A week in Brazil: Learnings from TPW’s global journey


Sam Underwood


It is a curious consequence of the pandemic that so many have turned inwards and lost a global perspective. Not just in terms of what we do, but also of what we consider relevant for our learning.

TPW’s 2023 Global Journey to Brazil was a reminder of why looking outside of Europe and North America is so important, whether or not we are funding there. In a week in São Paulo and the Amazon, we visited six different communities and met over 100 Brazilian social change leaders, and it still felt like we were scratching the surface in terms of the innovation and ideas in the country.

Below are some of our takeaways from the week, knowing that they are applicable across Brazil and beyond:

1. On urgency: an authoritarian Government brought a lot of media and funder attention to Brazil, and united civil society in a way that encouraged unprecedented collaboration. Sadly, a lot of that support has dissipated since Lula’s victory, based on assumptions that the threat has passed. Civil society is left underfunded right at the moment there is finally an opportunity for dialogue with Government and systemic change. One partner shared confidentially that there are early signs that the withdrawal of funding risks imposing a scarcity mindset to the sector, bringing the inevitable competition for resources that makes collaboration so difficult.

As political expert Oliver Stuenkel shared in our opening session – a message repeated consistently by partners across the programme – the time for funders to engage is now. The impetus for action is very clear, with elections in four years and the Amazon reaching tipping points that could turn it into a savannah within a similar time frame. To meet the moment, we need to broaden our understanding of urgency beyond the avoidance of immediate, visceral threats, like the ones posed by regressive electoral candidates. We have to channel this same sense of urgency when windows of opportunity address root causes and prevent us reaching points of no return – otherwise the sector will do little more than fire-fighting and will struggle to make lasting change.

2. On proximity: The connection of power and place is very visible in Brazil, with whole communities kept at the ‘periphery’ both geographically and politically. The word ‘marginal’ in Portuguese has taken on a pejorative meaning along the lines of ‘delinquent,’ indicative of the stigma that comes with being excluded from centres of wealth and power. In response, social justice organizations have nurtured deep roots with the community and culture and occupy space to resist exclusion and attack. They have built relationships with the communities over decades and rely on these relationships to stay informed.

For funders, the first step is to recognise that no site visit or focus group can substitute for this deeply proximate leadership. The question is less how to ‘get proximate’ and more to move resources in a way that recognises the importance of this proximity. This might include participatory grantmaking guided by partners from communities, or moving money directly to funds like Fundo CASA, Fundo Brasil, Fundo Agbara and other funds in the Brazilian Philanthropy Network for Social Justice, who have been building trust with communities for long before most funders began their own learning journey.

3. On root causes: The needs in peripheral communities in Brazil are huge and often encompass poverty, poor health and lack of access to housing, with stigma, exclusion and racism as a root cause. We met organisations doing incredible work on small budgets, saving lives in the community and often working at scale, but often with insufficient resources to address root causes.

We discussed how in the effort to be ‘strategic’ – funders might be too quick to put these groups on the wrong side of the binary and to label them as un-systemic. And yet, these organisations often had all the raw ingredients – trust with communities, convening power, deep contextual knowledge etc – to do systemic work, and were held back only by material scarcity. With the example of Co-Impact, a collective fund focused on systemic change, and Mapa do Acolhimento, an organisation finding gender-based violence in Brazil, we saw how a funder can support an organisation to address root causes by giving them the resources to think beyond everyday needs and develop a systems strategy. It served as a reminder of why a strategic mindset needs to be paired with a growth mindset to be truly impactful.

4. On abundance: We barely scratched the surface on Brazilian civil society and found an ecosystem incredibly rich in ideas and strategies, with a huge amount that any European or North American could learn from. It was a reminder that, while we have to bound our awareness at some point, ignoring anything happening outside our borders must be one of the worst ways of doing it.

On democracy, organisations like NOSSAS and Pacto Pela Democracia are building coalitions of diverse groups that support democracy in Brazil and beyond and using these networks to give civil society the influence to engage Government and large corporations, and to resist anti-democratic efforts. Campaigns like Girl Up and Amazonia de Pe are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of young activists to care about the intersection of democracy, human rights and climate, and providing them with the tools to take a stand.

Organisations like IPE, Imaflora and IDESAM are investing in the growth of the bioeconomy – the sustainable use of natural resources for economic production – as a promising alternative to conservation efforts that harm livelihoods and reinforce the root causes driving deforestation. In data and innovation, the CEOs of MapBiomas and Instituto Igarape have been providing the mapping and data needed to hold powerful interests to account in the Amazon, and have proposed an innovative compensation scheme to change the incentive structure when it comes to deforestation. In funding, impact investing in Brazil has increased 10x in the past 3 years, in part thanks to the work of organizations like ICE supporting Brazilian wealth-holders to consider full portfolio approaches from Day 1, rather than limiting impact to a grantmaking silo.

Many of our partners recognised that on their own, they would be overwhelmed by the complexity of the challenges facing Brazil and the wider world. But together, they have a vision of a system that respects democracy, human rights, livelihoods and the climate, and a sense of how we might get there with proper funding and support. All of which isn’t just hopeful, but is genuinely feasible, if they are properly supported.

In the face of such urgency and such opportunity, we aren’t served by narratives of doom that become self-fulfilling prophecies, nor by perfectionism that says we can’t solve everything at once, and therefore we should do nothing. Funders will be served by doing exactly what these change-makers do instinctively – taking the responsibility to find something that could viably create a better world, to believe in it, and then take a bet on it, no matter how risky or imperfect it might be.

Sam Underwood is TPW’s Global Director of Programmes and is responsible for TPW’s core global content, designed to facilitate strategic learning, connections and action.

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