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The future of Brazilian civil society

Reos Partners
October, 2013

Discover how scenarios for the future of Brazilian society were incorporated into strategic planning processes for civil society organizations, and how they led to new partnerships.


In 2013, a series of public demonstrations led some observers to comment that a “giant had awoken.” Our Transformative Scenarios process engaged players from civil society organizations, social movements, governmental agencies, the private sector, and universities in imagining possible futures for organized civil society in Brazil.

Participants took part in Dialogue Interviews, workshops, and collective writing to develop four scenarios. The scenarios were named after well-known children’s games. This was meant to create a language that would be recognisable across the country, highlight archetypal dynamics, and bring lightness to an otherwise serious conversation.

These narratives laid the foundation for building national consciousness of the challenges ahead, and of civil society’s potential to shape Brazil. “The scenarios play an important role in making visible the differences, contradictions, and divergent interests,” said Andre Degenszajn of the Group of Corporate Foundations and Institutes, “and this can strengthen the capacity of civil society to articulate itself, to reflect, and to look to the future.”


Reos co-convened this project with two entities: the General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic and D3 Articulation for Democracy, Dialogue, and Rights. Project partners within D3 included Avina Foundation, C&A Institute, Getúlio Vargas Foundation, Forum for the Eastern Amazon, the Network of Independent Foundations, Kellogg Foundation, the Group of Corporate Foundations and Institutes, and the Brazilian Association of NGOs. Additional funding came from the Unibanco Institute and the Telefônica Foundation.


This transformative scenarios process was convened at a time when Brazilian civil society was facing three interlinked challenges. Firstly, widespread street protests in 2013 reflected a society influenced by new technologies, new ways of organising, and people’s newfound confidence in expressing their concerns and claiming their rights. These new phenomena caught the established NGO sector by surprise and to question old truths. Secondly, over the past 10 years as Brazil has become recognized as an emerging economy, changes in funding for civil society organisations—from both international and domestic sources—have led to instability and shifts in the sector. And thirdly, the Brazilian federal government was in 2013 in a process of redefining how it relates to, funds, and contracts with civil society organisations.

The scenarios

The year 2013 was a period of significant uncertainty but also potential for civil society in Brazil. In this context, the “Civil Society 2023” project brought together a wide diversity of players from civil society organizations, social movements, government, the private sector, and universities in a process of workshops, dialogue interviews, and collective scenario writing.

The result was a set of four scenarios named after popular Brazilian children’s games. The group chose this naming system because the features that differentiate the scenarios have to do with the rules of the game: how to advance, what are the traps, who calls the shots, who wins and who loses.   The names were recognizable across the country, highlighted the archetypal dynamics reflected in the scenarios, and brought some lightness to an otherwise serious conversation.

In “O Mestre Mandou” (“Master’s Orders”or “Simon says”), market forces dominate civil society and government, and the government is highly technocratic and controlling. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are under investigation for corruption, and those opposed to market domination are seen as anti-patriotic. Only the organizations that establish themselves as service providers to the government and companies survive.

In “Passa Anel” (Pass the Ring”), Brazil appears to be doing better than it really is. The government and media adopt the discourse of inclusion and human rights, but their actions don’t reflect their words.  This “pasteurization” of the discourse makes it increasingly difficult to denounce human rights violations and to distinguish between different political agendas. It becomes hard for CSOs to know who the “enemy” is because while everyone speaks their language, and the mechanisms for social participation appear to be in place, problems aren’t being alleviated and citizen influence on public policy is low. In general, public policies aren’t being implemented as needed.

In “Amarelinha” (“Hopscotch”), Brazilian society takes a neoconservative turn. Political leaders emerge through the democratic process who, in the name of protecting family and property, create setbacks for human rights. Organizations that defend minority rights are increasingly excluded from government partnerships. The large media companies are dominated by religious groups and are dependent on government propaganda. Confessional religious education is considered a priority in public schools. At the same time, human rights organizations create innovative action strategies based on new information technologies, network models, and social technologies — an approach that reinvigorates their struggle.

