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close this bookHabitat Debate - Vol. 3 - No. 1 - 1997 - Partnerships (HABITAT, 1997, 65 p.)
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How and Why Does a Partnership Work? The Mutirão 50 Experience in Brazil

by Yves Cabannes

The idea of a partnership which brings together, in a combined endeavour, a range of players with often very different interests, is now a hallowed theme and, for many people, a magic recipe or miracle formula for development. Partnership, yes, but what kind of partnership? is a question that must become an essential ingredient of any sound development project.

The intention in this article is to try and go beyond the rhetoric and to ask, on the basis of an actual field experience since 1988, what conditions made it possible and why it was able to produce such positive results.

The Mutir50 micro-urbanization project, located in one of the poorest favelas (shanty towns) on the outskirts of Greater Fortaleza, a Brazilian conurbation of some two and a half million inhabitants, has clearly demonstrated that by mobilizing the residents and with the help of specific and evolving links established between a neighbourhood association [the Rondon People’s Council (CONPOR)], the municipal authority, advisory non-governmental organizations - Groupe de Recherche et d’Echanges Technologiques (GRET) and the Cearah Perifer- and the support of the university, it became possible to transform a waterlogged rubbish dump into a housing estate with decent dwellings, businesses, a cre, a small-scale industrial area and children’s playgrounds.

The inhabitants of what might have been just another projected operation have called their neighbourhood “The New Dawn Estate”, thus declaring that they no longer regard themselves as shanty-town dwellers but as bona fide city residents.

My aim here is not so much to describe the project and its results but the conditions under which the partnership came into being and how the players involved perceived it.

The partnership has had not one but several models that have evolved over the years. There are two complementary questions that may be asked in this context: first, how and why was the partnership possible and, second, once the first flush of enthusiasm had passed, what kept it alive and enabled it to evolve?

Why was the initial agreement possible?

Several converging economic and social factors at the time explain why it was possible to sign the initial agreement between the city council and a non-governmental organization in 1988:

(a) The families concerned lived in one of the city’s worst areas, to which they had been banished following a compulsory eviction during the period of the dictatorship. Their complaints, within the Landless People’s Movement, were of an urgent nature, and they were united by their needs;

(b) For its part, the emergent social organization, coming from the grassroots and run by the inhabitants of the district themselves, not by politicians from the outside looking for political advantage, passed on the complaints of the inhabitants without external overtones;

(c) The Fortaleza City Council, administered by the left-wing Workers’ Party as a result of a strong lower-class vote, was anxious to find positive answers to the problems of the poorest inhabitants. In addition, the members of the technical staff, often active militants, were highly motivated and prepared to look for new solutions;

(d) GRET, for its own part, following the International Year of Shelter for the Homeless (1987) and the Non-governmental Forum in Berlin in the same year, could see the importance of supporting local and municipal development processes, based on popular participation. Linduina, from the CONPOR office, remembers: “The interest shown by this French organization persuaded the city council to give more support to the people here. GRET was something of a bridge between us and the city council.”

Why did the partnership last?

Over the course of ten years, Mutir50 had its ups and its downs but the process never stopped. Four mayors from different parties, or different factions in the same party, have come and gone during that time. The social services administration has changed its name four times and its chief officer has changed eight times. On every occasion, for the inhabitants and the non-governmental organization, the entire negotiating process had to be repeated and confidence rebuilt.

There are a number of reasons for the continuity of this partnership in a context of political discontinuity. Some of them have been identified:

(a) An agreement with a non-cancellation clause: The agreement, signed at a politically favourable moment, included a non-cancellation clause, on pain of legal proceedings and liability for damage and interest. Quite apart from that legal aspect, it specified, in precise and clearly defined terms, the objectives and results which could be realized within a short period and specified also the rights and duties of each party concerned. Over the years, the agreements have often been renewed for different purposes, but always with the same reasoned approach. They have served as an important safety-barrier, protecting what had already been achieved;

(b) Moving from the project stage to a slow and gradual process, or avoiding the “flash-in-the-pan” approach: The idea of a project with a beginning and an end was very soon abandoned. The partnership was built on the idea that to improve a district would be a slow and ongoing process, and fairly unpredictable. The partners met regularly to agree on the next step, which would be quite specific and clearly limited: a production workshop, fifty dwellings, a cre, a shopping centre etc. After each step, each party would preserve its room for manoeuvre but would be well aware of the significance of the step to follow. As Edilson, one of the historic leaders of the district and former chairman of CONPOR, says: “One of the most important things about this Mutir in my view, is that people can see the difficulties, the lack of commitment, but there is always something going on: the building of the cre, or the shops, gradually we are getting there”;

(c) Patience and doggedness of the community: For L a social worker who has worked for nine years in this vast slum district with its population of 120,000, one of the keys “is the exceptional patience and doggedness of the community, which has always kept going, despite all the internal squabbles. The inner strength of the community has enabled it to gain recognition and to assert its rights before the municipal authorities.” It was only in 1990, after three years of action, that the Landless Peoples Movement, which by then had become the People’s Council (CONPOR), signed its first agreement with the city council and the non-governmental organization. The agreements, that had previously been bilateral, were henceforth trilateral and were later expanded to include other partners as well;

(d) Political astuteness of the public administrator: Once the left-wing administration had come to an end, the mayor elect, who was later to be the youngest Governor in Brazil’s history, had the political common sense to keep the project going, even though it had been launched by a political rival. His trust in and respect for the terms of the agreement never waivered. He was the first to open the way for the continuity of the partnership, beyond political parties and partisan positions. Indeed, a partnership is also a story of individuals and commitments. As the mayor stated in public, “When I no longer believe in anything, I just take a look at Mutir50 to reassure myself that everything is possible”, thus demonstrating his deep trust in the process under way;

(e) Persistence and determination of the non-governmental organizations: The persistence and determination of the local GRET team, which was relieved after several years by a local non-governmental organization, Cearah Periferia, also help to account for the survival of the partnership. The technological choices, such as the use of land available nearby for cheap building operations, helped ensure the participation and involvement of the families. As a result of numerous international visits and signs of support, the non-governmental organizations helped to legitimize CONPOR in the eyes of the city council. Here, too, the shared commitment of a number of individuals over a period of time played its part.

(f) Sustainable development of CONPOR: In addition, and we regard this as basic, the non-governmental organizations helped CONPOR to lay the foundations for its sustainable and independent development. Nowadays, the former Landless People’s Movement owns land and rents out about 20 shops and workshops which guarantee it its own development. It has become a genuine economic and social player in the Fortaleza conurbation.

Mutir50 has been a great lesson for us all, teaching us the tolerance and respect for differences that bound together the foundations of democracy in a town ten years ago. As Pedroza, now the Chairman of CONPOR, recalls, “There can be no doubt that the various partners have played a basic role in making it possible for the community to regain confidence in itself, by settling technical problems, systematizing experience and mobilizing financial resources. The partners have respected the community’s initiatives, independence and freedom of decision-making.”

Yves Cabannes was Coordinator of Latin American Urban Initiatives, Groupe de Recherche et d’Echanges Technologiques (GRET) in Fortaleza, Brazil. He is currently the Regional Coordinator of the joint UNDP/UNCHS Urban Management Programme in Latin America and the Caribbean.