10 Aug 2016
Learning about overcoming inequity and poverty – Porto Alegre intern experience

My experience of Porto Alegre Local Governance – an Internship Report by Gabriela Martel

This year I had the opportunity to work at the Local Governance Office of Porto Alegre’s City Hall. As an intern, I participated in projects related to the coordination and management of the Sustainability and Citizenship Network, which has been Porto Alegre’s main contributor to the Global Compact – Cities Programme since becoming a participant in early 2004.

Governance

I have always seen governance as the mechanism of social coordination in which distinct branches of the Government, civil society and private sector determine guidelines that generate public value. Thus, governance alludes to the rules and processes (formal and informal) that enable public and private actors to articulate their positions and shape their interest in the development of strategies. In theory, governance is a powerful tool; but in action, as I came to discover over the course of my internship, it is much more deep and meaningful.

Governance and resilience strategies lie at the foundation of the Sustainability and Citizenship Network. It is oriented on a series of principles that include transparency, public reporting and inter-sectoral collaboration. This cross-sectoral Network emerged in 2007 as a result of Vila Chocolatão’s relocation in 2004. Facing the threat of eviction from the organisation that owned the land upon which the community lived, residents were forced to move. The practical resettlement of the Vila Chocolatão community occurred in May 2011. It was a challenging process—involving episodes ranging from violence and fire to bureaucratic impediments—as the community had been living in dire and dangerous conditions for beyond 20 years.

The Chocolatão Model

Vila Chocolatão’s resettlement and the social inclusion projects that accompanied it were so significant that they became a model for communities, one that focused on lifting people from poverty. The “Chocolatão model” proves that a sustained cross-sectoral network of residents and active participants produces the perfect framework for advancing human rights and promoting citizenship in vulnerable areas. Naturally, this framework garners support, collaborations and resources.

The Chocolatão Model is based on the development of cross-sectoral groups called “Sustainability and Citizenship Networks”. These governance networks are based on the cooperation between governmental and non-governmental institutions, along with actors who participate voluntarily to address the challenges faced by areas of high social vulnerability and poverty. The stated aim of these networks is to generate material solutions, such as access to adequate housing, water and sanitation systems and basic urban services. It also seeks to establish educational programs and capacity-building activities to promote the emancipation of communities living in extreme poverty in order to prepare them for genuine social inclusion.

As stated in the Global Compact – Cities Programme report (soon to be published – click to view case study), there is a defined process for developing the networks and their projects:

  • Map the area
  • Get to know the community leaders and actors already working within the community;
  • Identify the problems and needs;
  • Source potential government, private sector and civil society partners;
  • Encourage community empowerment and leadership;
  • Conduct network meetings locally and with participation of community members; and
  • Promote transversality in local and other governmental level actions.

Everything is based on principles of equality and neutrality. This model has proven to be extremely effective in a variety of ways. Its main goal was to demonstrate how a network of partnerships can powerfully break down entrenched social inequalities and stimulate change.

When I started my internship at the City Hall, the work at Vila Chocolatão had already finished, however the model was being applied to the work in other vulnerable communities in Porto Alegre. At the moment, we are doing intense work in two of them: Vila Santa Teresinha (also known as “Vila dos Papeleiros”, which is located right next to the city center) and Vila Santo André (located in the main entrance of the city, in its north region).

Vila Santa Teresinha

The Vila Santa Teresinha project has been challenging; sometimes finding solutions to their problems seems impossible. These obstacles remind us of the importance of resilience. There are health and safety hazards in the current recycling system – community members sort waste at home, on the streets and in illegal informal recycling depots. There is a strong presence of drug dealers and a high rate of violent incidents. Such issues reflect the city’s limitations and the prevalence of social inequalities. Having said this, many people are engaged in helping to improve these conditions.

The Fourth District Project

This year the City Hall formally presented the Fourth District Project: a plan that will revitalise four neighborhoods located in a strategic area of the city in order to “restitute” it to the citizens. This long-term urbanist project is very ambitious and portrays a spectacular vision to the city. However, when the project was first presented to us, we became aware that Vila Santa Teresinha (located right in the heart of the Fourth District) was basically “invisible” to the project. There was no material available that outlined the district’s social challenges or offered potential solutions.

