Re-interpreting the role of NGOs in managing the pandemic in favelas

Conférence Pour Le Brésil
5 min readApr 27, 2021
Slum in Grajaú, São Paulo, SP. Photo by : Danilo Alvesd on Unsplash

by Julia Rennó Guimarães

Slums are far from being the most favorable spaces for social isolation. Between narrow streets or the lack of basic sanitation, it has often been stressed how difficult it is for slum dwellers to protect themselves from the Covid-19. The pandemic exposed the deeply unequal structure of Brazilian society. But still, many insist in saying that the virus does not discriminate.

In the midst of the health crisis, many newspaper articles have romanticized the role of NGOs and civil society in the favelas, as slums are called in Brasil. It is true that the role these groups are playing is what keeps the slums from collapsing, and what allows many families to still be able to support and feed themselves over these past months. But are they really the ones who should fulfill this role? Isn’t it the State who should be responsible for responding to these new demands?

Between the (lack of) management of the pandemic and a previous public policy crisis…

In Brazil, there was (or there is) no crisis management plan. The country was already going through a democratic and economic crisis much before the coronavirus arrived in the country. In the case of Rio de Janeiro, the pandemic adds to the former mayor’s crisis of legitimacy and the literal lack of a governor, after the removal of Governor Wilson Witzel, due to suspicions of fraud in health purchases during the pandemic. The SUS (Sistema Único de Saúde, the Unified Health Care System) had already been weakened for years, by the lack of transfer of resources and by the government’s favoring of private health plans. When the pandemic hits Brazil, it hits a government that is already weakened and poorly articulated. Even worse, it hits an impoverished population, with high unemployment rates and that had recently just been dragged back to the Map of Hunger.

As if this catastrophic scenario was not enough, the pandemic crisis is added to a previous public policy crisis. The emergency aid has been filling a gap that already existed; it supplements an income that was already low. For the past few months, the emergency aid has been decreasing, while prices have only increased. With a pão francês (traditional individual bread) costing 1 Real, the emergency aid cannot feed a family. But if we can take something positive out of all this, and excluding the political game behind the maintenance of an insufficient and faulty aid, the pandemic seemed to open a window of opportunity to take care of those who were forgotten. Nonetheless, this aid should have existed long ago, and 150 Reais is not enough.

Favelas have suffered from a lack of basic services such as piped water or even public transportation for a long time, long before the pandemic reached Brazil. The chronic and structural absence of the state in most informal territories has been explored by scholars and activists for a long time, but more than absence, we need to talk about a contradictory presence.

In Rio de Janeiro, there are more schools in the Maré slum cluster than in the municipality of Maricá. The question is not only one of presence or absence of the State, but one of quality. Are there teachers in the schools? Are there medicines and beds in the health centers? In a slum cluster of more than 140 thousand inhabitants like Maré (we are talking about more than 16 slums), there is not a single police station or a public defender’s office. There is not even one instance of justice. Raull Santiago, co-founder of Coletivo Papo Reto, has pointed out more than once how the State’s presence in the slums is sometimes seen only through (often failed) public security strategies. And because of this heterogeneous presence, NGOs have always tried to fill in the gaps that remain. And now, even more than before, these gaps have been multiplied.

… And the forced outsourcing of NGOs

Faced with the humanitarian crisis, NGOs found themselves in a paradoxical situation. Civil society groups are not the state, and it is not their role to be. OSs (Social Organizations) aside, these groups cannot be seen as outsourcing from the state: this would neither be fair to their mission, nor would it be desirable to unaccount the state for its obligations. But in an emergency situation, NGOs like Redes da Maré took charge of actions, even knowing that those were not their responsibility. But if not them, then who?

The pandemic forced NGOs and civil society groups to reorganize in a way they had never had to before. In the short term, they had to adapt to a logistical and technological challenge, and many started questioning their mission. The simple challenge of trying to be objective in the distribution of food baskets becomes not only ethical, but also psychological, for many staff members who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders.

In a few days, Redes da Maré interrupted its ongoing actions to focus primarily on fighting the pandemic: from the distribution of food baskets to the dissemination of information about the virus or basic health care. In the case of Maré, we are clearly talking about the third sector supporting public authorities: the context intensified the collaboration between Redes and health clinics, through listening and articulating the new demands that clinics were facing. Redes da Maré contributed, for example, with the purchase of the PPE (Personal Protection Equipment) used in the health clinics. In partnership with Dados do Bem and SAS, through the Conexão Saúde (Health Connection) project, Redes was able to offer teleconsultations and testing to the population, since there were no Covid-19 test kits in the health centers. Contextualized actions were also put into practice, such as Isolamento Seguro (Safe Isolation), taking into consideration the most feasible or realistic type of isolation for each individual or family.

However, many organisations faced many challenges to put their projects into practice in the same way. Small NGOs, with fewer resources or less visibility have had much more difficulty in raising funds for the distribution of food, hygiene materials, or even to maintain their employees. And yet, through a massive mobilization on social networks, campaigns like Tem Gente Com Fome (People Are Hungry) have managed to bring together several organizations to raise collective funds through crowdfunding.

Public authorities and NGOs always need to dialogue, and the outcomes of this dialogue are mutually beneficial. But dialoguing does not mean overlapping. We do need to recognize and value the work of NGOs and various civil society groups that have worked hard and continue working day and night to guarantee a minimal dignity and basic survival conditions to thousands of families affected by the economic crisis in Covid-19: without them, many families would not have the guarantee of being able to have their next meal. However, we need to open our eyes and understand why this role was and still is so necessary. And even more importantly, we need to understand who should have acted, and did not. If the NGOs’ action were necessary, it is precisely because the State did not fulfill its role.

** This article was based on an interview with Redes da Maré, a civil society institution that produces knowledge, develops projects and actions to strengthen the rights of 140,000 residents of Maré’s 16 slums. In addition, it is one of the partner organizations of Pour le Brésil.



Conférence Pour Le Brésil

🇧🇷 Uma conferência sobre e para o Brasil feita por alunos da Sciences Po | 🇫🇷 Une conférence sur et Pour le Brésil | 🇬🇧 A conference on and for Brazil