In “Ciranda” (a Brazilian circle dance), civil society, the private sector, government, and citizens cooperate interdependently, and citizens manage to participate in the definition, monitoring, and evaluation of public policies. CSOs invest significantly in communication and new technologies that effectively enable social participation. Younger people manage to create an intergenerational synergy with members of the “old guard,” unifying a tendency toward innovation and instantaneous communication with a grounding in history and political savvy.

The debate

To debate which of these scenarios and tendencies seem most probable and the implications of these potential futures for Brazilian civil society, some of the 2013 project participants, along with other players in the field, will gather in São Paulo in November 2018 to engage in renewed dialogue and analyze the post-electoral context. This session will use the scenarios to support a systemic reflection on the role organized citizens can or should play in a country divided by economic apartheid and political extremes.

In 2013, some of the biggest street protests in Brazil’s history put into question practically all of its social institutions, including government, political parties, NGOs, and student unions. Today, the questioning has polarized in a seemingly irrational way. Some are afraid the “communists” will take the country, producing a new and much larger Venezuela. Others foresee the return of the military to power in service of the “free market,” as military leaders promised during their 1964-1985 rule.

The reality in Brazil tends to be more nuanced than the narratives that arise during national elections. The political system has historically been dominated by a wide so-called “center” that has been part of practically all governments since the country declared its independence from Portugal in 1822. So, no matter who is the president, there is hope that Brazil will find its way somewhere between the extremes that have disturbed so many Sunday family lunches along this year.

Many of the questions raised by the Civil Society 2023 scenarios persist, including:

  • If collaboration among diverse social actors will prevail or more centralized forms of policy will take place,
  • If new and stronger influencing mechanisms will be applied,
  • If increased transparency will further expose corruption and lack of accountability,
  • If civil society will be fragmented or coherent and if it will draw on the strengths of different generations

These are cards that are still being dealt by history.


The four scenarios developed by the group were disseminated through a website, social media, four specific launch events and dialogues in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as through dialogue sessions at existing forums including the Thematic Social Forum in Porto Alegre, the Pan-Amazonic Social Forum, the World Forum on Human Rights, the Congress of Brazilian foundations and corporate institutes (GIFE), the II Symposium on the Legal Framework for Civil Society in Brazil, and the global WINGS congress. In a time of uncertainty, they offered a helpful language for Brazilian civil society organizations to discuss their changing context.

The scenarios were incorporated into strategic planning processes of civil society organizations, and led to new partnerships across participating institutions. One example of such a partnership emerged between an organization working with indigenous populations in the Amazon region and a community radio network.

At a policy level, the learning from the scenarios was incorporated into the process of formulating the new legal framework governing the relationship between government and civil society and facilitated the relationships among the leaders from both sectors involved in those negotiations.

Finally, this project contributed to sparking two further transformative scenarios projects: the Scenarios on the future of Education in Brazil, and the Scenarios for the future of Democracy in Latin America.

Over the past five years, the Civil Society 2023 scenario team members have continued to contribute to sustainability and social development in Brazil in their different spheres of influence. They and many others who have been exposed to the scenarios have commented on how prophetic those potential futures feel in light of current political events. When the dust has settled from the elections, we look forward to reconvening to deepen the messages of the scenarios and the guidance they offer on how to advance the work of civil society in the changing Brazilian context.


"These scenarios demonstrate that the Brazilian civil society is a historic force that can't be ignored, that is here to stay, to transform, and to participate in building a new model for development."
— Vera Masagão, ABONG (Brazilian Association of NGOs)

"The scenarios play an important role in making visible the differences, contradictions, and divergent interests, and this can strengthen the capacity of civil society to articulate itself, to reflect, and to look to the future."
— Andre Degenszajn, GIFE (the Group of Corporate Foundations and Institutes)

"The main potential this process opens up is that through the construction of narratives, we can build consciousness, more than consensus, of the challenges that we face over the coming 10 years."
— Laís Lopes, General Secretariat of the Presidency of the Republic of Brazil

Visit the project website.

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