Latin American CSOs lead during pandemic

Alexandre Ciconello, IBP senior program officer— Apr 07, 2020

Crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic often put civil society organizations on the front lines of response, filling the gaps governments cannot or will not fill. In this post, we highlight two IBP partners in Latin America that stepped up and are acting as leaders in their communities.

Brazil: Campaign wins guaranteed basic income for informal workers

informal workers
Informal workers (photo credit: Arthur Menescal)

As the country’s COVID-19 cases increased past 11,000, including more than 500 deaths, the Brazilian parliament approved a three-month basic-income guarantee for informal workers. And now, President Jair Bolsonaro has signed the bill—thanks to effective civil society mobilization.

This vital benefit was the result of a mobilization of more than 150 civil society organizations and social movements, along with a few politicians and political parties in the legislature. A coalition was formed and a campaign launched. In four days, boosted by popular YouTubers and heavy social media engagement, the campaign petition attracted more than 500,000 signatures. The petition was used to press parliamentarians to prioritize and vote for the bill. After some small modifications, the law was quickly passed by the two houses of the parliament.

The Institute of Socioeconomic Studies (INESC) is one of the five organizations leading this campaign. Given the social isolation necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting decrease in economic activities, the organizations were worried about how low-income families, especially those without a formal job, would survive. As city after city goes into lockdown to stop the spread of the virus, they are highly likely to lose their income.

Informal workers who earn a net family income below three times the minimum wage and do not receive any other social security benefit (with the exception of Bolsa Familia) will receive the temporary aid—an estimated 30 million people, costing around US$12 billion. Each worker will receive around US$120 a month; however, that doubles to US$240 if a household is led by a single mother. Up to two people in one family can receive the benefit. The federal government has already compiled a register of informal workers, which will streamline distribution.

José Antônio Moroni, co-executive director of INESC, says this is an emergency in which the interests of civil society organizations align with those of the majority of parliamentarians. “When the parliament opens itself up to the demands of civil society, when there is an openness to building solutions and projects together with civil society, good things happen,” he says.

“We want a basic income!”

INESC and its four partner organizations have an extensive track record in working with the Brazilian Parliament. Their advocacy and networking in the parliament paved the way for them to negotiate with a broad set of stakeholders. The organizations also participate in a variety of civil society networks and movements for democracy and human rights in Brazil, creating substantial on-the-ground connections that were quickly mobilized to put pressure on the parliament.

The income-support program is a dramatic contrast to the federal government’s earlier proposal, which suggested that employers withhold wages for four months. The government withdrew the idea, however, following a strong, negative reaction. This created an empty political space for civil society to fill.

Bolsonaro himself constantly minimizes the crisis, denying the impact of the virus on peoples’ health and calling for the suspension of social isolation—thus undermining state governors’ efforts to control the pandemic. This, despite fact that at least 23 members of his entourage have been infected. Bolsonaro not only refused to remain in isolation but made a point of shaking hands with his supporters and taking selfies with their mobile phones. The president later claimed he tested negative but refused to make the results public.

Now, the pressure is on for the president to quickly implement the measure by distributing the payments. More than 26,000 emails were sent in one week to Bolsonaro and his minister of finance, saying #PayItSoonBolsonaro #PagaLogoBolsonaro

Argentina: Homelessness is vulnerable hole in safety net

Homeless man
Photo credit: Pablo Vitale

COVID-19 isn’t yet at the scale seen in the United States, Italy and Spain in Argentina, but infections have crept past 1,000 and government officials have moved quickly to get out ahead of it. President Alberto Fernández announced a total quarantine of the population of 44 million, putting in place stringent measures to limit mobility and enforce social isolation. Despite an already battered economy, Fernández was convinced the country must learn from others’ mistakes.

However, one very vulnerable group was left out: the homeless people living on the streets of Buenos Aires and other big cities. When a census was conducted in April 2019, there were 7,251 people without stable homes in the capital city. Of these, 5,412 also did not have access to shelters and thus slept on the street, making their health precarious. More than a third (38%) reported suffering one or more health conditions; in fact, the most common are respiratory in nature. In addition, 10% of people living on the street are over 60 years old, the age group with the highest risk of death from COVID-19. Yet preventive measures such as regular handwashing, disinfecting frequently touched items and surfaces, etc. are measures that can hardly be done by someone living on the streets.

IBP partner ACIJ (Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia) has long focused on this vulnerable population as one of its main areas of work. Last year, it joined a team that conducted an unofficial census of homeless people, as well collaborated on a lawsuit demanding that the city government design and implement a comprehensive public policy to protect their rights.

When COVID-19 hit and homeless people were neglected, ACIJ joined CELS (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales), other civil society organizations and public defenders to call for urgent measures to ensure that homeless people can practice adequate hygiene and have free access to health care by:

  • Suspending evictions to avoid an increase in people living on the streets.
  • Guaranteeing alternative housing solutions when public shelters are full.
  • Requiring shelter staff to regularly clean their facilities, offer the supplies needed to maintain personal hygiene and organize access to health care.
  • Educating homeless people on preventive steps they can take and how/when to access health care when sleeping on the streets.
  • Providing economic support for public and social organizations that assist people living on the streets.
  • Assuring sufficient resources (budget, facilities and logistical support) are available to implement these actions. To allow civil society to monitor the use of these resources, ACIJ also is asking for transparency in the government’s procurement system.

Pressure was brought to bear on the government through social media, and a letter with demands was presented to the Ministry of Territorial Development and Habitat, as well as the city government in Buenos Aires.

Hopefully, these activities will pave the way to longer-term improvements in services to help secure housing for those without permanent shelter. ACIJ and its partners will continue their campaign to raise awareness of the fragile conditions of vulnerable communities, both during the COVID-19 pandemic and after.

This effort is part of a long-standing commitment of ACIJ to promote respect for human rights and defend society’s most vulnerable groups. Its goals include greater transparency and better performance of public institutions, awareness among citizens of their basic rights and the channels available for receiving protection, and training professionals from diverse disciplines who are committed to public-interest issues.

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