The Voluntarisation of Welfare in Manchester: A Blessing and a Burden

Janne Heederik

Published on Focaalblog on October 2, 2020

As a result of welfare reform and continuing budget cuts, social service agencies in the UK have struggled to make ends meet and match the still-growing demand on their services. Local councils and the voluntary sector have both suffered cuts. The former are increasingly looking to the voluntary sector for help, while the latter used to rely heavily on grants from statutory bodies and suffers from increased funding restrictions. In the context of welfare reform, a model of active citizenship and participation has emerged. This model focuses on decreasing citizen dependence on welfare and social services while encouraging the ‘responsibilisation’ of citizens (Verhoeven & Tonkens, 2013). This policy agenda, supported by successive UK governments, has painted a picture of the ‘active citizen’ as a solution and improvement to the budget cuts in the voluntary sector. Citizens are encouraged to ‘take more responsibility’ instead of ‘depending on remote and impersonal bureaucracies’. As part of this responsibilisation, volunteers have taken center stage and their positive impact on communities is emphasized and celebrated (Schinkel & Van Houdt, 2010). Volunteers play an increasingly crucial role in welfare provision and the welfare system relies heavily on their work. 

The extent of this reliance became clear during my fieldwork in Manchester in 2018 – 2019. I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in Manchester for 16 months, during which I worked with several advice centers in Greater Manchester. In November 2018, I attended a ‘Volunteer Day’ organized by the advice center I had been volunteering at for the past year. This annual event celebrates volunteers and gives paid staff and management a chance to thank volunteers for their work and commitment. The day was opened by a speech from Jack Puller, member of the charity Manchester Alliance for Community Care (MACC), who ‘supports and encourages local people to be active citizens through volunteering and other forms of participation’. His speech focused on impact and how to measure it. In numbers, he states that more than 110,000 people in Manchester volunteer, putting in a total of 278,000 hours of work each week, and having a total worth of 252 million pounds. Puller also mentioned that impact cannot be measured in numbers alone. Volunteers are vital to social services, arguing that they reflect the spirit of Manchester and are crucial to the existence of places like the advice center.

While this still presents a positive image of the impact of volunteering, the reality is that many advice centers can no longer survive without volunteers and there is a constant need for more volunteers to fill the gaps in advice services. Advice centers, along with other social services, have suffered from a ‘double squeeze’:  a withdrawal of public services has led to an increase in demand, while they simultaneously have to work with shrinking budgets (Evans, 2017). As a result, many depend on the work of volunteers more than before and even then, many fail to meet the demand and have to send people looking for their help away on a daily basis, as I experienced during fieldwork. Voluntarism in British welfare provision is thus not as straightforward and romantic as Puller depicted it, and both volunteers and paid advisers often struggle to navigate their workload and the relationship between them. The double squeeze on advice centers has not only made them more dependent on volunteers but has also changed the role of volunteers, who have become central more in the advice centers. In this contribution, I further analyze how the dependence on volunteers has changed their role within advice centers, showing how this affects the relationships between paid advisers and volunteers and analyzing how narratives of active citizenship often translate into different realities. Specifically, I lay bare how a politics of austerity has resulted in a paradoxical relationship with volunteers, where they are perceived as both a blessing and a burden. 

Many social services, including advice centers, have aimed to bridge the growing gap between demand and capacity by relying more heavily on the work of volunteers, with some advice centers I worked with even being completely volunteer-run. This gap is usually characterized as a gap in more professional work, where paid advisers can no longer cover all their tasks due to lack of time and resources. As a result, the growing reliance on volunteers in the provision of social services is also characterized by the increasingly professional nature of the work volunteers do. As Verhoeven and Bochove note, volunteers are now expected to do more than provide complimentary work to the work paid advisers do, they are increasingly expected to take over parts of the paid advisers’ responsibilities, referred to as the ‘volunteer responsibilisation’ (Verhoeven & Van Bochove, 2018). However, my fieldwork showed that many volunteers are underprepared when they first start their work and are not able to carry out those responsibilities, which complicates the working dynamics at the center. At an advice center in the North of Manchester, where about two thirds of staff members are volunteers, all prospective volunteers must attend a training program to prepare them for volunteer responsibilities. I volunteered here as well and attended the 9-week training program, with one training day a week. The training aimed to prepare volunteers for both the practical and emotional labor ahead of them, but often proved insufficient once volunteers started their voluntary activities at the advice center. The large majority of volunteers felt underprepared for the complexities and intensities of advice work. For example, a former volunteer named Susan told me that she enjoyed helping clients with more straightforward form-filling, but struggled with more complex cases. For her, it resulted in high levels of anxiety and guilt, to the extent that she eventually stopped volunteering as an adviser. ‘It felt like I was just sitting there with my hands cut off, watching someone in front of me die’, she told me. 

Figure 1: Volunteers during their weekly training on the welfare system and advice sector (photo: Janne Heederik, 2018) 

Welfare advisers often have to deal with difficult and complex situations, with their clients struggling to make ends meet and often coming to the advice center feeling desperate and upset. It is the task of advisers to guide their clients through the welfare system, approach authorities on their behalf, and manage benefit outcomes to their best ability. However, the welfare system has grown increasingly complex, and advisers often have to engage in a ‘complex web of relations’ to assist their client (Forbess & James, 2014:80). For volunteers like Susan, the practical skills and emotional labor required to do good advice work, often feel like too big a responsibility to carry. Similarly, during my time as a volunteer at this advice center, I had to help clients who were about to be evicted, clients who had lost all their income, clients who had escaped abusive relationships, and clients who were depressed and sometimes even suicidal. While the training program provides basic information on how the welfare system operates and how advisers navigate it, these intricacies of advice-giving are too complex to teach in a course. Many volunteers, like Susan, are in need of more guidance, but more often than not volunteers are thrown into the deep-end and have to cover tasks previously done by professionals. Unlike their paid colleagues, however, they have to do without the financial or practical support: they do not receive monetary pay, nor do they receive the proper training to teach them how to deal with the complex client cases and the emotional labor that comes with it. In addition, the high demand and the lack of space, time, and resources, means that there is little time to process such events. Volunteers I spoke to often felt alone in dealing with some of the hardship they were faced with when seeing clients. One volunteer described how he often felt inadequate and how this resulted in him researching ongoing developments and policy changes at home: 

I feel like I am always at the limits of my knowledge, and I already know a lot more than the average person. Volunteers like me have to put in a lot of time. You don’t just do your hours here. I often have to research stuff at home too. 

Whilst active citizenship is thus envisioned as an enriching and fulfilling experience, for many volunteers this is only part of the story. The work they take on is more intense and demanding then initially anticipated and some volunteers struggle with the pressure they feel to respond to the demand adequately. These high expectations of volunteer work and the contradictory lack of training and preparation imply that volunteers can no longer be seen as amateurs supporting social services, but as professionals who deliver unpaid yet essential work (Coule & Bennett, 2018; Verhoeven & Van Bochove, 2018). It is an attempt for voluntarism to strengthen the welfare system despite reform and budget cuts, but it falls short in its assumption that welfare advice can be done by anyone at any time.  

Advice centers thus need volunteers to fill certain gaps in their work capacity, but at the same time struggle with the knowledge that volunteers often cannot fill these gaps with the same level of professionalism as paid advisers. Volunteers often turn to paid advisers for both practical and emotional support. Advisers might have to jump in or even take over appointments from volunteers who are unable to help their clients sufficiently. The manager of one of the advice centers expressed her concern regarding the center’s reliance on volunteers, stating it worried her that ‘this type of work is done by volunteers. Such overly complicated issues like almost all benefit cases rely on volunteers’. She worried for the clients, who might not get the right help if volunteers tried to solve client’s cases on their own, but was equally worried about volunteers and whether they were able to cope. Furthermore, often having to rely on assistance from paid advisers, the use of volunteers within advice centers often leads to an increase in workload for paid advisers. This leads to a paradoxical situation, where advisers must rely on volunteers for the survival of the advice center, but at the same time experience an increase in their workload as many volunteers need guidance and training. 

This paradox is further complicated by the fact that relying on volunteers always comes with certain levels of insecurity as volunteers are not bound to contracts and employment conditions like paid advisers are. The turnover of volunteers was high at all the advice centers I visited, with volunteers staying anywhere between weeks and months, but rarely longer than a year. Additionally, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, volunteers often had a wide range of skills and abilities, meaning not every volunteer could handle the same tasks and paid advisers spent a lot of time figuring out what volunteer would cover which task. 

For permanent staff and management, relying on volunteers is thus necessary for the survival of the advice center, but never easy. And it can at times be burdensome. Volunteers cannot fulfill certain roles and end up sitting around and doing nothing, while at the same time there is never enough staff to do everything that needs doing. As a result, staff end up having to spend more time helping volunteers then they might gain form their presence. This situation forces paid advisers to engage in ‘volunteer management’ (Verhoeven & Van Bochove, 2018). Volunteer management involves the dividing of tasks among volunteers according to their skills and abilities, keeping track of who will be present on what day and making sure volunteers are spread out evenly across the week, checking in with volunteers to make sure they can cope with the demand and emotional labor of their work, and assisting volunteers in their work whenever necessary.

In addition, volunteer management also impacts the relationship between volunteers and advisers. Dividing tasks among volunteers often resulted in an unequal distribution of tasks, where more highly educated or experienced volunteers would be given many and more complex tasks, whereas other volunteers struggled to get any tasks at all. During a volunteer meeting at one of the advice centers, volunteers had the chance to raise any questions or issues they had. One volunteer mentioned an incident where she had been asked to see a client, but she did not feel comfortable taking on the tasks as she felt unqualified to deal with the complexity of the client’s case. Another volunteer had offered to step in, but the adviser assigning the task would not listen. ‘I was essentially told to just get on with it’, the volunteer said, adding that it had made her feel very uncomfortable and hesitant to ask the adviser for any tasks in the future. Volunteers who were given more complex tasks mentioned that they often felt they were not prepared for the difficulties of these cases, and struggled to deal with them emotionally and practically. On the other hand, volunteers who struggled to stay busy, mentioned that they were bored, could not develop their skills, and felt they could not help as much as they had wanted to. The paradox of volunteers being both a blessing and a burden resulted in difficulties for paid advisers and volunteers and affected their relationship. However, despite having tensions in the workplace, where advisers sometimes feel volunteers just add to their workload and volunteers feel left to their own devices, these tensions did not seem to translate into frustration with one another. Volunteers were always acutely aware of the workload that paid advisers had to carry and understood that they simply lacked time to train volunteers. Furthermore, whilst being aware that as volunteers they sometimes added to this workload, volunteers said they felt respected and accepted by their paid colleagues. Advisers were always grateful and positive about the volunteers, highly aware of the advice center’s dependence on their work: ‘We would be closing our doors without them’, one adviser said. Similarly, the manager of the advice center stated: ‘Volunteers have played more and more of a key role, they are at the front of our service’. 

