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Photo: UNAS

Photo: UNAS

Between the Expansion of Markets and the Defence of Rights: Rapprochement and Disputes between Businesspeople and Social Movements in São Paulo’s Largest Favela

Theory & ResearchIn this article, Hugo Fanton analyzes, from the largest favela in São Paulo, the everyday dynamics of political territorial disputes - in which we witness the active participation of business forces aligned around the defense of market principles, conflicting with social movements mobilized in defense of rights during the rise and fall of Lulism

Since Lula da Silva won the Brazilian presidential elections in October 2022, the limits and possibilities of progress in the struggles for rights have been a central concern for Brazilian social movements. While Jair Bolsonaro’s defeat and the memory of the social victories of the first decade of the 2000s may support some optimistic visions for overcoming the country’s deep social and economic crises, the current political conditions are even more challenging, a topic I discussed in an article published here in May. In this new text, I present another dimension of the political struggle, i.e. the social-communitarian, based on research into corporate social performance and the disputes between different forces in urban areas of poverty during the rule of governments led by the Workers’ Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT) in Brazil between 2003 and 2016. In this period, there was a significant increase in corporate funding for social and philanthropic activities in poor regions of the country and in favelas in large cities, which led to an intensification of disputes between businesspeople and social movements at the local level, as the logics of the market and people’s rights opposed each other in the processes of social integration.

The results of this research are presented in an article recently published in Portuguese, entitled “Atuação social empresarial e a disputa política territorial urbana na ascensão e crise do lulismo” (corporate social performance and the urban territorial political dispute in the rise and crisis of Lulism). This is a case study on the subject, conducted in the Heliópolis favela, the largest in São Paulo. The research is based on the hypothesis that, in everyday urban dynamics, the implementation of social policies during the rise and crisis of Lulism brought together different forces — businesses and social movements — and expressed contradictory interests, with a permanent tension between the forms of rights and commodity in the mediation of social actions.  

To analyse this dynamic, I turn to two concepts that I consider key to analysing the Brazilian political scene in that period: the aforementioned Lulism (Singer 2012); and the “perverse confluence” between antagonistic projects (Dagnino 2005). The first refers to a “model of arbitration between the fundamental classes”, in which the then President Lula (2003–10) sought, in pursuing his policies, to promote a balance between the interests of the various class factions that structure Brazilian society, so that none of them had “the strength to impose their own wishes”. This resulted in weak reformism and a slow cycle of poverty and inequality reduction, avoiding the radicalization of the political struggle (Singer 2012: 195–201).

The “perverse confluence” refers to the dispute between two different political projects in the country since the process of re-democratization: “the participatory project constructed around the extension of citizenship and the deepening of democracy and, on the other hand, the neoliberal project that requires the shrinking of the social responsibilities of the state and its progressive exemption from its role as guarantor of rights” (Dagnino 2005: 17). In order to legitimize itself socially and politically, neoliberalism in Brazil mobilized “the same words and references” that the movements for re-democratization were alluding to, but attributing other meanings to them, even if these differences are not clearly explained, which precisely makes the confluence perverse. The displacement of the notions of citizenship, participation, and civil society obscures the conflict between projects that, despite pointing in antagonistic directions, use a common reference in analysing and defining social and political practices (Dagnino 2005). 

Relations between the state, the market, and NGOs gain prominence in this context, as neoliberal forces seek to legitimize those organizations that take on individualistic, particularist, and privatist perspectives. Thus, part of civil society — the organizations that adopt behaviour acceptable to the government and the market — comes to be referred to as the whole (Dagnino 2005). In this scenario, organizations and social movements that have historically been built around the objectives of profoundly transforming the social structure and confronting the state and the market come to be disputed, internally and in the territory in which they perform, by actions with logics that are antagonistic to their own, amidst an apparent homogeneity of discourse and practices.

This is why it is necessary to analyse the daily dynamics of territorial political disputes, in which we see the active participation of business forces, articulated around the defence of market principles, and which are faced with social movements mobilized around the defence of rights. How are these political and social disputes configured in poor territories? How are the relations between corporations and social movements in urban dynamics constituted? I believe that these guiding questions are fundamental to our understanding of the expansion of the social bases of neoliberalism in Brazil and the possibilities of resistance from the perspective of the struggle for rights.

Heliópolis and Business Activity

The Heliópolis favela has an estimated population of around 200,000 people. In 2016, the average household income per capita was BRL 479.85, which corresponded to 54.52 percent of the minimum wage. The main local grassroots organization is the União de Núcleos e Associações dos Moradores de Heliópolis e Região (UNAS) which, in 2018, directly assisted 12,000 people through the more than 50 social projects it administers. 

UNAS originated in the 1980s, when residents of Heliópolis founded it with the aim of strengthening the struggle for land regularization and establishing an institutional form of dialogue with the state. At the time, the population demanded, above all, the realization of the right to housing by guaranteeing permanence in the territory, participation in social housing and urban infrastructure projects, as well as the development of the electricity and basic sanitation networks. With the consolidation of its activities throughout the 1990s, relations with both the state and the business community expanded, and this process was intensified in the following decade (Silva 2018a; 2018b). 

