Trust in politics is declining across large parts of the democratic world. Many people have lost faith that politicians can change their lives for the better. Yet the situation is not as bad as it seems, because civil society actors are looking for innovative ways to change the political paradigm. The Brazilian NGO Update is one of them.
If you look around, there are quite a number of disturbing developments around the world:
First, there is a discourse of fear that focuses on the need to protect voters and citizens from what is different and that uses a narrative of “us against them” to safeguard individual privileges.
Second, we have a political elite incapable of understanding the new demands of society and of establishing a dialogue with the citizens, leaving a vacuum that is filled by adventurers and populists. These populists are usually not able to deal with complex issues or to point out alternatives for the public good.
Third, we see corruption scandals that reveal the old way of doing politics favoring certain groups in exchange for extremely high payments, strengthening the notion that democracy is a farce, by a few for a few. From this pessimistic perspective, it is very easy to fall into despair and hopelessness.
Yet the situation is not as bad as is seems.
At the same time that politics shows signs of crisis and collapse, a new way of doing politics emerges, where citizens and governments are moving towards a more fluid relationship of co-construction.
This Brazilian NGO seeks to update Latin American democracy through political innovation and promoting disruptive experiments in the region. Update is a laboratory for understanding, disseminating, and promoting exchange among political and civil society actors. The ultimate goal is to build a more democratic, equal, just, and inclusive Latin America.
These experiments are the building blocks of a new paradigm of politics in the 21st century.
Two years ago, we launched Update, a Brazilian NGO, based on the hypothesis that all over Latin America there was an ecosystem of emerging political practices capable of pointing to new ways of doing politics.
The choice of Latin America was not just one of geographical convenience but of necessity, because, as innovation specialists point out, “where there’s necessity, there’s innovation.”
A laboratory of political innovation
Indeed, it is partly because Latin America faces so many challenges – it is one of the most unequal regions in the world – that it suggests itself as a laboratory of political innovation. It was here that technologies were developed that subsequently have been adopted around the world – such as, for example, the participatory budget created in Brazil or the voting and political participation software DemocracyOs, which was created in Argentina and has been implemented in fifteen countries.
Motivated by the idea that the region had a lot to learn from itself and that it could also offer new political solutions and approaches to the world, we conducted the most extensive mapping exercise of political innovation in the region.
We mapped more than 700 initiatives – from government initiatives to more informal activism addressing topics such as transparency, participation, political culture, social control, government 2.0, etc. – which all shared the same purpose: bringing the citizens closer to decision-making.
It is necessary to rebuild the social fabric
This is not a trivial exercise and not easy to implement, as it requires a new understanding of the role of the state and above all of what it means to be a citizen in the 21st century.
Since 2015, we have closely studied these behaviors, and we see a new state emerging, more permeable to citizenship, and a new citizenship that is co-responsible for the successes and mistakes made by the state. That means that citizens and governments are not only part of the problem but part of the solution.
But in order to get to that point where innovation is not an experiment but a reality, it is necessary to rebuild the social fabric – that is, we must learn to trust in citizens’ capacity. This is a challenge in Latin America, considering that we are the region with the lowest indexes of trust between citizens and institutions.
So how is it possible to build trust in a society that has so little trust in the state? The answer is: through dialogue.
"So how is it possible to build trust in a society that has so little trust in the state? The answer is: through dialogue."
There are numerous examples of how this is already happening in Latin America, be it through digital tools that help governments to be more transparent or that help citizens to take part in public policy decisions.
Latin American Change Makers
There are citizen advocacy initiatives that pressure parliamentarians and public managers to meet the civil society’s agenda.
Furthermore, there are electoral experiments based on creativity and narratives of trust to overcome party oligarchies, new kinds of political parties that seek to radically democratize their processes, and public innovation labs that encourage and empower citizens to co-create public policies and re-define the role of the state.
These are just some examples, but there are a variety of formats and initiatives in various fields that aim to build a new way of doing politics and exercising democracy in Latin America.
This political transformation will not come from a single place, nor will it come only from the state or only from civil society, but it will have to come from both – like in a dance, where the partners know they have different steps but are moving to the same rhythm.
Civil society is signaling where it wants to move, but it is the government and the state that have the capacity to institutionalize the citizens’ demands and to transform them into public policies and laws.
We have the chance to create new relationships and new social pacts
Ultimately, we are talking about a type of politics that is more human, more accountable, more transparent, tolerant, organic, and empathetic, open to recognizing mistakes and to experimentation, and focused on the public good. It is important not to forget that this is a critical moment, which is, however, also full of opportunities.
We have the chance to use the dissatisfaction, frustration, and indignation in society to create new relationships and new social pacts. We must find ways to harness this vision and to make sure that the vacuum is not filled by those who seek personal gain and that this indignation does not result in social isolation and cynicism or even violence.
Strengthening and updating democracy in Latin America
We at Update are more optimistic, and we seek to promote the ecosystem of political innovation in the region with the goal of strengthening and updating democracy in Latin America. We at Update are one among many who seek to build this counter-narrative, and we do that through investigating, observing, and revealing the political innovation ecosystem in Latin America but also bringing to Brazil the experiments and tools we have learned from other countries in the region.
The goal is to present new examples and references especially to those who have lost or are about to lose hope. Not all is lost. I invite you to look at what Update is doing and discovering. Be prepared: you will again fall in love with politics.