However, the paradox of the volunteer as a blessing and a burden remains, and many advisers felt frustrated with their working conditions. Rather than resulting in frustration towards volunteers, this frustration was predominantly aimed at the government, and there was a strong sentiment that the government had failed the voluntary sector while at the same time having offloaded its responsibility onto citizens under the banner of active citizenship. The key issue advisers pointed to was almost always funding. As one adviser stated:

If they want this [advice work] to be free, they need to provide the proper funding […] Look at us, advisers can’t help you properly because they are busy with five other cases, volunteers are taking on responsibilities they shouldn’t be, and we are all overworked. And it’s the government that is to blame.

These tensions between advisers and volunteers are therefore more than workplace quarrels; they are political. They reflect the everyday reality on the frontlines of a policy agenda of budget cuts and ‘citizen activation’. The responsibilisation of voluntary work is therefore problematic not just in the heaviness of the responsibilities that volunteers have to carry and its effect on their relationship with advisers, it also lays bare the problematic nature of a policy agenda that aims to offload government responsibilities onto the voluntary sector and citizens, without providing them with the necessary financial assistance and substantive support. The experiences of paid advisers and volunteers tell a clear story: advice services – among many other social services in the UK – are in crisis, but as important as volunteers are, it should not be their role to rescue these services. However, the outcry for change is still predominantly focused on those they are trying to help: they protest and advocate for the rights of welfare claimants, and in the process forget to advocate for their own rights. Individual voluntary commitment can be a blessing, but the overall use of voluntarism as a solution to budget cuts and welfare reform is a burden. 

Janne Heederik is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University and a member of a ERC-funded research project on participatory urban governance. Based on ethnographic research in Manchester, UK, her research explores welfare, poverty, and brokerage in contemporary Britain.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614).


Coule, T., & Bennett, E. (2018). State-Voluntary Relations in Contemporary Welfare Systems: New Politics or Voluntary Action as Usual? Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly47(4), 139–158.

Evans, S. (2017). A Reflection On Case Study One: The Barriers to Accessing Advice. In S. Kirwan (Ed.), Advising in Austerity: Reflections on Challenging Times for Advice Agencies (pp. 23–27). Bristol: Policy Press.

Forbess, A., & James, D. (2014). Acts of Assistance: Navigating the Interstices of the British State with the Help of Non-profit Legal Advisers. Social Analysis58(3), 73–89.

Schinkel, W., & Van Houdt, F. (2010). The Double Helix of Cultural Assimilationism and Neo-liberalism: Citizenship in Contemporary Governmentality. British Journal of Sociology61(4), 696–715.

Verhoeven, I., & Tonkens, E. (2013). Talking Active Citizenship: Framing Welfare State Reform in England and the Netherlands. Social Policy and Society12(3), 415–426.

Verhoeven, I., & Van Bochove, M. (2018). Moving away, toward, and against: How front-line workers cope with substitution by volunteers in Dutch care and welfare services. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union47(4), 783–801.

The human cost of city upgrading in ‘pro-poor’ Medellín

Adam James Moore

Published on Focaalblog on September 23, 2020

On 1st March 2018, a group of protestors blocked a dual-carriageway in front of Acevedo Metro (and Metro cable line) Station in the North of Medellín, Colombia. Those who have read something about Medellín’s internationally acclaimed urban transformation in recent years will have almost definitely found their gaze drawn to the image of a cable car suspended above a tapestry of terracotta roofs that cascades down Medellín’s Aburra Valley. This image has become emblematic of a wondrous turning-point in Medellín’s contemporary urban trajectory. Once a hotbed of urban violence, state abandonment and spatial disconnection, these underprivileged peripheral neighbourhoods received state investment in bold infrastructural projects, and via the introduction of participatory governance mechanisms, now enjoy an empowering degree of protagonism in shaping Medellín’s urban future. Welcome to the ‘pro-poor’ city of Medellín.

In mainstream representations of the city, this seductive narrative of transformation has come to be known as ‘the Medellín miracle’—a U-turn from pole position in world homicide rates to rebirth as a pioneer of ‘social urbanism’ by the mid-2000s. This alleged Medellín Miracle has captured the hearts and minds of international development practitioners, business leaders and urbanists alike. In 2014, Medellín triumphed over strong competition to host the 7th UN HABITAT World Urban Forum with ‘equity’ at the centre of the development agenda. Other prestigious awards include: ‘Innovative City of the Year 2013’; ‘The Lee Kuan Yew World City Prize 2016’; ‘The World’s Smartest City 2019’; and all pay homage to Medellín’s local government for distributing the benefits of city upgrading evenly across the socio-economic spectrum. 

Whilst the local government continues to dine out on its own reputation as a champion of urban equity on the global circuit, local residents, such as those protesting in front of the metro station, say that when it comes to the planning and implementation of urban renovation projects, certain people ‘are more equal than others’. This blog scrutinises the prevailing and yet misleading notion that Medellín’s local government approach to urban change is ‘pro-poor’. Instead, I foreground the underreported ‘human cost’ of these interventions, and particularly their emphasis on the emergent needs of the knowledge-economy and wealthier classes. In this I draw on my ethnographic work on the practice of ‘autoconstruction’ in Medellín (Caldeira, 2017), which shows that the local government eradicates the means through which the economically most vulnerable residents manage to inhabit the city.

Some people are more equal than others

As I stood at the road-block in 2018, the city’s façade of equitable urban development began to crumble away. Acevedo Metro Station sits in the basin of the Aburra Valley. At present, this iconic cable car line runs up and down one side of the valley. The opposite side is poised for renovation, including a second cable-line with three gleaming new Metro-cable stations. At the 2018 road-block, residents and community leaders protested against these developments, which would evict them from their homes. Human rights activists, city councillors and students who confront similar problems across the city joined them. A squeaking megaphone changed hands throughout the afternoon as community leaders spoke about social injustices unfolding in different neighbourhoods where compensation for evictions is not enough to buy another house in Medellín, let alone in the same neighbourhood. Workspaces and productive units are lost, the state as well as local armed actors intimidate residents and community leaders. 

At dusk, shortly before leaving, a man spoke to me and pointed over to his house – soon to be demolished in the planned extension of Avecedo Station. ‘Look’, he said, ‘we don’t oppose the projects; they’re good for the city. What we don’t agree with is how the government carries out the projects…in their line of thinking it’s, first, start the new construction, and, then, they throw us out on the streets like dogs.’ His words reflected a troubling and, at times, more latent sentiment underpinning residents’ participation in the road-block that day – these changes are desirable, but they aren’t for us. Who, then, it must be asked, is it all for?

Image 1: A group of protestors block the road outside Acevedo Metro Station on 3rd March 2018. The self-built houses in the neighborhood ‘La Paralela’ have since been demolished and inhabitants still await compensation (Photo by Adam James Moore). 

Recent critical scholarship on Medellín’s current urban makeover demonstrates that the plight of those at the road-block by Acevedo Station is inseparable from a substantive shift in the city’s economic strategy to move from light manufacturing to services. Franz (2017) provides a compelling interrogation of the role played by Medellín’s economic elite in driving an alleged bottom-up ‘urban miracle’ via oligarchic conglomerates such as the Antioquian Business Group (GEA) that effectively controls participation and opaque decision-making since the 1990s. Medellín’s economic elite of today is a ‘transnational capitalist class’ and not the regionally-minded industrial elite of the past. Since the 1990s, this transnational capitalist class has enforced global market-led urban development through the reconfiguration of local (‘good governance’) arrangements and the large-scale construction of what Hylton (2007) calls ‘show-case public works’ to attract international capital investment. 

The transition to a service economy shapes Medellín’s built environment far beyond the unsavoury erection of ‘Latin America’s Silicon Valley’ (the Medellín Innovation District) in the historically under-funded Northern part of the city. As Anguelovski et al. (2019, 136) criticise, the ‘greening’ of city-spaces ‘augments efforts to attract knowledge workers with new bikeways and leisure spaces conducive to their preferences, and has already brought in new real-estate development projects for middle – and upper – class residents’. For many residents, conversely, these new green public amenities spell eviction and dispossession. In sum, the ‘success’ of the GEA’s ambitions to position Medellín as a provider of services in the global economy rests heavily upon re-imagining the urban landscape as strategic areas around the city. Favourable tax-breaks and flexible employment conditions for multi-national companies alone are not enough, Medellín must become a place where these businesses and their future tech-savvy employees want to work, live and play.

There is, however, a problem of seismic proportions unfolding here. Urban renovation interventions, such as the new cable-line, are leaving a trail of destruction, tears and human rights violations in their path. In a recent publication, ‘Victims of Development in Medellín: progress and inhabitants in dispute’, Kavilando and their co-authors (2018) provide a meticulous case by case assessment of ongoing urban renovation projects in Medellín and the harmful trail of destruction (economic, psychological, emotional, material, social, health-related) this confers upon local communities. Throughout 2018, urban activists and human rights defenders denounced 5,924 cases of eviction and displacement caused by urban development projects within Medellín. One would hope that, for the local government, this statistic makes for uncomfortable reading. 

Medellín is a city that has been plagued by intra-urban displacement of the civilian population due to armed territorial disputes over the last decade. This phenomenon remains an episodic menace in certain neighbourhoods, but the total number of reported cases has significantly reduced from 17,954 in 2011 to 3,494 in 2017. As things stand, this means that the local government (together with its backroom network of ‘master-planners’ in the form of the GEA) has replaced armed groups as the main perpetrator of forced displacement in Medellín’s urban area. It is also relevant to point out that many of the residents caught up in cycles of state-led displacements in the city are families who already figure in government databases as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of regional conflict, who built their own houses in Medellín precisely because the government has failed to come good on its obligation of housing subsidies to date.

Creating a city without the poor: autoconstruction, disasters & anti-invasion squads

In its role as lead perpetrator of forced displacement, the local government is also responsible for eradicating the means through which residents at the bottom of Medellín’s income ladder have historically managed to inhabit the city: autoconstruction – a practice through which residents build their own housing and make urban life liveable despite the limited structures of economic opportunity available to them (Caldeira, 2017). In many neighbourhoods citywide, the local government is chipping away at existing self-built settlements ‘manzana por manzana’ (block by block), whilst doubling-down on repressive penal measures to impede the formation of new ones. Such strategies form part of what Anguelovski et al. (2019) refer to as ‘grabbed landscapes’. Their study of Medellín’s ‘green-belt’ development shows how green infrastructural planning and the ‘beautification’ of certain territories in and around self-built settlements dispossess residents of location, land and social capital and prevent the ‘undesirable’ expansion of autoconstructed settlements. Thus, green interventions that purport ‘benefits for all’ (e.g. parks) produce new inequalities by ‘disciplining’ the landscape to prioritise the leisure needs of wealthier classes over the basic survival needs of the poor.

This logic is also reflected in the local government’s response to disasters in self-built settlements. Also present at the road-block in front of Acevedo Metro Station were representatives of 349 families, who lost their self-built housing in a fire in August, 2017. Noelia, a single mother, recalled receiving a phone call at work in a nursery in the wealthiest part of the city. She rushed back to the settlement, ‘El Oasis’, just in time to witness, from a distance, the second floor of her wooden house collapsing into the first. Noelia described her sense of devastation at the sight as something akin to a descent into madness. She would later discover that the first fire engine to arrive on the scene had empty water tanks and the second one a broken hose. After the disaster, Noelia battled to keep a roof over her head, forgoing meals to make the rent, constantly on the dehumanising precipice of eviction. 