Most UNAS social projects are agreements with São Paulo City Hall to offer education and social assistance services. In addition, the projects focused on here are the results of relationships with companies of different sizes, and with one multinational in particular: Ambev. Over the years, the organization has also established relationships with Facebook (now Meta), Coca-Cola, and Companhia Siderúrgica Nacional (CSN), among other corporations. 

The growth of business-led social initiatives in Heliópolis in the 2000s was not isolated. In Brazil, data from a census by the Group of Institutes, Foundations and Companies (Gife 2017) shows a significant increase in the amounts invested by businesspeople in social projects. In 2001, investment totalled BRL 480 million a year; in 2004, it exceeded BRL 737 million a year; in 2010, the last year of Lula da Silva’s second term, private social investment reached BRL 2.96 billion a year. In 2014, it reached a peak of BRL 3.57 billion, a figure that fell to BRL 2.89 billion in 2016, the year of the parliamentary coup against President Rousseff (1). 

The research in Heliópolis shows that the relationship between grassroots organizations and corporations is “outside-in”, i.e. there is a constant search by the entrepreneurial sector for local entities to carry out social activities. In the relationships they establish, both the market and social leaders refer to citizenship and legal rights as notions that go beyond individual moral solidarity when organizing social actions. However, the common reference to the same term — i.e. rights — obscures conflicts related to the different meanings that partnership takes on for the business community and social movements. The word partnership also obscures the conflicts and disputes present in relationships in which the social movement assumes an unequal and dependent condition vis-à-vis market forces, which dispute the mentality of the urban working classes in the territory.

The main example identified in Heliópolis was the Projeto Alconscientes, financed by the Brazilian transnational producer of alcoholic beverages, Ambev. It was a social project aimed at teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17, with the objective of “preventing the misuse of alcohol within Heliópolis”. To this end, workshops were organized on topics such as reading and writing, and human rights, as well as street activities and a monthly alcohol-free party. Young people who stand out at Alconscientes are often hired by Ambev or by NGOs working outside the area. 

On the one hand, businesses use the social programmes to promote their brand and hire young people trained in the activities, affirming themselves as being a way of life for the people involved. On the other, UNAS itself offers alternative spaces under its control, placing social and political activism as the path to follow. The main one is the UNAS Youth Forum, which organizes struggles to demand social rights for young people in Heliópolis. It brings together around 20 young people every month to discuss problems in the area and to organize political education and cultural activities. In the days leading up to the Forum meeting, the importance of the space and the participation of young people was discussed in the Projeto Alconscientes workshops, so that the social project funded by Ambev became a space for mobilizing young people for Forum activities, under the control of UNAS. One example was when project participants, through the Forum, got involved in the struggle against the cancellation of courses at a public school in the region. 

This is how some activists in the association justify carrying out projects funded by corporations. The Projeto Alconscientes was a partnership between UNAS and Ambev, but the workshops have become more than what was initially proposed. The young people taking part in the programme became part of UNAS’s struggle to defend education as a right to be enforced by the state. In this case, there was a direct relationship between the entrepreneurial activity promoted in the community — the Projeto Alconscientes —, the autonomous organizational space of UNAS — the Youth Forum — and the objective of achieving a public policy to be implemented by the state.

Nevertheless, this dynamic has to face permanent contradictions and conflicts. In a meeting at the association, a market representative made the tension explicit: 

My bias is always business, and yours is the state ... The logic I work from is different from here, I think companies have a lot to gain in Heliópolis, but so does the community. How to unite these two worlds is the challenge. 

These contradictions permeate relations within the grassroots association. Activists say that a “consumerist” worldview often prevails in the organization’s everyday life, because “we bring in educators who have the corporate business in their heads ... We end up being at the service of the rich, teaching people to be consumerists”. It is necessary to “have a strategy” against this, because associations like UNAS, which depend on public or private resources to organize activities in the favela, are very fragile. In their words: “we are a grassroots organization that manages to do huge things, but when it comes to learning, a lot of models come in to get in the way, linked to private companies, which have important elements, such as monitoring and planning, but these models cannot drown out something of greater importance, which is political and a movement”. 

Some leaders argue that it is worth striving for the ideal of UNAS having total control of social initiatives. Others believe that a tripartite relationship, shared between UNAS, the business, and the state, is ideal, as it provides more strength. This position stems directly from the unequal access to public and private resources that make initiatives to transform social relations possible, and the consequent dependence on antagonistic forces to execute activities in partnership. This condition, however, leaves room for action with some degree of autonomy, as explained above.

“Perverse Confluence” during Lulism

Lulism promoted a significant reorientation in the distribution of state resources. This channelled a larger budget into social policies and favoured social action by businesses and social movements. The state’s administrative authorities and the business community used a significant part of the resources to build partnerships with grassroots organizations and social movements, which opened up the possibility for the latter to strengthen their political and social activities in the territories. This led to the contradictions described here. 

