
look at society as a whole and seek synergy among the various sectors
of society, be they trade unions or multinationals, churches, sports
clubs or discotheques, social activists or yuppies. Of course, this
approach does not ignore existing contradictions but it chooses to
ignore them while pursuing its immediate and important aims. Still,
that raises criticism among some in the classical left. My feeling is
that there is room for both approaches : the necessary confrontation of
wild capitalism; and the synergy to turn this megacity in a better
place to live in as of now.
3. “Viva Rio” is a brilliant example of a lively social and
cultural movement engendered by civil society and looking for a change
of mentality at large and the empowerment of civil society. In this
sense, it is a deeply democratic movement. Yet it is not reduced to
US-inspired democracy, based on individualism and laisser-faire
capitalism. On the contrary, Viva Rio is encouraging community
initiatives and alternative approaches to economics. This may not be
socialism. Yet, it is not tooing the line of neo-liberal ideology
either. It is original, genuine, Brazilian, “Carioca”. And
it works ! It leads slowly to another culture of citizenship. That is
why we, in the South North Network Cultures and Development believe in
“Viva Rio”. It is a deeply Cultural Movement. It renews
self-esteem and gives meaning to life.
When asked about
the reasons of Viva Rio' s success, Andre Porto mentions :
- Inclusiveness and neutrality. Viva Rio was open to all, parties,
religions, MNCs, trade unions, bars...;
- Media coverage, as directors of major media are on Viva Rio' s
- Strengthening existing NGOs and civil society initiatives rather than
competing with them.
favelas, we worked with existing NGOs. Our projects provided them with
equipments. 300 NGOs in poor areas were strengthened. Our policy was
one of empowerment and inclusiveness. A lot of NGOs used to work in an
isolated way. Now they are part of a strategic plan and form a broad
family : “Viva Rio”. Today “Viva Rio” works
with 200 of the 600 favelas. We aim to work in all of them.”
Today “Viva Rio” is a concept. People can even
choose for a credit bank carrying the logo of “Viva Rio”.
Is this corruption of NGO “purity” or simply an effort at
common sensical efficiency sought by a new style NGO ? The question is
worth asking. As far as I am concerned, I know may answer : “Viva
Rio” makes a lot of sense and works hard at producing a new
culture. This is not enough to change society. But it helps a lot to
relieve problems which might last too long if one keeps waiting for a
hypothetical radical revolution. So, good luck “Viva Rio” !
And bravo Rubem and Andre, Monica, Teofilo, Marcio and all the others.
Keep the faith !