In the wake of the disaster, Noelia had applied for the local housing department’s Temporary Rent Programme, which offers a monthly rent subsidy to victims of natural disasters or housing evictions for up to a full year. But Noelia’s application was rejected for her ‘failure’ to submit the required documentation on time. Her feasible plea that these documents were still smouldering in the ashes fell upon the unforgiving ears of a senseless bureaucratic norm. As Noelia moved from one rental property to the next, eventually ending up in a cheap boarding house, the local government set about converting the plot of land in ‘El Oasis’ – where 349 households once stood – into an ‘ecological garden’. The disaster in El Oasis became an opportunity for the local government to consolidate its land grabbing ambitions. When I departed Medellín in November 2018, many of these families were living under a motorway bridge.

Image 2: ‘El Oasis’ – 8 months after the fire, a short while before the local government removed the debris and converted it into an ‘ecological garden’ (Photo taken by Adam James Moore) 

Noelia hoped that her time living in the overcrowded boarding house would only be temporary. Entire families occupy single rooms and the bathroom facilities are shared. A gas canister stood next to her mattress because there were no facilities or common spaces available for cooking. It was far from desirable, but living in these conditions allowed Noelia to save some money. As soon as she built up enough savings, she was planning on purchasing a plot of land from the paramilitary groups (who govern and profit from illicit land markets in Medellín) and rebuilding her hut from scratch. But more autoconstruction is exactly what the local government is hell-bent on phasing out completely, meaning that Noelia’s future plans look more unattainable now than ever before. 

Historically, ‘invasions’ have always been mired in tensions relating to urban planning and regularly involve physical stand-offs between residents attempting to meet their basic needs and public authorities opposing the ‘illegal’ occupation of public land. As of September 2017, however, the local government’s repressive measures against land ‘invasions’ have intensified through the Department of Territorial Management’s funding of ‘The Prevention and Attention to Invasions Programme’. What this means on the ground is that ‘anti-invasion squads’ now prevent  constructions in breach of planning norms. In the first six months, these anti-invasion squads carried out 2,800 inspections and 204 demolitions citywide. Areas considered invasion hot-spots are under permanent surveillance, ‘El Oasis’ included. The Prevention and Attention to Invasions Programme not only affects ‘newcomers’ whose houses get flattened before completion, but also long-term residents who receive fines for modifying the existing structures of their households. A resident replacing a leaky roof in a self-built settlement now runs the risk of waking up with a fine or eviction notice pinned to their front door.

Of course, not every house is set to imminently disappear. As da Silva (2020) details in this blog feature series, municipal administrations (in the author’s case, in Recife, Brazil) also benefit from self-built settlements initiated by the poor. This, da Silva argues, can be understood as the ‘occupancy urbanism of the powerful’. In Medellín, for instance, some self-built settlements like the Comuna 13 (once the neighbourhood with the world’s highest murder rate) serve marketing purposes in the narrative of miraculous transformation. In turn, they attract revenue from tourists seeking a narcissistic flirtation with dangers past; safe, of course, within the (differentiated) security provision of the present. Then they head back to the hostel, bosh a line of coke, and tell anyone who will listen all about it.

Appealing fantasy vs. lived reality

The reality outlined in this blog unsettles the misleading yet hegemonic global narrative about urban transformation in Medellín, which heralds the local government as a world leader in its commitment to ‘equitable’ and ‘pro-poor’ urban development interventions. The dramatic mismatch between this appealing fantasy and the lived reality of urban renovation interventions in Medellín is, in part, explained by the dizzying amount of cash that the city mayor’s administration pumps into the commissioning and distribution of favourable PR at home and abroad in multiple languages. Whilst serving as mayor of Medellín from 2015 to 2019, Federico Gutiérrez earned himself a reputation among local residents for never being in the country. During his administration, ‘Fico’ spent over 100 days abroad at urban and business conferences, spear-heading Medellín’s internationalisation strategy to attract foreign capital investment through the promotion of the city’s ‘socially inclusive’ approach to urban development. 

On the ground back home, community leaders who spearhead resistance against urban renovation interventions in pursuit of more socially equitable urban outcomes risk violent reprisals from local armed groups that still govern neighbourhoods. On return to Medellín in late 2019, I was distressed to discover that Diana, one of the community leaders present at the 2018 road-block, had since fled her neighbourhood due to threats. Her crime had been to lead the mobilisations to ensure that residents of ‘La Paralela’ (one of the neighbourhoods affected by the extension of the metro cable-line) received just compensation for – and before – the demolition of their self-built houses. One evening on the way home from a meeting in the city centre, as she was making her way down the semi-lit stairwell from Acevedo metro station to the roadside, a woman approached Diana. The silhouettes of two figures sat on motorbikes lingered menacingly on the pavement a short distance away. ‘You’ve delayed things long enough’, the woman spat at Diana. Unless Diana stopped what she was doing, this traumatic exchange transpired, someone would be back, and, this time, to bury a bullet inside her.

It is unlikely we will ever know who gave the order for the threat. But the reflection of a local human rights defender a short while after the event offers some vital perspective on the complexity of this particular incident. ‘Without, necessarily, the need for a direct relationship (between a construction company, the local government and the armed groups),’ the human rights defender said, ‘they all serve each other’s ends’. Mega-projects or large-scale construction work mean funds, he explained, so armed groups seize the opportunity to extort the major companies for building in their zone of the city. If construction gets delayed, so, too, do the armed group’s extortion payments. Delays in construction do not suit the local government’s short or long-term economic plans either, so, one simple way to ensure that urban development projects continue unabated is tolerating, albeit indirectly, the presence of these armed groups alongside their unwritten license to intimidate and, as such, control the citizenry in Medellín’s urban area. ‘It functions like a breakon social mobilisations’, he added. Meanwhile, construction can go ahead.

In Medellín, as the local government together with a network of private actors impose a greener and more highly-regulated yet exclusionary architecture on the city under the guise of social inclusion and urban equity, the targeted demolitions of self-built settlements alongside draconian preventative measures to guard against the formation of new ones are engendering a profound disruption of the socio-material relationship that the city’s poorest residents have established with the built environment. 

Adam James Moore is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen (The Netherlands), and member of the ERC-funded research project “Participatory urban governance between democracy and clientelism: Brokers and (in)formal politics”. He is also the producer of a documentary, ‘Fire in El Oasis’, related to his research in Medellín.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614).


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da Silva, Sven. “Special Zones, Slums, and High-rise buildings: Community leaders between “occupancy urbanism” of the poor and the powerful in Recife, Brazil.” FocaalBlog, 31 July 2020.,-slums,-and-high-rise-buildings:-community-leaders-between-“occupancy-urbanism”-of-the-poor-and-the-powerful-in-recife,-brazil/

Franz, Tobias. 2017. “Urban Governance and Economic Development in Medellín an ‘Urban Miracle’?” Latin American Perspectives. 213 (2). 

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Group-making and distrust within the infrastructure of refugee support

Lieke van der Veer

Published on Focaalblog on August 3, 2020

In the Netherlands from 2015 onwards, the ‘spectacle’ (Casas-Cortes et al. 2015) of people arriving into Europe seeking refuge was channeled by vast media attention and political debate. These events triggered a vast response of bottom-up initiatives in the Netherlands wanting to support refugee status holders. In this contribution, I focus on such newly emerged initiatives that seek to support refugee status holders in Rotterdam, the second-largest city in the Netherlands. It discusses the struggles that the initiators of these initiatives face, who more often than not have a refugee background themselves. It shows how these struggles originate from the ambiguous categorizations of group-making that experimental policies presuppose in the field of refugee reception and support in urban spaces today. 

I focus on initiatives that are not established yet, but are still in the process of becoming. By studying initiatives that are still fine-tuning their focus, grappling for funds, searching for volunteers, seeking collaborations with others et cetera, I had an insight in the constitutive and generative elements of the infrastructure of refugee reception and support. 

During a 12-month ethnographic fieldwork period in Rotterdam in which I studied such initiatives, I followed several aspiring initiatives in their efforts to establish partnerships with other organizations. When the community organizers of these initiatives would meet with people who know about funding circuits, discuss their project proposals with the municipality, pitch their plan in network sessions, organize events to acquire volunteers and so on, I joined them. In doing so, moments of breakdown (Larkin 2013) were particularly insightful; when my research participants hoped for or anticipated something that did not arrive, I learned about who may do what, where and how.

Rotterdam is an illuminating case to study grassroots initiatives in the field of refugee reception and support. It is considered ‘policy laboratory’ (cf. Van Houdt and Schinkel 2019) and is celebrated for its allegedly innovative urban and social policies, including in relation to migrant integration. Rotterdam cherishes its alleged hands-on mentality – a mentality captured by the popular slogan ‘actions speak louder than words’. Contrasting with Rotterdam’s self-image as experimental and bold, the city has the highest number of low-income households in the Netherlands. Another central force in the city is Livable Rotterdam [‘Leefbaar Rotterdam’], a rightwing party with populist traits and the highest share of votes in local elections. Their policies focus on so-called immigrant assimilation and are explicitly anti-immigration – which translates into policy frameworks that the resident initiatives I study here are affected by and provides context to the fierce anti-immigrant protests in the city in 2015. 

Intersecting struggles

Between 2016 and 2020, the so-called Rotterdam Approach for Status Holders explicitly reached beyond the integration objectives articulated by the national government. For example, in Rotterdam, the City Council expects refugee status holders to pass the civic integration exams one year earlier than usually required. In addition, through the ‘Time Obligation’ measure [dagdeleneis], the City Council expects refugee status holders to be ‘active in society for at least four days a week or more with education, work, or voluntary work’. This measure is part of the so-called ‘Participation Act’, which applies to everybody in receipt of benefits. Although a policy evaluation pointed out that only 47 per cent of the status holders in Rotterdam was indeed ‘active’, the most recent (2019-2022) Rotterdam Approach to Status Holders largely continues the existing approach. As a consequence, the refugee status holders that I worked with struggle to live up to the demand to integrate fast, struggle to find their way in the incomprehensive field of initiatives, and fear to be unsuccessful in managing their new lives. 

Resident initiatives that seek to support status holders struggle too – although on first sight, Rotterdam seems the place to be for resident initiatives. The Rotterdam Approach for Status Holders states that, in ‘coordinating additional activities’ for accepted asylum seekers, it ‘smartly uses […] private initiatives for refugees and volunteer work,’ thus explicitly opening up the floor for participatory initiatives to play a role. The document claims to ‘believe in the added value of civil society,’ to recognize ‘that creative and innovative initiatives from volunteer organizations give new energy and help integration,’ and that it ‘encourages such initiatives wholeheartedly.’ It thereby responds to recommendations from The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) to mobilize to ‘society’ and ‘volunteer projects’ in ‘speeding up integration’, as well as to the general appeal to ‘active citizenship’.

