Larissa Barbosa da Costa

The Social Watch network in Brazil was created as a consequence of the UN Conferences in Copenhagen and Beijing in 1995 by a group of non-governmental organizations internationally linked to other NGOs struggling to influence the positions of the Brazilian government and to affect the results of the Conferences.

Social Watch/Observatório da Cidadania (SW/OC) has become a relevant space of convergence of civil society organizations acting on different aspects of the social struggle in Brazil. By 2008, the network had 60 members, including NGOs, trade unions, women’s organizations, academic institutions, environmental and youth organizations as well as several social movements such as human rights coalitions, members of black and indigenous movements, the Landless Movement (MST) and others.  The network plays the role of a Forum of debates and of a think tank expressing the state of reflection of the CSOs in regards to the international and national political juncture, and also contributes to the setting of the country’s both civil society and political agenda regarding social development.

Due to the diversity of its composition, SW/OC is able to interpret the political context, to build a collective understanding of the social issues and to explore alternatives. The elaboration of the SW/OC report is not only a technical activity but rather a political process catalyzing policy dialogues and mobilizing people for political action. The Report, besides being a system to monitor and control public policies and governments compliance with its commitments, expresses the concepts of CSOs and movements in regards to social and development issues. The SW/OC network constructs the space for civil society organizations to gather, dialogue, build and mature their own views in order to advocate and promote social change. These spaces are essential for the strengthening of civil society and for deepening democracy in Brazil. Dedicating time and energy to promote dialogue is a good strategy to enhance the network and the bonds of trust between the members.

SW/OC defines itself as a network and is not a registered legal entity. This option has been chosen partly to avoid bureaucratisation, partly because it better fits members’ desire for flexibility, horizontality and equality.

The network has never drafted any internal document (i.e. statute, terms of reference) laying down the structure and internal rules. The decision making processes are collective and are usually achieved through dialogue and consensus.  

One special feature of SW/OC is the coordinating/facilitating group, which is a sort of Committee. In regards to planning and management tools, the Reference Group (RG) is the one proposing the annual work plan, which comprises a number of national seminars and workshops, the elaboration and the launch of the SW Report as well as some other related activities. Currently, the RG is composed by seven organizations (IBASE, INESC, FASE, CRIOLA, CFEMEA, CESEC and Rede DAWN), acting in different fields of social struggles and by IBASE, which plays the role of the Secretariat. Organizations and members all work on a voluntary basis.

The fact that the RG is composed by experienced organizations is certainly an asset. Their credibility, leadership, expertise and mobilization capacity is a key factor for SW/OC success. In this direction, counting on the right organizations to guide the national network seems to be an important aspect.

Organized as a fluid and informal network, SW/OC membership is based on common values, a shared political project and trust. The structure is horizontal and members maintain their autonomy while freely collaborating; however this has not been a problem for SW/OC to work efficiently.
On the other hand, however, accountability links are weak with this kind of structure. In the SW/OC case, despite the RG takes responsibility for the network, accountability is referred vertically between the Secretariat and the donor and very little from the RG to the members.

Another point is that the RG, including the Secretariat, is highly involved in the network activities planning while the rest of the members have a minor participation.

Currently, IBASE has a very dominant position in the network, affecting its autonomy, but it is also the only organization to bear all the responsibilities. Evolving to a more autonomous model would probably demand the RG and members to assume new positions and responsibilities.

Funding seems to be one of the main long-term threats for the sustainability of the SW/OC network. The network is trying to cope with constraints in resources; while the situation is getting critical, alternative solutions have not been found yet.

In order to influence the Government and the social public policies towards the guarantee of rights, social equality and justice, SW/OC has adopted different strategies. The first aims at building a plural space of convergence and debates, gathering diverse groups of organizations. Secondly, SW/OC organises national seminars and workshops aimed at discussing the national juncture and social policies, including the commitments assumed in Copenhagen and Beijing.

As a third strategy, SW/OC elaborates a National Report, the main advocacy tool (and a visible and concrete output) produced by the network.

The fourth SW/OC strategy refers to its engagement in developing and/or participating in public campaigns aimed at fostering cultural, political and public policies transformation.

The “Dialogues against Racism”, raised in 2001 by black women’s organizations participating in the SW/OC network as an essential problem to be tackled in society in order to achieve social justice, equality and rights in Brazil, involved SW/OC members in a deep transformative learning process which reveals their capacity and potential to deal with very complex social issues as well as the involvement in vital processes of cultural change.

Another feature contributing to SW/OC success is related to its effort to translate the international issues into the national context proved to be essential to make SW/OC relevant in the national level.

