Church, state and civil society in Latin America

Andrés Thompson

Over the last decade Latin American countries have been witnessing a rapid change in the dynamics and activities of civil society organizations. The changing relationship of NGOs with governments and business sectors is perhaps one of the most important and promising features in the region’s development.

Since the early sixteenth century, Church and state have so dominated Latin American societies that they permeated almost all the efforts made by citizens to come together and organize themselves for their own purposes. It was only with the rapid proliferation of NGOs from the 1960s onwards, largely in opposition to the military regimes of the period, that a space for citizen action began to open up.

Since the introduction of democracy throughout the region, the Church, now overtly on the side of the poor in many countries, has once again been involved in establishing social welfare institutions. But it now begins to seem possible that the militant NGOs and welfare organizations might at last join forces to form a strong third sector.

Influence of the Catholic Church
Voluntary action, the giving of time and money for the public benefit and not-for-profit undertakings, has been a common feature in Latin America since colonial times. Introduced by the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the region, these practices left the blueprint for the development of philanthropy for more than four centuries.
Under the auspices of the counter-reformist Catholic Church that established itself in subordination to the crown practically all over the region, the ideas and practices of charity and benevolence became widespread during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Catholic charities provided relief to the poor, the needy and the marginalized in the absence of other alternatives. It was the Church that created institutions such as asylums, schools and universities.

This combination of civilian benevolent activities and religious charity resulted in a very peculiar model of non-profit institution that still exists today: the social welfare organization funded through religious channels but administered by laymen. Though ideological changes within the Catholic tradition took place in the second half of the twentieth century in particular, these organizations — now challenged by the ‘new’ NGOs — remain the core of the voluntary sector in many countries of the region.
Although by the end of the nineteenth century the Catholic Church was separated from the state almost everywhere (though remaining as the official religion in many countries), its strong presence in the social realm permeates the activities of philanthropy and voluntarism to the present day. Brazil, Mexico and Chile are perhaps the countries where this is most notable, while Uruguay is the one country where the Church has little influence within the non-profit universe.

Independence and the creation of nation-states

During the three first decades of the nineteenth century, struggles for independence from the Spanish and Portuguese crowns took place all over the region. These struggles were significant in terms of the changes in the relationship between Church and state. In effect, in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Mexico the new governments strove to take public services away from the Church. Taking responsibility for social welfare provision into the hands of governments was a central component of the process of creating nation-states, together with the creation of new political regimes and the pacification of countries divided by fights among caudillos (local territorial leaders).

However, voluntary action and philanthropy occupied only a very marginal position in thise process. Exclusive and restrictive political systems, concentration of land in the hands of oligarchies, weak productive structures and internal warfare were the dominant features at this time. The Mexican Revolution of 1911 was the most remarkable movement towards democratization in the region, although in several countries the emerging middle classes were making similar advances. But voluntary organizations were at a very low ebb.

Self-help arrives with European immigrants
A break with the tradition of religious and ‘high-class’ charity was introduced through the waves of immigrants coming from Western and Eastern Europe and beyond on the eve of the twentieth century. This is particularly true for countries such as Brazil, Argentina and Peru. Italians, Spanish, Portuguese and British, but also Croatian, Hungarian, Chinese and Japanese, overloaded the ships looking for prosperity, work and peace in the ‘new continent’. They naturally formed a wide variety of associations to preserve their cultural traditions and identity, provide health services to their members, and help them to secure housing and jobs to build their lives in the new countries.

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth was a time when mutual-benefit, self-help and self-managed societies proliferated throughout the region, bringing also the seed of trade union consciousness.

Colonization of society by the state

Populism (nationalist governments/movements arising from the import-substitution period) and then authoritarianism (military governments of the 1970s and 1980s) spread throughout Latin America from the 1930s until the present. Both types of regime are strongly state-centred, with civil and political rights restricted, and both acted as a strong constraint on the development of philanthropy and voluntary action. While under populist regimes civil society was organized in a vertical, corporatist way, authoritarian regimes practically prohibited any kind of social organization, thus forcing the emergence of semi-legal contra-governmental organizations and guerrilla movements. In both types of regime, the state assumed practically the monopoly of the common good, thus restricting and inhibiting the capabilities of citizens to intervene in public causes.