In practice, however, funds are drying up. In 2014, the city administration agreed to ‘stop irrelevant subsidies in the field of diversity and emancipation,’ for ‘tax payers’ money gets lost’ and ‘subsidizing activities is not a goal in itself’. This shift away from subsidized activities is explicitly mentioned in a recent policy documentregarding support to refugee status holders: ‘only a small part of the budget remains available for subsidies for small-scale, innovative initiatives from society,’ the document points out. As such, the initiatives I worked with find themselves faced with competitive funding schemes; they fear being excluded from subsidies and collaborations, while trying their best to build an image of professional legitimacy.

Opaque group-making

The different forms of struggle identified thus far can also come to intersect, as illustrated in the case of Aida. Aida received a refugee status several years ago, is in receipt of social benefits, and is in the process of setting up an initiative to help Eritrean status holders with their paper work. However, she is afraid she will not be able to get support from the City Council. This is so because the abolishment of the so-called ‘target group policy’ in Rotterdam prescribes that policies should target the population of Rotterdam in general, and not have specific interventions that assume ethno-racial differences (such as people with an Eritrean nationality). Although the Netherlands has a strong tradition of implementing targeted policies, the shift from group-specific policies to generic policies has been a political priority since at least the 2000s (Scholten and Van Breugel 2018). As a result, there is evidence of a declining consciousness of migrant integration concerns, because generic policies often fail to incorporate immigrant integration priorities in the ‘mainstream’ (idem).

For Rotterdam, Dekker and Van Breugel have deconstructed the move from target group policies towards generic policies. They identify a ‘continuous act of balancing between generic and specific policies’ (Dekker and Van Breugel 2019, 128) that at one time implements targeted policies for migrants and at another time subsumes migrant interest under generic policies. These interchanging approaches to group-making in Rotterdam now seem to have reached an equilibrium in which generic policies are the norm. Regarding the support of civil society organizations that seek to assist refugee status holders, the municipality decided to no longer support ‘mono-ethnic and/or mono-religious activities’ to the extent that initiatives ‘will not be financed, unless there are substantive reasons to do otherwise’ because activities should be ‘focused on participation and integration.’ In another policy document, the city’s discouragement of such activities is explicitly linked with Rotterdam’s earlier-mentioned self-image as ‘innovative city’: in ‘giving room to new innovative organizations and ideas,’ the City Council explicitly breaks with ‘whatever is done in the past’. 

Yet despite the fact that Rotterdam seem to have reached an equilibrium in which generic policies are the norm, the city publishes annual reports on the achievements of ‘people with a migration background’ that fly in the face of any ‘generic’ policy assumption. Moreover, to my research participants, the ‘group policies’ are elusive and subject to change. For example, Rotterdam’s ‘Somali-resolution’ in 2015 has resulted in the formal recognition of people of Somali descent as ‘group’ and led to the subsequent availability of subsidies to community organizers that sought to assist this ‘group’. And considering recent publications about ‘the Eritrean group’ – such as this and this and this one – my research participants now expect the same thing to happen to people from Eritrean descent as ‘group’. 

Exactly because of this instability and opacity with regards to group-making, community organizers such as Aida are striking out blindly with regards to what ‘groups’ can be identified without risking eligibility to municipal funding. 

What adds to Aida’s confusion, is that different municipal departments work through different logics. The department that is responsible for procurements in the field of refugee receptionand support (Work and Income) has different expectations from initiatives than the department that is responsible for subsidies(Social Support). The former department is now experimenting with so-called ‘customer profiles’. As an example of such profiles the policy advisor mentions ‘the single mother with three kids’ and adds that ‘customer profiles are a good way to offer tailor-made solutions without working with target groups.’ Customer profiles thus are meant to ‘objectively’ describe ‘groups’ of city dwellers without assuming ethno-racial differences, they make use of stereotypes such as ‘the single mother with three kids’ – a figure that appears as ‘the inversion of morality and family values par excellence’ (Koch 2015). To Aida, it is unclear to what extent these customer profiles are something that concern her and her endeavors; although she now applies for subsidies, she hopes for her activities to be included in the procurement structure some time. Again, she gropes along in the dark. 

Eclectic initiatives

As a result of her insecurity about what constellations of people are accepted as a target group, Aida has started to organize dinner parties for long-term Rotterdammers with little money, alongside offering administrative support to Eritrean refugee status holders. She does so because she is scared that if the municipality found out that she only offers support to Eritreans – which she in fact does, with a few exceptions – she would be accused of catering only for one ‘target group’ and as such miss out on funding and collaborations. 

These dinner parties however create awkward moments, because the long-term Rotterdammers – who are all white – usually sit on separate tables to black Eritrean people. It is not that Aida has intentionally designed the dinner-setting as such; it is rather that she does not know how to deal with the situation. Recently, the initiative of Aida was declined funding again. In the refusal letter said that ‘there are good reasons to assume that the subsidy would not (or not sufficiently) be spent on (or contribute to) the (policy) objective for which the subsidy is meant.’ In a subsequent meeting with a policy advisor at the town hall, it was specified that Aida’s initiative was considered ‘too broad’. Never mind that very reason the constellation of beneficiaries is indeed quite diverse is that Aida is scared to be accused of focusing on one group in the first place.

Image 1: Right-wing protest in Rotterdam (Banner on the right says: ‘Preserve Dutch Culture Traditions Norms and Values’; Photographer: Lieke van der Veer, 2018) 

Reception brokers

Because it is so difficult for Aida and other initiatives to navigate the municipal frameworks, she has asked the help of Jozefien. Jozefien is a woman who has co-founded the platform called You Are Welcome. She once introduced herself as ‘from a little village in the Netherlands’ yet added that ‘I feel more like a Middle-Eastern person, I think.’ You Are Welcome was established to strengthen bottom-up initiatives that engage with refugee status holders, and to spread a positive message on integration. The platform was launched in 2015, explicitly in response to violent protests that broke out during an information meeting about the construction of the reception center. 

What is problematic, however, is that some of the initiatives that Jozefien helps, dislike one another. In particular, Aida really dislikes Luciano, the founder of another aspiring initiative for Eritreans, who is born in Rotterdam in a family of refugee parents. Aida is upset because she fears that Luciano is trying to take clients from her. Aida is hurt, she says, because she feels that Luciano is a smooth-talker, that he smiles arrogantly at her on the street, and that, given that Luciano has more contact with city administrators, he forces Aida into the shadows. 

For Jozefien, although she tries to equally promote both initiatives, it is difficult to deal with the tension between the two. It also has ramifications for her own relationships with Aida and Luciano. Especially for Aida, the competition she experiences with Luciano makes her deeply distrust Jozefien. One afternoon, Aida complained to me that ‘so often she [Jozefien] is at Luciano’s. But she doesn’t come to us! And she has taken him to the councilor [‘wethouder’]! She has arranged an appointment for Luciano with the councilor! I asked Luciano if I could join. But Luciano said: “no”.’ […]  And she [Jozefien] has never even come to our Friday dinners! She only came once, to take a picture, and then she left again. From the very beginning, I didn’t feel welcome at You Are Welcome.’ 

Discussion: solidarity, humanitarianism and neoliberalisation

Recent ethnographic work contrasts solidarity with humanitarianism and juxtaposes emic accounts that frame solidarity as horizontal, anti-hierarchical, and as an emphasis on similarities between people with the viewpoints of professional humanitarian NGOs (see e.g. Cabot 2014). In Rotterdam, because grassroots initiatives generally turn to the municipality for funding and collaboration and feel pressured to professionalize, the distinction between solidarity and humanitarianism is remarkably fuzzy. The community organizers of refugee support initiatives ‘yearn for’ the state (Jansen 2015) to formally recognize their initiative through a tendering contract and compete to perform professionalism. They seek to use licensed software to prove impact, assimilate to municipal buzzwords, match funding calendars, formalize their organizational form, and forge lucrative partnerships. 

These emerging forms of humanitarian volunteering (Youkhana and Sutter 2017; cf. Rozakou 2017) summon a complex assemblage of forms of humanitarian reason, forms of authority and technologies of government (Fassin 2007). Because grassroots initiatives seek to incorporate policy objectives (cf. Van Dam et al. 2014), are subject to mechanisms of raising funds that are part of the technologies of government (Fassin 2007, 151), and thereby gamble on which ‘target groups’ the municipality will acknowledge, they are shaped by these forms of authority and technologies of government. The case of Aida is an example of how refugee support has become intertwined with control mechanisms that are part of experimental municipal policies.  

To Aida as well as to the brokers she turns to for advice, is unclear which ‘groups’ may be identified and which not. A lot of ‘information’ in this regard is distorted and comes from hear-say. Although the interchanging approaches to group-making in Rotterdam now seem to have reached an equilibrium in which generic policies are the norm, this equilibrium is unstable, as reports about specific ethnic groups have proven to result in the recognition of these groups and the subsequent availability of subsidies. Moreover, different municipal departments – that deal with subsidies and competitive tendering contracts respectively – work in accordance with different logics, yet is it unclear where one logic begins and the other one ends. 

This opacity of group-making policies and related funding schemes gives rise to fierce competition and distrust between initiatives, which has fueled divisions within the refugee solidarity movement. In the grappling race for funds between (aspiring) initiatives which give in to the criteria for competitive success, neoliberal market logics and humanitarianization become further entwined. Community organizers seek to act as successful entrepreneurs – by reaching targets, increasing numbers, seizing volunteers, and laying hold of the target group. In doing so, they may present their core issues as side affairs and vice versa. 

This contribution shows that not only beneficiaries suffer from the contemporary mechanisms that mix care and control; some of the aspiring community organizers with a refugee background find themselves in a precarious position as well. Underneath the seemingly universalizing pretense of generic policies, ambivalent practices of institutional selectiveness exclude vulnerable community organizers and the initiatives they are trying to launch. The inequalities that these exclusions are premised on are produced as well as obscured by the mantra of generic policies.  

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614). 

Lieke van der Veer (Department of Anthropology and Development Studies, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands) is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology in an ERC-funded research project on participatory urban governance. She has a background in Philosophy. Based on 12 months of ethnographic research in Rotterdam in 2018, she studies aspiring grassroots initiatives that provide support to people with a refugee background. 


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Special Zones, Slums, and High-rise buildings: Community leaders between “occupancy urbanism” of the poor and the powerful in Recife, Brazil

Sven da Silva

Published on Focaalblog on July 31, 2020

This blog documents the politics of community leaders in an area selected for “urban renewal” in the center of the city of Recife in the northeast of Brazil. More specifically, it looks at how they position themselves regarding legally defined low-income residence areas (officially named as Special Zones of Social Interest, or ZEIS), informal land occupations (favelas or slums), and vertical gated communities (residential high-rise buildings). Community leaders operate as brokers between the interests of the urban poor, politicians, and real estate developers. They provide essential services in slums, while being dependent on the lower level bureaucracy for the provision and maintenance of these services (Koster & de Vries 2012). The role of community leaders as crucial brokers in Recife is heightened by the fact that they are democratically elected as local representatives of their Special Zone within a city-wide participatory program for slum governance.

