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The Money Trap: NGO Funding and Political Action in Brazil's Favelas


Does a strong civil society always develop politically engaged citizens? Other researchers have demonstrated a link between civil society and political participation, but I show that this connection is by no means inevitable. Some civil society organizations encourage citizens to participate in the political arena, but others do not. Drawing on data gathered through nearly 200 interviews with staff members of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as participant observation of ten grassroots organizations spanning five favela communities there, I find that the organizations with the greatest financial resources are least active in politically relevant mobilization.

A crucial component of citizenship is the right and duty to participate in political life, but most residents of Rio's favelas suffer from "citizenship poverty." Historical structural inequality, as well as the current influence of drug- and weapons-trafficking gangs, sharply curtail favela residents' ability to exercise their rights as citizens, particularly with respect to collective action. Some favela residents have created small "social benefit" CSOs to address community needs, principally around issues of employment and health care. However, social benefit CSOs do not have sufficient levels of resources to mobilize, much less advocate for broader citizenship rights.

"Golden" CSOs also work within Rio's favelas. These large, well-funded organizations have a strong international reputation and could direct some of their resources toward collective action. In practice, however, golden CSOs undertake tame activities that pose no challenge to anyone in large part due to the "civil society resource curse." Just as discovering oil is usually assumed to bring economic advantages to a nation, we might expect resource-rich golden CSOs to bring the most benefits to communities at the local level. Similar to countries rich in natural resources, however, golden CSOs are also dependent on a single source of revenue, usually grants from large foundations. In turn, the process of obtaining funding encourages golden CSOs to build elite-led, relatively isolated organizations that conduct donor-driven activities. Such an organizational profile is ideal for winning grants, but not for connecting citizens with the political arena. While many golden CSOs do good work within Rio's most marginalized communities, they tend to avoid political activity and do not address the citizenship deficit that exists.

With much smaller budgets and fewer tangible resources, grassroots "citizenship" CSOs seem to be unlikely candidates for galvanizing favela residents, yet these organizations are the very ones that have taken the lead. Instead of focusing on grant funding, citizenship CSOs seek out many types of resources from multiple sources. In doing so, they face a different set of organizational incentives, which encourage local leadership, broad networks, and extraordinary flexibility in choosing their activities. Such an organizational profile allows citizenship CSOs to draw on their connections, credibility, and ingenuity to conduct political action targeting both society and the state.

My analysis demonstrates that merely building civil society is not enough to guarantee a politically active citizenry. CSOs with singular and narrow resource acquisition strategies are particularly unlikely to pose challenges to the political status quo. In turn, donors who want to achieve social, economic, and political outcomes by building civil society should pay attention to the incentives present within the local context, particularly those that shape the funding arena.

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