Populism left a deep footprint on the political culture of the region, particularly in those countries where the regimes were more successful in the building of welfare states ‘a la latinoamericana‘ (which means that they were not as perfect as the European ones), as in Argentina, Brazil and Peru. Not only were non-profit organizations controlled or dismantled, but citizens delegated their rights to the state. Populism thus reinforced the colonization of society by the state, while civil society remained very weak.

Civil society was also weak in the area of individual rights until the massive violation of human rights in the 1970s and 1980s. Before that time, advocacy organizations focused on civil or minorities’ rights were absent from the voluntary scene.

The military regimes

The widespread military regimes throughout the region during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (with some exceptions such as Mexico, Costa Rica and Venezuela) gave the final touch to the creation of a culture and a way of doing politics where respect for individual rights, ‘the rule of law’, and the representative mechanisms of democracy was absent. The space for the development of a philanthropic culture was reduced to a minimum.

However, the downfall of these regimes provided the opportunity for the emergence of a new wave of voluntary organizations, which came to be called non-governmental organizations (NGOs). In Brazil, as in some other countries like Peru and Chile, society had gradually reorganized during the authoritarian period through the multiplication of organizations typically independent of, and even in opposition to, the state.

The Church in a new role
One key factor was the position taken by the Catholic Church. As the only institution in civil society that maintained its structure intact after the military takeovers, the Church played a leading role in defending human and civil rights. A decisive role was played by Liberation Theology and the guidelines of the Medellin and Puebla Conferences (church conferences held in the 1970s in Colombia and Mexico). These led a considerable portion of the clergy to ‘return to the people’.

Under this protective mantle and beyond the pale of the state, there grew up secular movements of workers, rural labourers, professional groups, residents of  marginalized neighbourhoods, etc. In Brazil, the Comunidades Eclesiais de Base (Ecclesiastic Base Communities, CEBs) were the most visible example of the activities of this ‘Popular Church’ and produced important leaders for a number of movements and independent organizations. In Chile, one cannot think about philanthropy and third sector activities without taking into consideration the role played by the Vicaría de la Solidaridad, which during the military period (1973–89) served as an umbrella for a wide array of NGOs concerned with human rights, academic freedom and survival of the poor.

Common trends
As has been said, from the 1960s onwards there has been an impressive growth of NGOs in every country of Latin America. As many articles and books have pointed out, the contributions of international cooperation agencies, the Catholic Church, the return to the micro-level of social action in reaction to authoritarianism and other factors, have all helped these developments.

What is behind this phenomenon? Is there a renewed sense of helping others in Latin American societies? Has the authoritarian culture left space for a new sense of solidarity and altruism? How extended are these practices in society at large?
Certainly, these are not easy questions to answer. The situation varies from country to country and even within countries. But some common trends can be identified.