I deploy the analytical lens of “occupancy urbanism” that narrates struggles for urban space and shelter “beyond policy and projects” (Benjamin 2007: 558). The perspective insists on seeing “the urban” as an open-ended site of encounter and “political possibility” (Benjamin 2014: 319). “Occupancy urbanism” is the term that Solomon Benjamin uses to describe the physical-political spaces that are opened-up when the urban poor occupy land, claim public services, or negotiate with the municipal bureaucracy (2007, 2008, 2014). As I explain further below, despite occupancy urbanism being a political practice of the poor, it has become useful for the powerful, especially for real estate developers and their allies.

As the poor’s “subversive politics on the ground” (Benjamin 2008: 723), “occupancy” urbanism challenges the mainstream developmentalist model of “global” urbanism. The latter abides by capitalist market mechanisms and private property, while assuming that cities in the “Global South” will follow the footsteps—or become satellites—of those in the “Global North”. Occupancy urbanism is not about policymaking and masterplanning to make cities “inclusive”, “smart”, and “World Class”. Occupancy urbanism is neither the arena of elite civil society that preaches “good governance” and forms of direct citizen participation without collective representation by community leaders. Central to occupancy urbanism is the analysis of “land and its historicity in its multiple logics” (2014: 318). The focus on various forms of “occupancy” and tenure arrangements forces us to move beyond homogenized versions of “the favela” (slum). Occupancy urbanism thus highlights internal diversity within “the slum” while “grounding the slum in the circuits of finance and real estate capitalism” (Roy 2011: 228).

Affluent private investors and developers have not only made their own agreements with community leaders and the municipal administration, but they have also benefited from the land occupations initiated by the poor. I follow Anaya Roy in calling this an “occupancy urbanism of the powerful” (2011: 230). Roy points at the existence of “development mafias, local criminal syndicates, often with global connections” (Weinstein in Roy 2011: 230). Their practices are interpenetrated with the occupancy urbanism of the poor in terms of claims to land, basic services, and embeddedness within the lower level municipal bureaucracy. While community leaders in Recife can definitely not be described as “mafias organized in criminal syndicates”, it is possible to observe the proliferation of community leaders with strong ties to real estate developers who negotiate with the municipal administration under the guise of “public consultation”. For these reasons, I consider these practices of community leaders as part of occupancy urbanism of the powerful.

In the following sections I present ethnographic examinations of two areas, Coque and Vila Imperial. My approaches to community leaders and the context in both settings has allowed me to further theorize the squatter approach to urban development that is taking place. I show how, in Recife, occupancy urbanism is “wielded differentially by different social classes in the context of urban inequality” (Roy 2011: 231). I argue that occupancy urbanism helps us to think about land development and urban politics as an interplay between various practices of “occupancy”. In this way we can gain an understanding of the creation of a highly exclusionary city. Before expanding on Coque and Vila Imperial, however, I first expand on Recife’s urban governance and offer a short description of a contestatory movement called Occupy Estelita. 

Image 1: Map of the center of Recife that locates land occupations, ZEIS, Rio Mar shopping mall, New Recife project area, and (halted) social housing estates (OpenStreetMap, 2020, adapted by Sven da Silva)

Participatory urban governance

Often referred to as Brazil’s capital of inequality, Recife’s urban governance legacy includes a slum governance program, as well as a participatory planning program in which the municipal administration visits neighborhoods for consultation and deliberation. Both programs were initiated in reaction to massive land occupations by the poor in the 1970s; although these programs have lost much steam over time. Due to this strong popular movement, the military regime (1964-1985) had to shift their strategy from forced evictions for a “slum-free” city towards, what we would now call, “upgrading” for an “inclusive” city.

In 1983 a new local zoning law defined Special Zones of Social Interest (ZEIS), as “spontaneously existing and consolidated housing settlements, where special urban norms are established, in the social interest of promoting their legal regularization and their integration into the urban structure”. ZEIS, in a way, mediate the “formalization” of the “informal” city. Today there are 74 ZEIS in the city and more than half of Recife’s 1.6 million inhabitants lives in such a zone.

Approved in 1987, the PREZEIS (Plan for REgularization of ZEIS) regulates these “special urban norms”. As a complex bureaucratic system of laws and actors, the PREZEIS attempts to regulate land markets. PREZEIS prioritizes shelter over ownership rights, regulates maximum plot sizes, and limits relocation to the minimum required (de Souza, 2001). From their neoliberal perspective that favors unregulated land markets, urban investors and pro-business media see the PREZEIS as an impediment for land development and have always attempted to open up ZEIS areas for land valorization and beautification, especially those near the riverbanks or the oceanfront.

The real estate pressures on ZEIS areas intensified when Brazil began preparing to host the FIFA World Cup 2014. Presented to the public using the bombastic language of “turning Recife into a new Dubai” the highly controversial New Recife was approved by the municipal government. The project aims to construct more than ten high-rise buildings at the Estelita quay. Through an auction questioned by national prosecutors, in 2008, the New Recife construction consortium—made up of private investors—acquired a huge abandoned terrain owned by the federal government. There was no public consultation, the terrain was auctioned “for a banana price”—as neighboring community leaders commented—and there are allegations that one of the consortium members sponsored the campaigns of politicians in order to get the deal approved.

Such top-down “urban renewal” projects for the middle and upper classes were combined with participatory planning for the poor. This means that the construction of highways and shopping malls went together with contracts for the construction of housing estates for displaced families in ZEIS areas. However many of these estates have not been constructed, because the municipal administration has since 2013 discontinued the participatory planning program, leading to a major increase in the social housing deficit.

Occupy Estelita

In the aftermath of the nation-wide June 2013 protests (Mollona 2014), the social movement Occupy Estelita erupted on the political scene in 2014. Largely composed out of a middle-class group of university students and professors, architects and lawyers, the activists camped on the New Recife terrain to prevent the demolition of historic warehouses located on the construction site. Occupy Estelita has been described as the most important recent Brazilian social movement against the decay of participatory structures and the privatization of public space. Various lawsuits have so far prevented the construction of the New Recife skyscrapers. 

Occupy Estelita mobilizations pressured the municipality to re-negotiate the project. Community leaders, both those in favor and against the New Recife project, jumped into the space opened up for re-negotiation. They were able to make claims for public services in land occupations with various shacks bordering the New Recife construction site along the historic train rails. Community leaders in Coque always remained divided however regarding the New Recife project. Nevertheless they are overall satisfied that the project’s redesign includes more space for leisure activities and social housing units as compensation. It still remains unclear, however, who can claim a right to the social housing units and where these will be constructed.

Coque’s leaders and projects

Coque is a ZEIS in the center of Recife where 40 thousand people live. It is located at a walking distance from the New Recife terrain. At the end of 2013, the current mayor spectacularly announced the construction of a canal crossing Coque as a basic sanitation project budgeted at R$18 million. This would go together with the construction of a social housing estate for affected families who lived in shacks on the edge of the canal. However, the social housing estate was never constructed and, instead of a house, the 150 affected families were offered very low compensations ranging from R$ 4,000 to R$ 38,000, amounts that are not sufficient to find housing near Coque. 

At the same time the municipality had transferred several pieces of land to “third party” actors for urban development within Coque’s ZEIS borders. A large strip of land along the riverbanks was transferred for the construction of a Juridical hub. Ironically enough, this did not follow PREZEIS regulations.

Louro and Moises, both active in the local board of Coque within the PREZEIS, were very active in the successful resistance against the construction of the juridical hub. They are micro-entrepreneurs, born in the 1970s, and active in community groups involved in the “never-ending struggle” (luta eterna)for better living conditions in Coque. Louro works as an Uber driver and is better known as “Louro of the Pitbulls” for he breeds and takes care of pitbulls. Moises runs a stall (banca) in the city center with his wife where they sell clothes and accessories. He is better known as “Brother Moises” since he is a faithful member of the Pentecostal Assembleia de Deus. With other community leaders and groups in Coque, Louro and Moises stressed the risk of future resettlements that the New Recife project brings for Coque. 

The main representative of Coque however stressed the employment opportunities that the New Recife project will generate for Coque’s residents. He formed part of a group of community entities in the vicinity of the New Recife construction site, including Cabanga and Coelhos, to demand participation within the New Recife consortium meetings. They made commercials to promote the project under the slogan “Good for You, Good for the City” and mobilized residents to support the New Recife project during public hearings in 2014. More recently they mobilized unemployed residents when the consortium started to collect résumés.

Image 2: A community leader from Coque records a pro-New Recife commercial. He argues that New Recife will bring employment opportunities for the poor and helps build a safer city, because the abandoned terrain at the Estelita quay attracts drug-traffickers. On the background the medical hub and the construction of a business tower. (Photo by Sven da Silva, 2014) 

Land and housing rent prices near the new shopping malls or areas destined for vertical growth increased massively. Several new occupations emerged out of Coque. Moises and Louro initiated a new occupation just on the edge of Coque’s ZEIS parameters at the Imperial Street. Their occupation exposed the unfair compensations received by affected families of the canal in Coque. Using his own measures, yet without much exaggeration, Moises recounts:

“The compensation (indenização) is always ridiculously low. Imagine somebody living on the main street of Coque receiving R$ 40.000 as compensation, while the house is worth R$ 200.000. That is because the municipality does not pay for the land. We don’t have the land titles.”

Since the cheapest house in Coque at the time sold for R$ 50000, several families moved to distant locations outside the city center. The compensations were thus used to buy materials to construct a shack at a new land occupation. Such “occupancy urbanism” of the poor exposed high housing rent prices in Coque, despite the efforts of the PREZEIS to avoid housing rent or keep it low.

Image 3: Street in Vila Imperial in 2018 (Photo by Sven da Silva, 2018) 

Vila Imperial

On paper the vacant terrain that affected residents of Coque occupied was on the name of the federal government (the União) as stated in the union heritage register (SPU). In practice, two enterprises built a wall around it to claim the terrain as theirs. On Labor Day 2014, the land occupation started, and it was baptized as Vila Imperial.

I visited Vila Imperial days after its initiation and saw how lots were being allocated with the support of a housing rights movement. Several wooden shacks had already been built and the number of people arriving to occupy lots was growing rapidly. Louro explained the occupation as follows:

“We occupy due to the pressures on housing in Coque, and the lack of assistance from City Hall (Prefeitura). But at any moment some project can arrive for the terrain. You will see how people who have invested in constructing their house lose everything again. It is a vicious circle.”

Stories of land occupations such as Vila Imperial are often contradictory and sensitive. Political rivals of Louro and Moises would speak about invasões “illegal invasions” (of private property). They see it as a form of opportunism or urban speculation of the “better off” poor who already have secured housing in Coque. They argue that the shacks are rented out again, only there to wait for resettlement money, or a speculative strategy to receive an apartment in a social housing estate. Such discourses were used by many of those in favor of the New Recife project, as justification for evictions. Louro explained the conflicting views as follows;

“People from Coque and Vila Imperial gave more body to the Occupy Estelita movement. We occupied the streets and pressured the municipality, and they supported our struggles. They for example helped us stop the eviction of 58 families through legal and design support. That is when other leaders in Coque started to call us terrorists and mentally deficient people who want to obstruct the development of the city. There now exists a big lie about opportunism at Vila Imperial intended to discredit the occupation and its organization. They say that so-and-so (fulano o tal) bought 50 lots at the occupation to rent out shacks. However, the pioneers at Vila Imperial know that nobody received more lots than anyone else.”

