LSE research in Brazil’s favelas has demonstrated the importance of community-level actors to reduce urban social exclusion.
What was the problem?
The United Nations (UN)’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal is to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable” by 2030. Stigma, violence, and social exclusion present significant barriers to achieving this.
Urban communities such as Brazil’s favelas face harsh conditions of living, including poverty, violence, and segregation. They are routinely excluded from the rest of the city and have little access to state institutions and services. How life courses are determined in these communities, and what institutional factors can engender positive, sustainable, and long-term change, are vital questions for those who live there, and for policymakers at local, national, and international levels.
What did we do?
LSE research led by Professor Sandra Jovchelovitch has investigated institutional, social, and psychological determinants of self and community development in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The research demonstrated that the abilities and skills of people living in poverty should be recognised and used, and they should be understood as creative innovators in leading bottom-up social development. This research builds on Professor Jovchelovitch’s work on the social psychology of public spheres, community participation, social representations, and individual and social change.
The LSE research team pioneered an inter-institutional and international research partnership bringing together universities and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) with the charitable foundations of the Brazilian Itaú Bank and two local favela NGOs, AfroReggae and Central Unica das Favelas (CUFA). The favela NGOs were active contributors, holding a dual role as partners in the research and research participants.
The work provided new evidence about the institutional frameworks that shape individual and community development in the favelas. It elucidated the role of the drug trade as provider, legislator, and organiser of everyday life, offering a parallel system of behavioural codes, as well as a “professional career” for favela youth. It also showed that favela NGOs act as “parents by proxy”, competing directly with drug gangs to provide role models and opportunities for young people.
The research showed that the unique characteristics of a new type of favela-born NGO (of which AfroReggae and CUFA are examples) are vital to social development, helping to make cities resilient and sustainable. These organisations operate at multiple levels and hold multiple identities – as social movements, entrepreneurs, artists, activists, and social workers. Their members are local people who share other residents’ experiences of growing up and living in a favela community.
In contrast to “mainstream” aid programmes, bottom-up organisations do not come from outside and do not withdraw once their objectives have been fulfilled. They take a three-pronged strategy involving: i) a combined focus on the individual and community; ii) use of the arts to reinvent social representations of themselves and their future; and iii) action on internal city borders through innovative partnerships with business, government, and international organisations. Favela NGOs act as a “stand-in” for myriad institutions including the state and even the private sector. They support the development of skills, organise employment, and promote a new set of positive representations of the favelas, of favela-dwellers, and of the city. LSE researchers defined these provisions as “psychosocial scaffoldings” – actions and structures supporting human development at individual and social levels, which become key sources of resilience.
This has important implications both for the theoretical understanding of the sociological foundations of human development, and for the development of social policy. The research evidence strongly supports the inclusion of bottom-up local NGOs as partners in designing and implementing public policy. From this research LSE, UNESCO, and the favela organisations produced a toolkit of concepts and methods for implementing bottom-up social development.
This novel research partnership supported sustained interactions between favela residents, NGO leaders, academic, governmental, and international organisations. Its findings highlighted the contribution of community-level actors to making cities safe and inclusive, and provided new tools to help realise this goal.
UNESCO was a key partner and the research has influenced its work – and many of its partners in turn. UNESCO has used the toolkit, which was published in Spanish, Portuguese, and English, to incorporate bottom-up models of social development and the knowledge of disenfranchised citizens into its activities. This has included interventions with national governments and participation in UN meetings particularly in Latin America but also, increasingly, the Middle East.
The work has also helped to promote a new, shared understanding within Brazil of the value of incorporating citizens’ knowledge into policymaking. It catalysed the Brazilian government to initiate joint platforms to better include favela citizens and grassroots organisations in policy formulation and debate. In 2015, Brazil’s Department for Social Development and Fight Against Hunger worked with UNESCO, the Brazilian Mission at the UN, and favela organisation CUFA on a new policy on urban poverty and development. This was launched at the Economic and Social Council Chamber of the UN in New York. Here CUFA was representing previously marginalised voices in high-level policy discussions.
The research itself has also directly supported capacity-building among community organisations in Brazil. Grassroots NGOs’ participation provided new opportunities for these groups to meet and speak to policymakers, urban planners, governments, and other NGOs in the global South (and, indeed, the global North, with CUFA subsequently establishing offices in New York and Madrid). As CUFA’s CEO, Celso Athayde, explained:
"From the moment we have a partnership of this kind … we are seen in a different way. We start to have more power, more space to speak, and to be heard in a different way."
The tools, opportunities, and vocabulary provided by the research were used by Athayde to set up a new organisation, Favela Holding, which has pulled together 25 companies to support the development of favelas and their residents; its operations now employ some 2,000 people, many of them favela-dwellers.
Favela residents who participated in the research also reported significantly improved understanding and a more positive image of themselves and their neighbourhoods. In a workshop, 98 per cent of participants considered the work to have been useful to them and 91 per cent expected to be able to use the knowledge gained from the research. According to Athayde, this has helped favela inhabitants demand more from those who should support them:
"These contributions to increased capacity and enhanced self-esteem among research participants make an important wider contribution to the inclusivity, resilience, safety, and sustainability of the communities in which they live and work."