Regarding the global SW Network, SW/OC contributes to the consolidation of the broad network itself by working in close collaboration with the international Secretariat, participating in meetings, Assemblies and in the Coordination Committee. In addition, SW/OC produces good international analysis, thematic articles and country reports regularly. Yet, SW/OC has been publishing the SW report in Portuguese since 1997.

The elaboration of the SW Report is a lively and rich process; however, once it is launched and distributed, it is difficult to get to know how the Report was exactly used to support advocacy and lobbying actions.

The fact that SW/OC operates mainly on a national level, far from the grass roots of the organization, has been pointed as a weakness. The SW National Report itself is addressed to a limited audience and there are no popularized materials. Thus, despite the Report is a very good quality output, consulted by many civil society organizations, leaders and policy makers, it could be used more intensively.

Since Brazil is a middle income country, relatively developed but presenting some of the highest levels of inequality in the world, indicators based on statistic average, such as those used by SW International Report, tend to portray Brazil always in a better situation than it really is. Since SW/OC indicators are not very ‘sensitive’ to inequality they are not very helpful in Brazil. On the contrary, they can even offer a counter-argument, compromising the advocacy work. This is a methodological challenge not yet solved.

SW/OC has an open channel to dialogue with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which is responsible for the Brazilian government positions in the international fora like UN. Besides that, SW/OC members participate in public hearing, policy discussions at the national, state and local levels as well.

Another strategy to keep the dialogue open involves inviting government officials to participate to the National Seminars and workshops promoted by SW.

SW/OC does not perform lobbying and advocacy actions directly. Rather, it supports the member’s initiatives and counts on them to advocate for policies changes. Two members of the RG, INESC and CFEMEA, perform lobbying and advocacy directly in the Brazilian Congress as part of their main activities.

In 2007, the focus theme chosen for the SW Report was “Making the universal right to social security a reality”. Thus, when  Luis Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration created the National Social Security Forum to discuss proposals for changes in the system, a Parallel and Itinerant Social Security Forum was created (by some informal sectors and women’s organizations not represented in the National Forum) aiming at raising the women’s voice and advocating for the universalization of the system for the ones excluded from social security coverage. Women’s organizations and SW/OC then organized a series of seminars and workshops on social security policies mobilizing 400 women with the objective of contributing to the debate, of building women’s capacities and developing alternative proposals.

Since the SW/OC Network is already consolidated as a credible and legitimate initiative and as the SW Report has become a reliable source of information and a valid tool for advocacy, there is the risk members resist any changes. Some watchers manifested their concerns in this regards and believe it is time for SW/OC to explore new possibilities, such as to innovate the format and the language of the report, in order to reach other publics and audiences, and get connected with the local and grassroots level by building strategic alliances and partnerships.

Embracing new complex issues such as public security, violence, environment and development might lead SW/OC to new horizons, ‘refreshing’ somehow the network. Increasing SW public profile by taking public position on delicate issues such as the affirmative policies could be an opportunity to make SW/OC more visible and to contribute to innovation in the global SW network.

Good practices learnt from the Brazilian Social Watch Coalition:
  • SW/OC has built itself as a space for plural debates and its members dedicate time and energy to promote long term rich dialogues and get engaged in them.
  • The diversity of members helps to improve SW/OC’s power of mobilization and capacity to build bridges between different segments of the social struggles in Brazil.
  • The process of the Report elaboration is not only a technical activity but rather a political process that engages SW/OC members in hot political debates as well as maintaining open spaces for a dialogue with invited government representatives.
  • The development of a relevant national agenda contributes to maintaining the network lively and active.
  • SW/OC frequently organizes national seminars and workshops, contributing to members capacity building and to set new political agendas.
  • SW/OC promotes public campaigns, such as the Dialogues against Racism, in order to create a better environment for cultural and social change to happen.
  • The network has developed an impressive ability to manage conflict.
  • SW/OC contributes regularly to the International SW Report and elaborates a National Report, very relevant for the Brazilian social actors.
  • SW/OC relations with the academia are very positive and helpful. Having academics as SW/OC members has contributed to the network research and to the critical reflection capacities. Besides this, several SW/OC members also produce high quality research materials.
  • SW/OC has very good relationships with the media.
  • SW/OC does not directly carry advocacy and lobbying actions but rather supports and counts on the members’ activities, thus it does not duplicate or compete with the members’ efforts.
  • SW/OC is part of many networks in Brazil and this strategy improves its mobilization capacity.
  • SW/OC works in close collaboration with the International Secretariat and contributes to the Global network by participating actively in meetings, General Assemblies and in Coordinating Committee (CC).