Four years later, Vila Imperial had electricity, water supply, and instead of wooden shacks, there were now brick houses, some of them with two floors. The land occupation is now very much considered part of Coque, yet it is not included in the ZEIS parameters. I walked through Vila Imperial with Moises again and discussed the election of Bolsonaro who had called movements that occupy land “terrorists” (Albert 2018, Eiró 2018), as well as the beginning of the sale of the first New Recife apartments, a sign that the construction will soon begin. He suddenly climbed a shaky wall and revealed:

“See those warehouses? Four upscale apartment blocks will be erected there. Nobody called us to say that this will happen, and still, it is all approved by Recife’s Urban Development Council. [NB: The majority of seats are occupied by delegates who represent the real estate sector.] The only thing that we don’t know is when they officially start and end the construction. This will have a major impact on Coque and Vila Imperial. Imagine how many cars that would be! For sure the main street of Coque will need to be widened at some point.”

Yet again an upscale project that pressures Vila Imperial and Coque. Now one that is on a stone-throwing distance. Without ZEIS protection, residents of Vila Imperial remain in constant fear of “the vicious circle”—of losing a house without sufficient compensation and starting all over again. With the decay of participatory structures and the deepening of an urban development model where investments for the poor are only “compensatory” or alleviative (paliativo), the political spaces in which community leaders like Moises and Louro can operate have become increasingly slim.

Image 4: Street in Vila Imperial in 2014 (photo by Sven da Silva, 2014) 

Rethinking occupancy urbanism

Occupancy urbanism explains land occupations such as Vila Imperial and how Moises and Louro “run after things” for this “informal settlement” by claiming land and housing. At the same time, occupancy urbanism makes visible how “formal” planning such as the New Recife project similarly operates in a legal area of opaque negotiations between community leaders, political parties, developers and the municipal bureaucracy. Following Roy, I have the called the latter “occupancy urbanism of the powerful” (2011: 230).

Can we then continue to perceive occupancy urbanism as a politics of the poor that challenges neoliberal urban development projects? I have shown how Moises and Louro experience what can be called “occupancy of the powerful” as encroaching on Coque and Vila Imperial. They continuously struggle against evictions and very low resettlement compensation. This lies in stark contrast to the fact that luxury buildings get constructed through covered-up illegal means. Can we then continue to assume that Moises. Louro, and “informal” land occupations have a specific form of political agency—in and of themselves—that is able to counter occupancy urbanism of the powerful and “global” urbanism?

Therefore, I wish to caution against over-reading occupancy urbanism as the political agency of the poor. In Recife, the “occupancy urbanism by the powerful” has gained much political space as witnessed in the increased role of community leaders with close ties to the real estate developers and municipal administration. Rather than a threat or disruption to “global urbanism, land occupations and ZEIS are used as justification for the construction of skyscrapers by promising employment and social housing. And yet, the occupancy urbanism of the poor draws on collective memories of the popular movement in the 1970s in their struggles against dispossession. It must be stressed that this resulted in the PREZEIS, and that these were struggles for belonging to the city, as against resettlement to the periphery or relocation to a social housing estate.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614). 

Sven da Silva is a PhD Candidate in Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University (The Netherlands), and member of the ERC-funded research project “Participatory urban governance between democracy and clientelism: Brokers and (in)formal politics”. 


Albert, Victor. 2018. “Brazil’s Homeless Workers’ Movement is an assertive social work organization” FocaalBlog, 30 November.

Benjamin, Solomon. 2007. Occupancy Urbanism: Ten Theses. Sarai Reader 07(Frontiers): 538-563.

Benjamin, Solomon. 2008. Occupancy urbanism: Radicalizing politics and economy beyond policy and programs. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research32(3): 719-729. DOI:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2008.00809.x

Benjamin, Solomon. 2014. Occupancy urbanism as political practice. In: The Routledge Handbook on Cities of the Global South, 331-343.

de Souza, Flávio A.M. 2001. Perceived security of land tenure in Recife, Brazil. Habitat International 25(2): 175-190.

Eiró, Flávio. 2018. “On Bolsonaro: Brazilian democracy at risk” FocaalBlog, 8 November.

Koster, Martijn, and Pieter A de Vries. 2012. Slum politics: Community leaders, everyday needs, and utopian aspirations in Recife, Brazil. Focaal (62): 83-98. doi:10.3167/fcl.2012.620107

Mollona, Massimiliano. 2014. “The Brazilian ‘June’ revolution: Urban struggles, composite articulations, and new class analysis,” FocaalBlog, October 28,

Roy, Ananya. 2011. Slumdog cities: Rethinking subaltern urbanism. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 35(2):223-238. DOI:10.1111/j.1468-2427.2011.01051.x

Introduction: Urban struggles: governance, resistance, and solidarity

Raúl Acosta, Flávio Eiró, Insa Koch and Martijn Koster

Published on Focaalblog on July 2, 2020

The global trend away from rural living and towards urbanization continues unabated. This is so despite high levels of inequality, poverty and forms of exclusion that are part and parcel of city life for the many. Indeed, across the globe, growing numbers of urban dwellers struggle to meet even the most basic needs for housing, security, and income. In response to these challenges, governments have attempted to present solutions that are too often palliative, addressing merely the symptoms of inequalities rather than their causes. In a similar vein, highly mobile policies are frequently implemented under the banner of terms like “good governance,” “participation” or “crisis management” that reinforce the social exclusion of the most marginalized, often contrary to their stated intentions (Peck and Theodore 2015). Cases of such exclusion include mass evictions, the rise of gated communities, the securitization of urban spaces, shifts towards austerity measures, punitive policies of migrant populations, and the regulation of the informal sector.  

As such, cities are places of multiscale struggle (Mollona 2014) where a variety of different actors, from (inter)national and local government bodies to charities, corporations, grassroots movements and citizens make competing claims of legitimacy and express visions for future living (Harvey 2003, Susser and Tonnelat 2013, Lazar 2017). Indeed, cities have become focal points for various class struggles.  

Based on a panel held at the IUAES conference in Poznań, Poland, in August 2019, this collection of papers addresses both the various forms of resistance to, and the reproduction of, exclusionary urban policies. Our main ambition is to expand important conversations in anthropology on urban mobilizations emerging from Henry Lefebvre’s “right to the city” and the “production of space” via a focus on the character and persistence of urban struggles (Lefebvre 1991, Banerjee-Guha 2010, Kalb and Mollona 2018, Koster and Kolling 2019). In this post and the contributions to this feature blog, we understand the study of urban struggles as a collection of productive tensions where governance, resistance and solidarity play out in plural and often unexpected ways within global frameworks of highly unequal regimes of accumulation (Susser 2014).   

Urban governance: facing challenges and reproducing inequality  

Cities grow by layers of time. This is related to both population growth and changes to the built environment. The number of urban dwellers grows not merely through the reproduction of those already living in urban spaces, but through constant immigration that originates in the countryside from surrounding areas and often from much further afield (Davis 2006). Many migrants who are attracted to urban life consider the city to be full of opportunities that cannot be found elsewhere, even as they find upon arrival that their status and rights to the city are often less recognized and sometimes actively suppressed compared to those of more established populations. The steady growth of cities across the planet has created, in turn, new pressures on local government bodies to keep up with the provision of infrastructure, public goods and employment opportunities needed to meet even the most basic demands for living (Caglar and Schiller 2018). 

To respond to the challenges faced by urban dwellers and the risk of social turmoil these entail, governments have come to implement a range of policies aimed at improving the urban lived environment. Governments thus tend to see larger cities both as centers where political legitimacy is built and where their ideologies and visions of the future take shape. Because of this combination, cities have also become sites of experimentation for states, where policies are tested before being rolled out more broadly. Often sold under the banner of buzzwords like “civilizing cities”, promoting “active participation”, “community building” or embarking on “crisis management”, these policies promise to improve the quality of life and built environment of the most vulnerable (Nuijten 2013, Schinkel 2010, Masco 2017). To do so, many come to rely on new forms of technocratic governance that uses the matrix of statistics and quantitative science in implementing various political and legal projects, ranging from social housing provisions to environmental policies to regeneration projects (Koch 2018). 

While these various initiatives may have ostensibly democratic goals, their implementation all too often reproduces the structural conditions of exclusion that they are meant to address (Alexander, Bruun and Koch 2018). The objective or neutral language of urban initiatives disguises the complex ways in which these policies are embedded in, and further promote, capitalism’s circuits of value and accumulation. Decisions by government policy makers usually favor the segments of the population who already hold most capital in the city. Meanwhile, urban infrastructure projects and regeneration initiatives attract real estate developers and to gentrify neighborhoods (Evans 2016). Both processes are aggravated when budget cuts and austerity measures fuel the outsourcing of urban governance to third-party actors – private companies and non-governmental organizations alike – that are often unwilling and sometimes unable to adequately provide public goods.  

Urban struggles as resistance and solidarity 

Cities, as sites where different actors compete for legitimacy, are the locus of productive urban struggles. We use the term urban struggle to refer to the complex and varied sets of negotiations through which city dwellers, grassroots movements, activist groups and political and development brokers critically engage with the claims to legitimacy and visions for the future that are promoted by official channels. As these groups face a wide variety of problems from insufficient housing (Cohen 2014) and infrastructure to environmental hazards, they develop an equally vast repertoire of resistance strategies, tactics and responses. These include, as the contributions to this feature show, amongst others, squatting initiatives, land occupations, grassroots art exhibitions, and the expansion of informal ties that are often viewed with suspicion by the state. There is thus a constant push and pull between dispossession and resistance, austerity and solidarity, exclusion, and inclusion unfolding in urban spaces.  

Image 1: Street graffiti in Recife, Brazil  (Photo: Martijn Koster, 18  August 2015) 

Yet, creative engagements seemingly opposed to neoliberal urban policies do not produce unequivocal forms of resistance, less even a singular anti-capitalist stance against structures of oppression (Kalb and Mollona 2018). On the contrary, ambiguities and contradictions prevail as citizens move within the same unequal processes of accumulation that frame official policies (James and Koch 2020). One example of this concerns the case of slum dwellers who aspire, above all, to become landlords and rent out rooms to even poorer slum dwellers under extractive conditions. Hence, the practices of the poor are not necessarily expressions of unequivocal solidarity and care (Palomera 2014). Likewise, social movements and grassroots initiatives, while often deploying a universal language of humanitarianism, may only benefit particular groups of urban dwellers, thus generating resentment and jealousy amongst those excluded (Wilde 2020). Urban struggles do not necessarily produce a better city, even as their spokespersons claim to speak on behalf of the most vulnerable and excluded (Gutierrez-Garza 2020).  

