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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Mobilizing the Grassroots from Above: Political Engagement among AIDS Associations in Democratic Brazil


This paper investigates efforts to engage grassroots groups in the political arena from the perspective of the state. Whereas most of the current literature conceptualizes grassroots mobilization as a bottom-up phenomenon, in Brazil the state has taken an active role in mobilizing new groups that simultaneously provide social services and make policy demands on government. This paper describes the exemplary case of mobilization around AIDS in Brazil to suggest that under certain conditions the state may take an active role in breaking down socioeconomic barriers toward accessing the political arena.

Specifically, I suggest that government bureaucrats in Brazil are engaging a wide array of associations in AIDS policy as organized interests, due to a strong dependence on collaboration with grassroots associations to further their policy goals. Moreover, I highlight three principal strategies through which the Brazilian state is targeting associations for mobilization: by creating new formal “participatory” political institutions; by developing informal channels of communication between state bureaucrats and grassroots leaders; and by using large amounts of public funding to support grassroots AIDS associations. I describe in detail both the state’s role in engaging associations to participate in AIDS policy and the motivations behind this effort as a way to explore the dynamics of what may be a broader phenomenon occurring in Brazil.

The empirical data used in the paper draws from a broader research project that took place over one and a half years of fieldwork conducted in Brazil, involving in-depth interviews with approximately 90 grassroots leaders and key government officials in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, and Washington, D.C.,,observation of major political and policymaking meetings, and an ongoing mixed-mode (paper and internet) survey which to date has garnered 90 responses (39% of the sample) from directors of grassroots associations in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

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