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By Thierry Verhelst

The 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 works !

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 Board.;
- Strengthening existing NGOs and civil society initiatives rather than competing with them.

“In 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 !

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