Acknowledging the contradictions that are at the heart of urban struggles opens the space for a particular analytical lens: one that conceptualizes cities as assemblages of productive tensions where a variety of actors, groups, movements and policy makers define, and continuously compete over, the meanings of urban citizenship, “rights to the city”, and democratizing access to infrastructures and public goods. This, in turn, can help us see how social responses, including those of social movements, grassroots initiatives, and local care networks, should not be romanticized as simple expressions of political resistance. Neither, however, does such a lens lend itself to a dystopian view in which capitalism erases all alternatives. Instead, cities emerge as places of ongoing, open-ended power struggles. Ethnography, with its focus on the lived experiences of urban dwellers, is particularly well placed to capture both the moments of solidarity that continue to exist and the wider forces disabling them. The papers in this feature seek to do precisely this.  

Ethnographies of urban struggles 

Our blog contributions highlight urban struggles and their complicated politics in a range of settings, taking the reader from Latin American’s mega-cities to European urban centers to recent urban developments in Asia. In Mexico City, Raúl Acosta analyses how cycling activists, intent on improving the infrastructure of the city, engage in a project that uses technical expertise to put forward a moral project of improving life in the city. However, the capacity to claim such moral projects is not evenly distributed, as activists on the “periphery” – both in the spatial and the social sense of the word – find that they lack the economic and cultural capital to be heard by power holders. In Brazil, questions of resistance and power are also at the center of the urban activism practiced by the poor. Sven da Silva explores how occupancy urbanism of the poor is negotiated in the context of development projects in the fast-growing Recife, in Brazil. Here, community leaders engage in political activities to resist real state pressure and in favor of what they view as community interests. Adam Moore’s contribution presents the hopes and dreams of victims of development in Medellín, Colombia. Looking at practices of autoconstruction, he explores the ‘human cost’ of ‘urban renovations’ and challenges the hegemonic narrative about urban transformation in Medellín, which heralds the local government as exemplary in its commitment to equitable and pro-poor urban development interventions. 

In Europe, struggles over governing urban populations and spaces similarly abound, bringing together a complex network of third sector organizations, private actors, Universities and state bodies. In the “policy laboratory city” of Rotterdam, frequently celebrated for its allegedly inclusive and innovative social policies, conflicting views over how to govern migrant populations have opened the space for new technologies of control. Here, Lieke van de Veer shows that the effort on the part of local groups claiming a role on the reception infrastructure of migrants often become riddled with internal tensions over funding and resources as different groups are unequally positioned to access these competitive funds. Meanwhile, in the UK, two of our blog contributions focus in more closely on questions of inequality in the city. Sarah Winkler-Reid’s work on Newcastle-Upon-Tyrne focuses on the university’s role in the network of actors influencing urban development proclaiming to create the “good city”. Here, the rapid growth of privately owned, mostly purpose-built student accommodation, create new forms of inequality in the city’s historical centre. In her contribution on the voluntarization of welfare advice in Manchester, Janne Heederik demonstrates how a withdrawal of state funding and a shift of tasks and responsibilities from government officials to citizens have transformed the landscape of welfare provision. If solidarity is the basis of the relationships between claimants and non-state advisers, they are also marked by tensions that are the result of the structural shifts austerity has imposed on the welfare system. 

In all of the contributions considered thus far, concessions and gains experienced by one urban group can simultaneously constitute a loss or betrayal for another. Indeed, this insight is also key to Anne-Christine Trémon’s ethnography of the city of Shenzhen in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), where the authorities’ attempts to gain the status of a “national civilized city” – a status bestowed by the PRC government in recognition of “quality of life and a higher degree of urban civilization” – have introduced new forms of inequality for migrant populations vis a vis the typically much wealthier natives. Trémon makes use of the concept of “variegated governance” to make sense of how cohabiting residents in the same territorial unit receive differential treatment depending on their respective economic valorization and the political acknowledgement of their social worth. Finally, in Ezgi Guler’s contribution on urban Turkey, we move closer to questions about the possibility of collective resistance to oppressive urban structures and policies. Yet, once more, while the transgender sex workers with whom she carried out fieldwork rely on dense networks of mutual support and care, these rarely translate into collective political action as material pressures, including financial stress, inequality, competition and stigma also make workers deeply suspicious of one another.

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 679614). 

Raúl Acosta is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. He currently carries out research on urban activism in Mexico City in a sub-project of the German Research Foundation (DFG) funded Urban Ethics Research Group. His monograph “Civil Becomings: Performative Politics in the Brazilian Amazon and the Mediterranean” examines activist and advocacy networks. 

Flávio Eiró is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Anthropology and Dvelopment Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen. He has conducted ethnographic research on electoral politics and conditional cash transfers in Northeast Brazil, and currently works in the ERC funded project “Participatory urban governance between democracy and clientelism: Brokers and (in)formal politics”.  

Insa Koch is Associate Professor in Law and Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Her recently published monograph “Personalizing the State: an Anthropology of Law, Politics and Welfare in Austerity Britain” offers an ethnographic study of the crisis of democracy and urban citizenship in Britain.  

Martijn Koster is Associate Professor at the Department of Anthropology and Development Studies at Radboud University, Nijmegen. Currently, he leads the ERC funded project “Participatory urban governance between democracy and clientelism: Brokers and (in)formal politics”. 


Alexander, C; M Hojer Bruun; I Koch. 2018. Political economy comes home: on the moral economies of housing. Critique of Anthropology 38(2): 121–139 

Banerjee-Guha, S. (Ed.). 2010. Accumulation by dispossession: Transformative cities in the new global order. SAGE Publications India. 

Caglar, A. S. and N. G. Schiller. 2018. Migrants & city-making: dispossession, displacement, and urban regeneration. Durham, Duke University Press. 

Cohen, Yves. 2014. “Crowds without a master: A transnational approach between past and present,” FocaalBlog, November 10, 

Davis, M. 2006. Planet of slums. London, New York, Verso. 

Evans, G. 2018. London’s Olympic Legacy: The Inside Track. London, Palgrave MacMillan. 

Gutierrez Garza, Ana. 2020. “Te lo tienes que currar”: enacting an ethics of care in times of austerity. Ethnos, Published online. 

Harvey, D. 2003. The right to the city. International journal of urban and regional research, 27(4), 939–941. 

Kalb, D. and M. Mollona. 2018. Worldwide mobilizations: class struggles and urban commoning. New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books. 

Koch, I. 2018. Personalizing the state. An anthropology of law, politics, and welfare in austerity Britain. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 

Koch, I. and D. James. 2020. The state of the welfare state: advice, governance and care in settings of austerity. EthnosPublished online. 

Koster, M. & M. Kolling (eds). 2019. Betrayal in the city: Urban development across the globe [Special Issue]. City & Society 31(3). 

Lazar, S. 2017. The social life of politics: Ethics, kinship, and union activism in Argentina. Redwood City, Stanford University Press.  

Lefebvre, H. 1991. The production of space. Oxford, Basil Blackwell. 

Masco, J. 2017. The crisis in crisis. Current Anthropology, 58(S15), S65-S76. 

Mollona, Massimiliano. 2014. “The Brazilian ‘June’ revolution: Urban struggles, composite articulations, and new class analysis,” FocaalBlog, October 28,  

Nuijten, M. 2013. The perversity of the “Citizenship Game”: Slum-upgrading in the urban periphery of Recife, Brazil. Critique of Anthropology, 33(1), 8–25. 

Palomera, J. 2014. Reciprocity, commodification, and poverty in the era of financialization. Current Anthropology 55(S9): S105-S115. 

Peck, J., & Theodore, N. 2015. Fast policy: Experimental statecraft at the thresholds of neoliberalism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press. 

Susser, I., & Tonnelat, S. 2013. Transformative cities: the three urban commons. Focaal, 2013(66), 105–121. 

Susser, Ida. 2014. “Re-envisioning social movements in the Global City,” FocaalBlog, 12 November,

Wilde, M. 2020. Eviction, Gatekeeping and Militant Care: Moral Economies of Housing in Austerity London. EthnosPublished online. 

Brazilian Politics, Policies and Citizenship: Anthropological Perspectives on Current Challenges | International Conference | 13-15 March 2019 | Nijmegen, The Netherlands

You can find the preliminary conference booklet here

Check the event’s webpage for updates.

Participation in the event is free of charge but please register before 22 February 2019 here.

Do the recent dramatic political changes challenge the ways we used to understand Brazil? In 2018, unlike in previous presidential elections, the poor and the working class did not massively support ‘the Left’. This was decisive in the election of the extreme right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Existing party structures and support networks were unable to sufficiently engage and mobilize voters. A new way of doing politics (fazer política) emerged with the rise of hyper-connectivity through social media and the spread of fake news, fomenting prejudice against political adversaries. Election campaigns that revolved around the rights of minorities, the use of violence and the fight against corruption gave rise to extremely polarised political debates.

With regard to public policies, Brazil has recently witnesse many changes and will probably face ma  more under the presidency of Bolsonaro. During the PT administration, social policies like the conditional cash transfer programme Bo sa Família have been lauded for their contr bution to decreasing poverty levels and, to some extent, inequality. Also, for more than a decade, Brazil has been considered a front-runner in participatory politics (e.g. Orçamento Participativo), urban reform and citizenship enhancement. At the moment of this conference, we will know if Bolsonaro fulfils his promises to change key public policies. Also, what are the effects of his promise to rule for the majority? How does this impact the rights of the poor and the ethnic, gender and sexual minorities? Furthermore, what are the consequences for social movements, for independent research and university education?

Analytically, this conference will explore what theories and concepts can help us to understand the current state of Brazil, and which ones seem to have lost their relevance. What does the victory of Bolsonaro tell us about people’s imaginations of the state? How do the anti-corruption and pro- violence discourses tie in with particular conceptions of the state? How do theories of clientelist politics and class-based political structures speak to the emergence and victory of an anti-establishment politician? Regarding public policies, for many years, we have critiqued the PT’s recipe to combine social policies with neoliberal economics. Looking at the current situation, where do our theorisations bring us? How do the new politics and policies speak to the notions of insurgent citizenship, class and democracy?

We will discuss these questions over the course of three days, through a range of formats, including the presentation of papers, round tables, and keynote lectures, bringing together Brazilianists from different countries across the globe.

On Bolsonaro: Brazilian democracy at risk

This article was first published on FocaalBlog on November 8th 2018.

By Flávio Eiró

Picture a street handcraft market in a touristic village called Porto de Galinhas in Pernambuco, Northeast Region of Brazil. A few days before the second round of the 2018 presidential elections on 28 October, I observed the following conversation on the market.

“You can vote for him, don’t worry, he won’t kill gay people,” says a local 50-year-old addressing a couple of openly gay, young, black men wearing tight shorts and colorful shirts. They reply: “Yes, he will, Bolsonaro will kill gay people.” While the young men walk away, the Bolsonaro supporter keeps trying to convince them, half-laughing, half-serious, stating that his candidate is not as bad as some people have been arguing. “No, he won’t . . .” he says, “and don’t worry, because if he does kill gays, the environmental agency will come after him—after all, they are animals under risk of extinction!”