  • The re-democratization of the region is obviously the first one. The return to the rule of law, though precarious as yet, has allowed for the free organization of civil society without political constraints (though there may be legal ones). This implies that anyone who wants to do something beyond the individual sphere can look for somebody else to join him/her in the endeavour. As simple as it may look, this factor has had enormous implications in the development of Latin American societies during the past decade, expressed in the mushrooming of thousands and thousands of all types of autonomous organizations.
  • Though there is no data available, this implies that there are resources being mobilized within civil society (time, money and talent) to sustain these causes. Recent data produced by the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project show that the bulk of funding for NGOs in the region comes from governments and from own-generated resources (membership fees and services). Additionally, surprisingly, grants from US foundations have increased. A recent report asserts that ‘the very rapid growth in the 1990s of funding in Latin America … involved an interest by some foundations in supporting recent transitions to market economies and democratic systems’. From 1990 to 1994 direct investments in Latin America more than doubled, from $31.5 million to $68.6 million. Kellogg’s grants jumped from $9.5 million to $26 million, making Kellogg the largest US private funder of organizations in Latin America.'[1] However, to say that international agencies have invested some millions of dollars in the region is not a sufficient explanation for the explosion of civil society organizations.
  • This mushrooming of autonomous organizations in the region does not necessarily imply that there are strong civil societies. ‘State-centrism’ is still a strong component of Latin American culture, shaping the understanding of people about the division of responsibilities between private and public, state and society, individual and collective. Democratization has, however, brought a new actor on to the scene: the market — hence the centrality of profits as well as concepts associated with the business culture like the emphasis on management, outcomes and efficiency.
  • The state is no more the one that emerged from the period of populism with an extended apparatus of public agencies and policies: it has been (or is in the process of being) privatized, adjusted and reduced. It no longer has the capacity to intervene in social life that it did in the past, nor to respond to the demands of different sectors of the population. The satisfaction of basic social needs now depends very little on the state and more on market mechanisms and the self-help capacities of deprived populations.
  • While the idea of social citizenship acquired via the expansion of social policies and the labour market more than three decades ago is in decay, a new approach to citizenship within the traditional paradigm of liberalism is in the making. Nevertheless, this is a trend full of contradictions. In Brazil, for instance, it is in the vast field abandoned by the state that the Catholic Church and other religions are most active in establishing non-profit organizations in the areas of social welfare, health and education. Taking advantage of its privileged relationship with the state and social elites throughout most of its history, the Catholic Church (as well as the Protestants and Spiritists – espiritistas) has managed to reach the marginal and excluded in society. Under the influence of these religions, there has developed a style of operating and certain values in relation to voluntary action –charity, personal solidarity, self-denial and altruism — that have little to do with the liberal, individualist scheme of things.
  • The expansion of free-market economies and privatization of the state has provided space for business, which now occupies a central place on the scene. However, there are as yet very few signs that a new sense of social responsibility is being incorporated into business culture. Colombia, Venezuela, Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Argentina are leading examples in terms of social responsibility, which may be linked to the fact that these are the largest and richest economies.

It has been said many times that democracy and capitalism are central for the development of philanthropy and voluntary action. In Latin America, both terms, ‘democracy’ and ‘capitalism’, need to be qualified. While democracy has not gone beyond the adoption of certain political forms by the regime without implying any great changes in social organization or participation in decision-making, capitalism does not as yet seem to improve the quality of life of the millions of Latin Americans living in poverty. Perhaps that is why those few who dare to speak about the importance of philanthropy in pluralist societies usually feel forced to add some qualification to the term, such as ‘transformational’, ‘social’ or ‘developmental’ philanthropy.

There has never been a ‘culture of philanthropy’ in Latin America as it is understood in the United States. The mixture of cultural and religious heritage, the ‘state-centred’ paradigm permeating politics and social action, the strong belief in charismatic leaders and a new type of ‘savage’ capitalism (as it is called) all combine in different ways in the different countries.

However, a new space for questioning past concepts and practices is emerging. There are signs that the distance that the new NGOs have placed between themselves, on the one hand, and the state and traditional social welfare practices – be they religious-oriented or state-focused – on the other, is beginning to be called into question.

According to some analysts, the modern values of citizenship and advocacy no longer need to set themselves up against the traditional values of brotherhood, charity and community. There are some indications that in the endeavour to confront the marginalization of the region, what is emerging is a voluntary sphere and a third sector that combine the logic of citizenship and advocacy with solutions to immediate problems.

Andrés Thompson is Program Director of the W K Kellogg Foundation, Latin America and the Caribbean, based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He can be contacted at

1  International Grantmaking: A report on US foundation trends (1997) The Foundation Center in cooperation with the Council on Foundations, USA.

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