A call to decolonize philanthropy in Brazil


Ester Pinheiro



Decolonization is not just for the Global North. Some researchers in Brazil are stating we don’t need to decolonize philanthropy nationally, that decolonization is something imported or just valid for northern nations. But, they are missing one point — we live in a society permeated by the existence of colonial pacts, practices, and visions. Therefore, we need to understand that the field of philanthropy as a human and social activity is inseparable from the dynamics that permeate society as a whole.

As a colonized nation, we replicate colonizing logic in daily life as well as in philanthropy. In donation relations, there is the pretense of a hierarchical relationship between the donor and the receiver (seen as the ‘other’). From this top-down structure comes an imposition of what the ‘other’ needs, what is best for them, and even the answers on how to transform their reality.

There is an ongoing colonial mindset in Brazilian philanthropy, of donors not recognizing knowledge from local communities in a state of vulnerability. They are not recognized as producers and actors of knowledge, able to produce strategies to improve and advance their communities. This vision excludes their agency and brings ineffective solutions, since there is a lack of understanding of their real needs.

It seems that colonialism has been overcome, but what is implied echoes ancient and distant colonial voices that came to bring ‘culture’ and ‘knowledge’ and ‘technologies’ to people ‘without it’. We are more aware of the impact of colonial subjugation of cultures, but the search for solutions is still under colonial influence. We have to sustain the discomfort of not being as decolonized as we thought we were.

In a country as unequal as Brazil, the accumulation of wealth is a product of historical injustices and inequalities against primarily Black and Indigenous people in centuries of slavery. It is not about demonizing who has more resources today, but no matter how far we go in the discussion about racial and gender inclusion in philanthropy, the debate always ends up being centered by White men from the southeast of Brazil. So, as long there is structural racism, there is a need to decolonize.

How philanthropy in Brazil works? 

In Brazil, philanthropy is developed and centered geographically in the southeast region, mainly in the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and most of the donors are White men. Donations nationally are based on what this particular group of people thinks is the right solution to a given problem, with scant regard to local realities, culture, or societal norms.

Not recognizing that there are colonial practices in Brazilian society and that this directly reflects on philanthropy is a way of turning one’s back on political minorities, on relationships of subordination and oppression. It excludes the presence of different groups that fight for rights and want to have a space in Brazilian philanthropy, mainly in accessing flexible resources, aligned with their agendas and needs.

‘To say decolonization is not needed for philanthropy in the South, we first must reflect: what power relations are present in national philanthropy?’

Stating that Brazilian philanthropy is permeated by colonial views and practices is uncomfortable. It is like putting a finger on the wound, shaking and questioning the actions of traditional actors who have access to wealth and with that, decision-making.

Setting up the discussion on decolonization in the South forces those in power to leave their comfort zone, their place as protagonists. Giving up privileges means giving up power and exclusive access to wealth and, certainly, this is the great challenge we face as a society in Brazil and not just in the field of philanthropy.

Philanthropies in the south should be making reparations for perpetuating colonial systems. Communities most affected by social inequalities in Brazil as quilombolas, riverside, Black and Indigenous mainly in the north and northeast of the country should decide how to best represent and govern endeavors through a community-based approach. Instead of donors from the southeast assuming something needs to be brought to a local community to address its challenges, the question instead should be how a new mindset can be created that brings to bear the wealth, talent, and resources already existing in their community in pursuit of change?

Philanthropy in Brazil requires a radical transformation

There is a need to restructure power in philanthropic relations in the South. Projects in Brazil aimed to support Indigenous communities should let them lead the way. They should state the most urgent challenges, thus curating the type of partnerships that best serve their self-identified needs. Communities must lead the way philanthropy is done and not the opposite.

Local knowledge must leverage local changes without imposing quick solutions from the top down, but rather, strengthening voices and recognizing the power of communities to find their ways to face problems.

Philanthropy in Brazil requires radical transformation, based on new alliances between different territories, regions, and diverse social actors nationally, which leaves no room for a return to the previous state of conformity with the dominant and symbolic colonial power. Philanthropy in Brazil should promote social justice and overcome racism and sexism.

To help Brazilian society as a whole, we need to decolonize philanthropy. Local communities and vulnerable groups that receive resources should be the ones to decide what to do with donations. To say decolonization is not needed for philanthropy in the South, we first must reflect: what power relations are present in national philanthropy? Is there still a ‘savior’ and ‘solver’ of social issues? What is the race and gender of most philanthropists? Is there a community-based approach? For now, we know there is a lot of work to do.


Ester Pinheiro is a Brazilian multimedia journalist covering mostly social justice issues.

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