Change the Game in Brazil: ‘The West can learn from how we do things here!’

Merely a month ago Brazil was in the spotlights as the host of the World Cup and in two years time the South American country will organise the Olympic Games. Important signs of the strong economic growth that Brazil has managed to maintain over the last decade. However, poverty is still rife in the country. To some it is therefore incomprehensible that the country spends billions of dollars on the preparation of these events while at the same time there are still so many people living below the poverty line. What role can local fundraising and claim-making play in the fight against poverty? Are Brazilians willing to share their newly gained wealth?

Together with the other BRIC countries, China, India and Russia, Brazil is among the top 10 of the world’s largest economies. Under the leadership of former President Lula, the economy of the South American country grew steadily and its political power on the world stage increased significantly. Brazil also made substantial progress in poverty reduction. With its Zero Hunger policy and Bolsa Familia, a system of cash transfers, Brazil managed to get more than 20 million people above the poverty line and lift a large part of its population to the middle class. Brazil is one of the few countries in the world where inequality has decreased in recent years. Since the beginning of this century, Brazil has also become a major donor in international development. The country has allocated funds for development programmes in Africa and provides agricultural expertise to low and middle income countries. The incumbent president Dilma Roussef, seems to continue the approach of her predecessor and poverty alleviation remains an important topic on the political agenda.

Shadow side

This success story is the one the Brazilian government likes to share with the world and it proudly presents itself as a middle income country. Consequently, this resulted in a large decrease of international development funds flowing to the country. However, this is only one side of the story as there is still large inequality between the country’s rich and poor. While the number of millionaires and billionaires has increased significantly in recent years- the 124 richest Brazilians have more than 10% of the total wealth- almost 10 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line of $1.25 per day. This inequality is not the only reason for concern: it also shows the great potential there is for ​​mobilising resources for development programmes locally.  The question is however, whether the Brazilian society is willing to share its wealth.

‘In theory, the potential of ​​fundraising in Brazil is huge, but the reality is more complex,’ says Viviane Hermida of CESE, a local organization that defends the rights of the marginalized population in Brazil. ‘Together with economic growth, the Brazilian society has seen strong individualisation and in general the middle class would rather close its eyes to the social inequality than act upon it’. The rise and enormous popularity of Pentecostal churches in Brazil, who preach according to a capitalist welfare theory, strengthen this sense of individualism and self-determination, according Hermida. ‘I did it myself and therefore others can do this too’, is what many people believe according to her. This results in less willingness to donate for poverty alleviation.

According to João Paulo Vergueiro, president of the Brazilian Association of Fundraisers, the lack of a strong Brazilian culture of giving is also a result of the role that the government has created for itself. ‘Because the government has played such a prominent role in development in the past, many people still see it as the responsibility of the government. “We already pay taxes” is often said when it comes to contributing money to development.’


Organisations in Brazil have to do really step up in the coming period, according to Verguiero. ‘Most  local organisations in Brazil have been established by the church and were largely funded by religious institutions and foreign subsidies. As a result, they never had to raise funds themselves and are therefor rather inexperienced and very passive in this area,’ Verguiero explains. ‘Many organisations find it difficult to ask people to donate, because they are not used to it. But people in Brazil will not just donate, if you do not ask them you will not receive anything,’ he says.

Hermida agrees that local organisations still have much to learn in terms of local fundraising, but points out that the portrayal of Brazilian organisations as passive actors waiting for their cheque to come in is not correct. ‘We did not just wait for funds all these years without involving the Brazilian society in our work. In many discussions about local fundraising, I hear the argument that local organisations are passive and act according to a Western development agenda, but that is definitely not the case in Brazil. Brazil has a vibrant civil society with active human rights organisations and trade unions that have raised many social issues and initiated great change from the bottom up. ‘So-called claim-making abilities, the ability of local organisations to claim the services to which they are entitled to, are highly developed in Brazil’, according to Hermida. ‘They could learn something from us in the West!’.

Diego Lobo, head of fundraising and communications at CESE, illustrates this statement of his colleague with an example. ‘In May this year CESE received an MDG Award for our work. In preparation for this event we, along with a large number of local ngo’s, prepared a statement in which we asked the president to adjust the policy on civil society organisations. During the ceremony, which was watched live by millions of Brazilians, we presented this statement to the president who promised to address this issue with the parliament. That is the real claim-making. ”


According to Lobo, organisations could take more advantage of the Brazilian sense of solidarity. ‘Solidarity and justice are concepts that are deeply rooted in the Brazilian culture. The protests during the World Cup last summer are a good example of this. More than two million people protested for better living conditions. People of the middle class and of the lower class walked hand in hand.’ Although a shared development agenda was missing, according to Lobo organizations can learn important lessons from these protests. ‘We have to involve people on a personal level in development processes in order to show them that they really are able to contribute. Providing people with a developmental perspective is the first step.’

The argument for using a personal approach is strengthened by the experiences the Brazilian children’s rights organization Abrinq. What started as a small initiative of the toy industry to address child labor has now become one of the most successful fundraising organisations in Brazil. The past three years the organisation has seen an increase of regular donors from 3000 to 60,000 and according to Victor Alcantara da Graça, fundraising director of the organisation, it is mainly the personal approach to fundraising that is effective. ‘We work a lot with face-to-face fundraising where we visit people and tell them more about our organisation. We try to make our goal, the elimination of child labor, as personal as possible.’


What also helped, according to Alcantara da Graça, is the reputation that the foundation has generated in recent years. This is partly the result of the collaboration with Save the Children, which was initiated five years ago. ‘It was a win-win situation,’ Alcantara da Graça explains. ‘We wanted our brand to have a strong foundation in society and they wanted to have a good partner organisation in Brazil with whom they could respond on the potential of local fundraising.’

Lobo sees this cooperation as part of a broader trend in which international organisations are increasingly being registered locally in order to benefit from the fundraising potential in Brazil. ‘International organisations have the idea that there is something to be gained here in the field of fundraising and register en masse here.’ According to him, this could potentially increase the competition between international organisations and local organisations that have been here longer.

According to Vergueiro, the Brazilian civil society should not worry about this. He actually sees this trend as a positive development for Brazil. ‘International organisations can actually help us in developing the charity market in Brazil by raising awareness on development issues and to build confidence within development organizations. By successfully raising local funds they set a positive example and show us that it is actually possible.’ But isn’t this happening at the expense of local fundraising organisations? ‘No’, Verguiro laughs, ‘In Brazil there is enough for everyone.’