We saw this as a unique opportunity to take action and promote real change. Using the Chocolatão Model, the Local Governance Officers of the City Hall decided to unite all of the agents, enterprises and organisations working in the area of Santa Teresinha to discuss the Fourth District Project, devise social guidelines and promote social inclusion for its masterplan.

To do this, we structured a cycle of workshops with all of Santa Teresinha Network members. The first workshop took place on 6 May and the second on 9 June. The next one is set for July. More than 60 people attended these events. Participants raised questions about the Revitalization Project and expressed their vision for the Fourth District, as well as practical actions that could be taken in collaboration with the community.

Themes such as economy, education, health, employment, livelihood, collaboration and communication were discussed and shared by those that were present. The content produced in these encounters will serve as input for the preparation of the Fourth District Law, which will be forwarded to the City Council.

This victory demonstrates the importance of bringing together a diverse range of people. Such collaborations lead to the sustainable development of a region and improve the quality of life of its inhabitants. It was inspiring to see such a rich group working together towards the same goal.

Vila Santo André

In our work in Vila Santo André, I learned how change is inevitable but progress is optional. The Network started work in Vila Santo André in early 2013 when a group of courageous women protested against the scarce conditions in which the community was living, calling on the municipal government to do something to help them. The Local Governance Office responded by starting work immediately.

The first objective in this territory was to solve the problem of insufficient access to potable water and formal electricity. Network members worked with residents, Porto Alegre City Hall, the State Energy Company of Rio Grande do Sul (Companhia Estadual de Energia Elétrica, CEEE) and Porto Alegre’s Municipal Water and Sanitation Department (Departamento Municipal de Água e Esgotos, DMAE) to address these issues and coordinate the installation of a formal electricity grid and a formal water network. By 2014 both of these issues were solved and more than 300 families had access to potable water and electricity.

The Network then started to work with the community by providing educational programmes that explained how these changes would affect them and how they could take advantages of these services. From therein, the Network encouraged community leaders to restructure the Vila Santo André Residents’ Association and elect new leaders with formal roles. Now, they not only have a well-structured leadership board and a formal statute, but they have a Residents’ Association Headquarters, which was built with donations from one of the Network’s partners. It is located right in the heart of the community.

Looking forward in Porto Alegre

At the moment we are arranging several partnerships to provide important services to the community (like Health and Social Services) throughout the headquarters but mostly to empower the population. To me, the whole story of the Network’s work in Santo André is so thrilling. There are two things that resonate with me most: seeing the development of the leadership, especially regarding the two women that are the main leaders of the Association (Lia and Dayane), and witnessing the work behind adult literacy courses. There is still so much to be done in Vila Santo André, but these two particular things make me think that even if the steps seem small or slow, they are significantly advancing an important journey.

Afterword

When my internship ends in August I will fly overseas to study and research poverty and development for the final semester of my Bachelor’s degree. I will be sad to leave the Global Compact – Cities Programme, but I am certain that the Network will continue to function in good hands. Without discounting my gratitude towards everyone, I would personally like to thank two people for my experience in the program – Ms. Vânia Gonçalves de Souza, the coordinator of the Citizenship and Sustainability Network, and my boss. Not only is she an inspiring, committed and kind-hearted person, but an example of someone who knows how to act in critical times when inequity and poverty are an enormous challenge. Thank you Vânia, for showing me that a public agent can be a super heroine and for always being there to motivate everyone around you. It’s been an enormous honour to be your “right-hand woman”. I would also like to thank Ms. Elizabeth Ryan, Deputy Director of the Global Compact Cities Programme and researcher from RMIT University. Liz, your engagement to show the world our work and the reality in our city is important beyond words. Thank you for giving me this opportunity, it was definitely life changing.

Gabriela Martel is 22 years old and an undergraduate student of the Public and Social Administration at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre, south of Brazil.

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