The slang commonly used in Brazil to refer to gay men is veado (deer). Although gay men use the word proudly, it is often meant as an offence when used by others. The older man is clearly aware of this and wants to use it ironically when referencing the environmental agency. Yet, this is the irony of the hard right in a country that has rapidly abandoned democratic conventions in recent months. This is possibly why his effort to convince the young men—and those around listening to the conversation—that Bolsonaro is not dangerous fails to recognize the real fear of these young men in the face of a probable victory of the extreme right-wing presidential candidate, Jair Bolsonaro.

A few days later, Bolsonaro was elected with 56 percent of the valid votes, and on 1 January 2019, he will be inaugurated as Brazil’s president. For the first time since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985, Brazil is on the brink of an authoritarian turn. Although I am not sure what would have happened if Bolsonaro had lost the election, I do not think that he will start a military dictatorship now that he has won.

In a recent post on FocaalBlog, Massimiliano Mollona detailed the main factors behind Bolsonaro’s fast growing support among the Brazilian poor whose votes, as many commentators now allege, were crucial to his victory against the Workers’ Party (PT), which had governed Brazil from 2003 to 2016. I agree with Mollona that Bolsonaro took “advantage of the popular rage [that] exploded against the political establishment” and that significant support came from leaders of Evangelical churches and agribusinesses. The support for his candidacy was to be expected, as representatives of these sectors have long formed a conservative base of mutual support in the National Congress of Brazil, together with Bolsonaro and the “gun caucus” (bancada da bala). In fact, other than expected, Bolsonaro’s party also took the second-highest number of seats in Congress, which may make it easier for his government to win Congress majorities for legislation—possibly even a three-fifths majority for motions to amend the Constitution.

What we already see is that Bolsonaro’s core supporters—and other moderates—are using his popularity to refute claims of “authoritarianism.” This, in some way, mirrors his own rhetorics throughout the years, which relied on claims that controversial statements only reflected “what the people think.” Certainly, Bolsonaro will try to preserve his popularity at all costs, so if his government would adopt authoritarian policies—probably in an Erdoğan or Duterte fashion—his supporters will most likely not complain, but follow Bolsonaro’s insistence that this was for “the good of the majority” and against the “enemies of the country.”

In this article, I engage with his supporters and other optimists (there are scholars and intellectuals among them) by saying: sure, Bolsonaro will probably not start a dictatorship, but that does not mean we are in good hands, and an authoritarian government with fascist tendencies is the most probable scenario. As I will show here, by making use of an “anti-corruption” agenda, Bolsonaro will go after left-wing parties. He has also given clear signs that he will not tolerate opposition from the media. University professors and teachers are among his first targets to fight, what he calls “ideologies.” The sooner people understand that the preservation of democracy goes beyond the appearance of normality and legality—as our recent past has taught us—the faster Bolsonaro will lose popular support.


Bolsonaro’s statements have a polarizing effect. He has often made outrageous comments about a set of delicate topics, ranging from supporting torture and extrajudicial killings, to the ridicularization of minorities and threatening to imprison his opponents, whom he describes as “communists.” It is not worth going over them here in detail since they have been reported in news outlets and political commentary all around the world, and he has often been labeled a “fascist.”

Although appalling to many, these statements did not prevent him from winning the elections. This is because many other Brazilians identify with them. Bolsonaro also taps into anti-communism, the cornerstone of right-wing ideology during the country’s 20 years of military dictatorship (1964–1985). Still, not all Bolsonaro voters are fascists, and they disagree with the atrocities he glorifies. As in the cases of Trump, Erdoğan, and the many far-right parties rallying in elections across the globe, their vote is sometimes considered an antiestablishment and “protest vote.” Instead of extending recent debates on the qualities and expressions of populism and fascism in these elections, this article is an attempt to actively debate and contradict Bolsonaro’s supporters.

A proud supporter of Jair Bolsonaro and community leader in a poor neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco, October 2018 (photograph by Martijn Koster).

A community leader and proud supporter of Jair Bolsonaro in a poor neighborhood of Recife, Pernambuco, October 2018 (photograph by Martijn Koster).

This is important because, in my view, a crucial reason to vote Bolsonaro was for many that he seemed a lesser threat than the PT. Corruption scandals associated with the party, an economic crisis, and the fear of a “socialist degradation” of Brazil fostered by the aforementioned right-wing alliance of churches, businesses, and media pushed people to vote for Bolsonaro. Yet, to do this, people had to embark on a process of normalizing him, which started with the simple denial of what Bolsonaro says and will now consolidate in an acceptance that everything is fine as long as things do not get too ugly.

So, it may seem that whether these so-called protest voters maintain their support for Bolsonaro or withdraw it would depend on whether he will actually kill gay people or orchestrate what his future vice president called a “self-coup” that would start a military dictatorship. Yet, the focus on these questions neglects the fact that Bolsonaro does not need such extreme measures to weaken our democracy. Instead, two other developments make Bolsonaro a threat to Brazil.

One: The announced tragedy
Since the first round of the 2018 presidential elections on 7 October, when Bolsonaro was confirmed as the favorite, attacks on minorities and individuals who identified themselves as supporters of other candidates increased. A capoeira master was stabbed to death in Bahia after identifying himself as a PT supporter. A school and health center in an Indigenous village were set on fire. Military police officers on duty attacked a university student in Bahia. LGBT persons and environmental activists fear for their safety as verbal and physical aggressions increase. Many journalists were harassed or suffered aggression when reporting on events that could have negative effects on Bolsonaro’s candidacy—or even for simply being at gatheringsof his supporters, since mainstream media outlets are seen as an “enemy,” or again, “communists.”

What makes such violations of basic democratic rights an announced tragedy is that Bolsonaro was quick to state that he could do nothing to stop such violent acts. At the same time, he has called for violence against his opponents on several occasions. In his speeches, he uses concrete images such as “shoot down” (fuzilar) and “sweep away” (varrer do mapa), and threatens arrest and exile to opponents. Yet, a careful choice of wording allows him to claim these were metaphors to threaten corrupt politicians. During his first interview after the election, he promised to “ban the red bandits” only to later explain this was addressed at the leaders of two left-wing parties only. He also called the two largest social movements of the country “terrorists,” promising to criminalize their activities, in a deliberate strategy to delegitimize the opposition.

Yet, Bolsonaro and his supporters share a worldview that justifies such symbolic violence because leftist parties and social movements qualify not as political opponents but as enemies of the nation. Accordingly, his campaign sought to monopolize national symbols and fronted the slogan “Brazil is my party.” Communists, PT members, leftists, activists, social movements, and corruption—for Bolsonaro and his most faithful followers, these are all the same. And since they are enemies, Bolsonaro’s belligerent rhetoric has constantly been translated into violent acts. In many of those attacks, the perpetrators shouted the new president’s name and announced that the act was just the beginning.

Just like the Bolsonaro supporter in Pernambuco in the opening vignette, those who until now shy away from violent action or might never condone it ignore how Bolsonaro’s propaganda is normalizing violence. Those who declare Bolsonaro’s discourse as “metaphorical” in fact legitimize him as president and his authoritarian tendencies as righteous. At the same time, such attitudes exempt him from responsibility for the many acts of violence in his name and follow his favorite strategy: to dehumanize his opponents. Since Bolsonaro shows no sign that he will tone down his discourse, more violence against any opposition to his government can be expected from his supporters.

At this point, right after the elections, it is therefore important to consider how this atmosphere will impact the political climate in 2019 and after, when Bolsonaro becomes the president of Brazil.

Two: The silent collapse
Brazil is facing something unprecedented. While Bolsonaro is a political novelty in the country’s recent history—a democratically elected president who wants to be an autocrat—he has made his intentions clear, and we should take his words seriously. With this in mind, this section is a tentative prediction of Brazil’s future: the silent collapse of democracy.

First, for now there are no signs that Bolsonaro will begin a new military dictatorship. This is for the simple reason that he does not need one. With a majority coalition in Congress, he will easily be able to pass his main political reforms. His popular support and the ease with which he dominates opinion on social media suggest that his future government will have no difficulty in framing critical points in line with his Manichean logic of “patriots” versus “enemies of the nation.” To do so, he will also count on the support of popular Judge Sérgio Moro, responsible not only for the sentencing of former President Lula in a controversial trial but also for politically motivated actions that interfered with Dilma Rousseff’s administration and tried to influence the 2018 elections. A few days after the elections, the judge has confirmed his participation in the new government as Minister of Justice and Public Security, which will, for the first time, combine these two policy fields and give priority to tackling “organized crime.”

Bolsonaro’s commitment to fight what he calls “political tendencies” in schools and universities also indicates how ideas that oppose his worldview might be silenced. Any oppositional ideas will be framed as “doctrines” or “ideologies,” and teachers and professors reproducing them in school settings will be punished. In fact, Bolsonaro has already supported a recently elected deputy from his party, who asked people to film teachers that express negative opinions about the new president in the classroom; she called such teachers “indoctrinators.” This happened parallel to police invasions of universities throughout the country, which removed signs and banners against Bolsonaro—and, in fact, general statements against “fascism.” In one university in the Northeast Region, the police was ordered to canvass and collect all electoral material from the professors’ association office that had been organizing an anti-Bolsonaro event. Claiming that universities must be politically neutral, local electoral courts ordered such censorship, which the Supreme Court later reversed with reference to the right to “free manifestation of ideas.”

In this tense atmosphere, it is feasible to ask, who will be the first “anti-nationalist” or “communist” to be prosecuted under the existing anti-terrorism laws and presented to the country as a threat to public order? Who will be the first university professor to be fired from one of the prestigious federal universities for “indoctrinating” students in Marxist theory? If these things seem far from being real for some, and while it remains unclear how much Bolsonaro can do within the legal constraints of the presidency, his popularity might well allow him to do what he and his team have promised: to “put an end to all activism,” to choose presidents of federal universities himself, and, among other things, to arrest or send his opponents away from the country.

While his moderate supporters insist that democracy is not under threat, they only consider the risk of direct dictatorship and do not see that an authoritarian turn may not require the complete destruction of democratic institutions. They ignore, for example, that by repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the electoral system, Bolsonaro has already prepared the terrain for contesting any future electoral losses. By vowing to impose the will of the majority on minorities, he was loud and clear about his lack of commitment to democracy. But apparently, as long as one considers oneself part of this “majority” and the “patriots,” the value of democracy does not seem to be absolute.


Meanwhile, supporters of Bolsonaro were more concerned about the direction of the country under the hand of Professor Fernando Haddad of the PT. Such concerns were mostly motivated by a strong anti-left feeling that gained strength when the PT won elections for the presidency of the Republic for the first time in 2002. Some fantasize since then that there was a secret communist revolution underway. To them, it does not matter that in 13 years of government, the PT has done nothing in this direction. Still, “the danger lurks,” they say, and Bolsonaro promises to free Brazil from this supposed danger. The main question to answer is then why his authoritarian attitude and his disrespect for the fundamental values of democracy are deemed a lesser evil. Why do even his moderate supporters not care about developments that in many ways foreshadow Boaventura de Sousa Santos’s alert that “mass fascism was never made up of fascist masses, but rather of well-organized fascist minorities who were capable of capitalizing on the legitimate aspirations of ordinary citizens to have a decent job and live in safety”?