A rights-based perspective was part of the guidelines of the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) at the time, with this bank frequently being used by corporations, NGOs, and social movements as the source of public funds for social projects. The bank referred to a new paradigm of social responsibility, in which the realization of rights is mediated by a social technology, which “comprises reapplicable products, techniques or methodologies developed in interaction with the community and which represent effective solutions for social transformation” (Leal and Neves 2010). Rights would be promoted through the formulation of technologies that could be implemented as public policy. A “social technology” is a product that, if acquired by the state and offered to a wider public, becomes a right. This notion is combined with another concept formulated by the business community: corporate social investment (CSI). 

An important theoretical reference that underpins business performance is summarized in the article “Cocreating Business’s New Social Compact”, which describes “new business models that will transform organizations and the lives of poor people”, since the liberalization of markets is forcing executives and social activists to work together (Brugmann and Prahalad 2007). The question posed to the business community in the context of widespread trade liberalization was: once national markets were open, how could they exploit all the profit potential of a dependent economy with high poverty rates? In addition to the deterritorialization of the productive sector in search of cheaper labour — a central component of neoliberalism — the business community believes that it would be possible to create innovative business models with new markets at the base of the pyramid, which involves the convergence of interests and capacities between NGOs, community-based associations, and corporations (Brugmann and Prahalad 2007: 82).

The authors state that this has resulted in three stages of convergence between the corporate sector and civil society: 1) the “be-responsible stage”, characterized by the notion of social responsibility and shared initiatives between companies and NGOs; 2) the “get-into-business stage”, in which companies and NGOs develop joint initiatives to reach the base of the pyramid, whereby the work of organizations provides a basis for business action and fundraising allows for the structuring of social initiatives; and 3) the current stage, to “cocreate-businesses”, in which companies and organizations create shared businesses, such as the delivery of products at low prices, hybrid businesses between NGOs and private companies and, most importantly for the discussion that follows, “to revitalize the social legitimacy of the corporation and at the same time expand the impact of the NGO” (Brugmann and Prahalad 2007: 82–90). In the case of Heliópolis, the business perspective is to overcome stage two of convergence towards stage three, by creating market relations in the community. The justification lies in the provision of supposed benefits to the people at the very base of the economic pyramid. 

In traditional corporate performance (Leal and Neves 2010), the neoliberal discourse omits any reference to the universality of the right, so that the re-signification of citizenship and solidarity has blocked its political dimensions and references to the public interest (Dagnino 2005). In the private social investment proposal, the word “right” comes back into play, but as a means of legitimizing the market’s performance. The search for the realization of social rights is presented as the possibility of opening up new markets, and those who are active where the market and the law are absent — grassroots organizations and social movements — can, from the viewpoint of the market, socially legitimize a process that generates conflicts and disputes.

It is possible to say that, on a national level, the policies of the Lula and Rousseff governments have expanded both the possibilities for grassroots self-organization and the social performance of corporations in the same territories. At a local level, this brings back the political disputes that characterized the Lulist model of interest arbitration. Companies that provide social services and community-based organizations have benefitted from the budget being directed in their favour. However, these same social forces distance themselves in relation to the meaning of budget execution in social policy, whether in favour of market expansion at the “bottom of the pyramid” or the universalization of rights. The word “partnership” obscures the conflict that exists between forces that are guided by different political projects, in a dynamic that is, at the same time, both a rapprochement and a form of dispute.

Thus, analysing the Brazilian political scene in the 2000s based on relations between corporations and associations such as UNAS presents a paradox: macroeconomic policies that differentiate Lulism from orthodox neoliberalism and financial austerity (Singer 2012) have reiterated, in community-based social activity, an effect typical of neoliberal politics: the rise of a form of normative reason that extends market metrics and practices to all dimensions of human life (Brown 2018: 15). 

At a community level, there was a confluence of interests between antagonistic social forces, which jointly sought to produce a social impact by improving the living conditions of the population. However, these actions often point in opposite directions: on the one hand, the market; on the other, the universality of rights. This conflict is obscured by the common reference point to which the discourses of the forces in dispute refer, and this allows us to define this dynamic as one of perverse confluence, in the terms proposed by Evelina Dagnino (2005).

It is therefore possible to propose hypotheses for research into the subsequent period, relating to the dynamics of grassroots organization and struggle. The rise of the far right, whose leading force is the bourgeoisies realigned around orthodox neoliberalism, may have been supported by social forces made up of the popular classes and orientated by the logic of the market in everyday life. This base was shaped by disputes engendered by businesses throughout the 2000s, not only at the institutional level, or through churches and the media, but also in the dynamics of local social initiatives. This supports the hypothesis that during this period there was an intense dispute in civil society that went beyond associations and urban social movements, and that the advance of neoliberal forces in this sphere may have been one of the decisive factors in defining a correlation of forces favourable to a new phase of neoliberal advance. The new Lula government, if it seeks to re-establish the same class alliances, could therefore accentuate the contradictions that contributed to its rise and fall in the 2000s.


 1. As a comparison, the Ministry of Culture’s budget was BRL 1.9 billion in 2016, around 35 percent less than private social investment that year (Gife 2017).

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