In 2013, a cross-sectoral team created four scenarios of what Brazilian civil society might be like in 2023. Halfway into this timeframe, some of the negative outcomes look more probable, considering the historically polarized presidential elections that have dominated the political debate in the country for the past many months.
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.
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.
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.