Course:GEOG352/Alternative Governance in the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro

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Introduction

To understand how a society governs itself, looking at power dynamics at the city level can be incredibly insightful. Within a democratic setting, the basic idea is that government is “of the people, by the people, for the people” [1]. While democracy can be either direct or representative, in most states it takes the latter form. In this representative form of democracy, people are elected to govern on behalf of the people and in their interest. The delegation process of voting legitimises those in government, authorising their resultant power and administration over public services and goods. In this light, government is conceptualised as occurring through codified and institutionalised ways. Government is hence inherent to the state. However, in the context of globalization, the functions of the state are challenged. Governance arises from the transformation of the state, it is negatively defined vis-à-vis the latter [2]. Precisely, governance occurs because of the relative incapacity of the state to deliver public goods. Hence a multiplicity of actors, be they public or private, gather as a subsidiary to the top-down approach of the government [3]. Governance is thus an alternative way to ensure the stability and the legitimacy of a society and its political regime. Institutional polycentrism: blurred lines between the public and the private placing the governance in a “grey area”, and an alternative relation to authority with a horizontal rather than vertical decision-making process can all characterize governance [4]. Cities are a perfect setting to look at governance. Indeed, it is an optimal laboratory to audit the state’s efficiency in the delivery of public goods. States themselves are aware of this potential of cities to mirror their action. Cities such as Dubai are for instance used as the state’s shop-window. Looking at cities in the global south in particular, enables to observe the shortfall of the state, and the rise of alternative forms of governance. Rio de Janeiro is one such city.

Overview

Aerial view of typical Rio de Janeiro favelas.

Rio de Janeiro provides a fascinating insight into alternative forms of governance. This is particularly so if one examines governance of and within the city’s favelas, which originated as informal and largely spontaneous settlements overflowing from the more formal urban context of the city. Government has, for much of their history, been largely absent in favelas, and today, the authority of government remains vulnerable, often distant, and highly unstable. The formal structures of Rio’s municipal government vie for legitimacy and control over governance with non-state actors such as drug traffickers and cartels. The examination of alternative governance by such gangs, and their interaction with and relations to official government forces highlights a break from the western-centric conception of governance as a strictly government-dominated hierarchical process, and points to an alternative, horizontal and pluralist definition of governance, one that more accurately defines the on-the-ground reality and in the favelas and the complex forces at play in the daily lives of their inhabitants.

A map from IHS Markit illustrating violent conflict between powers in the city, showing risk of death or injury by area.

Favelas are communities spontaneously created by their inhabitants, the favelados, often by hand, with little or no support from formal infrastructure. The favelados, or “people of the hill”, thus shoulder numerous burdens of responsibility for creating a functioning territory on land that is not fully suited for construction and habitation – legally or physically. As informal settlements, they tangibly outline the shortcomings and limits of the formal levels of government. The Brazilian state at its various levels has indeed an ambiguous relationship with the favelas, at times trying to wipe them off the map entirely, while also needing to cooperate with or struggle against favelados, in their copious numbers. The structures, resources, and tools of the formal government do not freely operate within the favelas like they do in the more formally-developed and tourist-friendly areas of the city, and instead seem to fall in an ambiguous space somewhere between clean formalization and what looks almost like colonization.

Due to this very complicated and often-cacophonous interdependence between the state and the inhabitants, governance shifts from a vertical (top-down) to a horizontal model. Indeed, governance of the favelas of Rio de Janeiro involves a remarkable degree of power held by non-traditional stakeholders, such as police pacification forces and the gangs. The pervasive influence of the latter represents a threat to the state for the competing legitimacy in the eyes of favelados. Indeed in the favelas, political power has a kind of balance, because neither gangs nor the state can prevail. Both also rely on the support of the favelados to successfully operate in the favelas. Because of this, favelados should not be simplistically perceived as passive victims of a perpetual clash between authority figures, or as a neutral medium for these conflicts to take place within. On the contrary, they play their own crucial role, and have a remarkable capacity for self-governance and self-sustenance.

There is a necessity to put things into perspective and consider the favelados’ agency. Looking at the governance of and in the favelas thus requires consideration of each of those stakeholders on a relatively equal footing[5]. This is so because no one prevails, and governance in the favelas is much more negotiated than elsewhere. Each actor has a strong influence, and a diverging position. As parties are interdependent, governance in Rio de Janeiro is even more so about striving to achieve a consensus. As this is however hard to achieve, implied agreements are made unofficially between the government and the gangs, the gangs and the favelados, the police and the gangs, et cetera.

Case Study of Theme/Issue

Urban governance in Rio’s favelas is contested. While many actors vie for power, it is possible to distil four main groups:

  • city government
  • police
  • drug cartels
  • favelados

The relationships between these actors are interwoven. The distinction into groups is, thus, merely theoretical. However, by capturing their idiosyncrasies, favela governance in Rio can be better understood.

City Government

For most of Rio’s history, the government’s relationship with favelas was only for matters of security, manifesting itself in periodic police raids in the attempt to “flush out” drug cartels [6]. This changed when Eduardo Paes became mayor in 2008. His governance style represented a major departure from that of his predecessors. He advocated for polistdigiticoracy: a government that facilitates greater horizontal collaboration and higher transparency [7] . With this reconceptualization, and a new focus on social inclusion, favela governance became part of government concern [8]. Paes initiated the Pacification Programme (PP), which looked to improve favelas by clamping down on criminality. The PP was delivered with a social investment programme looking to provide favelas with improved services. This video explains:


UPP Social Program

Yet, the PP’s success was limited [9]. Buoyed by early success, the PP over-expanded, but, without the follow-up of its promised service provision [10]. Failing to address the structural problems of violence and poverty, the PP morphed into a brutal attempt of exerting power without legitimacy. Paes also endorsed public-private partnerships in service delivery, like for improving sanitation in the favelas of the West Zone [11] . Additionally, Paes developed online tools to foster communication and collaboration between government and citizens, including favelados [12]. Accordingly, Paes’ government transcended the institutionalized, formal style of the past. While the engagement with favelados was still largely top-down in security and service provision, the aspirations and developments towards a polistigitocracy did change the reach and nature of government in governance.

Yet, recent investigations show that government during Paes’ time, including Paes himself, was deeply corrupt [13]. Today, Rio is in a recession, with the government in financial and administrative chaos [14] Having imposed austerity measures, funding for favela service and security provisions has been cut [15]. This results in a governance vacuum for favelas. It has been re-filled largely by gangs[16].

Police

The police are supposed to be the city/state’s security enforcer [17]. In favelas, however, police are known for being excessively violent, seen not as protecting security, but advancing brutality [18]. Additionally, many officers hold close ties to criminal gangs within favelas [19]. They provide both direct and indirect support of criminal activities, for example, by providing weapons or not prosecuting certain crimes [20]. Corruption is high and ongoing, with many officers engaging in illegal behaviour for self-gain [21]. Accordingly, police have become autonomous governance actors, separate from the state/city government. In fact, it has been argued that certain police have become a type of militia [22]. Specific factions of police have become their own criminal gangs! There are periodic government crackdowns on police corruption, but with limited long-term success [23]. The reality is that governance by police is ambiguous. Police can be an actor/representative of formal government or a criminal, violent, gang-like actor in their own right. In both cases, however, police govern with violence.

Criminal Gangs

Criminal gangs are a key stakeholder in favela governance. They are highly entrenched, and exhibit many traits of formal government. They offer parallel services, such as welfare, employment opportunities, and regular cultural events that attract even wealthy city-dwellers [24]. They hold enough power to negotiate with formal levels of government on behalf of the favelas, filling a power vacuum of underrepresentation [25]. These gangs also defend their territory not only against opposing gangs, but against government forces, almost as if they were secessionists. An extreme case was seen in 2009, when a police helicopter was shot down over the Morro dos Macacos favela [26]. They've even created their own music industry and distribution networks that function as communication and propaganda akin to state media [27]. They control favela culture, not just physical territory. The ongoing stability of this control is due in large part to their unique origins and structure. Commando Vermelho, one of Rio’s most notorious and successful gangs, began inside prison as when leftist militants mingled with common criminals [28]. Designed from its inception to be run from inside prison, arrests of individual leaders have little effect on the chain of command or the gang’s agenda [29]. Struggle with police pacification forces is ongoing, but these gangs are still the dominant power structures in most of Rio's informal communities.

Favelados

Favela residents, who are not gang members, are not just pawns within the power struggles in favela governance. To see favelados only as objects of victimization misses the agency that they hold. Since the creation of favelas, individuals have taken on leadership positions, frequently growing their initiatives into associations focused on self- and community-governance [30]. It is a grass-roots and ad-hoc approach to governance, seen for example, in how houses and community gardens are frequently built [31]. While many initiatives focus on enhancing social and economic opportunities, many also double as resilience strategies [32] [33]. The large creative economies in favelas with their emphasis on performance arts, for example, is both a coping mechanism in the constant threat of violence, as well as employment, and a community-building tool [34]. Many of the favelado initiatives that began in the 1960s are now under the auspice of criminal gangs, showing the complex relationship that favelados have to informality and criminality [35]. Favelados, especially from the younger generations, have also learnt to make use of international NGOs to obtain funding, investment, and service delivery, thus, bypassing city government and criminal gangs [36]. Overall, favelados’ agency forces us to rethink favelados as the objects in a greater governance struggles. With strong senses of belonging, identity, and community, favelidos are active in self-governance. Their power is limited due to their lack of defense and security mechanisms, but their agency should not be disregarded. Favelas do not exist only on the “urban margin” of governance [37].

This video explains more:


Inside Rio de Janeiro: the city's neglected neighbourhoods

Lessons Learned

Infography of the alternative governance in Rio de Janeiro's favelas


The development of alternative forms of governances in Rio de Janeiro is a process that challenges and redefines ‘western’ governance theories. As the 21st century progresses, the role and structure of government is evolving from the current Westphalian nation state to systems more based on alternative governance structures[38]. This process is imagined to happen in fragile state in the Global South. However, as industrialized nations become increasingly polarized by economic inequality, as citizens’ trust in the effectiveness and motives of state authorities erodes, they are also likely to become a greater threat to state authority in the “develop world”. Consequently, understanding such a process has implications both for urban contexts in the global south and “developed” cities of the North. The way we currently apprehend alternative governance is based on a false sense of what constitute governing, as a process that would only be driven by official government. But in many cities, official governments fail at providing the basic goods and services people need to live “normal” lives, such as clean water, food, shelter and security. Alternative forms of governance: gangs, social entrepreneurs and so on fill this gap. They are not all violent or profit seeking structure, but as we saw it through the example of Rio, they can be civil society and faith based organization providing services. They are an example of a possibly more democratic process, are organized by people connected to the context of a place, gives plurality to the political process and so on. We could advocate than rather than seeing them as threat, we should see them as opportunities. States always assume that it has to eradicate alternative governances. This produces a risk of small scale violent conflicts that can undermine regional and global stability. This was really speaking in the case of Rio, where the police forced evictions or “pacification programs” often resulted in more violence. Instead, states could learn how to negotiate with alternative structures and acknowledge them as legitimate interlocutors. Understanding better alternative structures can reduce future conflict and increase stability.

References

Reference List

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