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Soccer as a Game Changer: Buenos Aires, Argentina

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Defensores del Chaco came at civic participation from the bottom up, with a focus on people in the depressed municipalities of metropolitan Buenos Aires. Starting with sports programs for young men in the Chaco Chico neighborhood of the municipality of Moreno, Defensores itself generated an array of openings for civic participation, instead of depending on government initiatives. With the perspective of six years, the evaluator judged these openings more important than those offered by the state.

In neighborhoods offering very few opportunities to young people, Defensores introduced fútbol callejero, a unique form of soccer played in the street, with a “mediator” instead of a referee, mixed teams of boys and girls, and wins determined by sportsmanship more than goals. Fútbol callejero and other sports and cultural activities were designed to motivate young people to take an interest in their communities, to understand their rights and to resolve conflicts. Working together, Culebrón Timbal, a neighborhood cultural group; Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justica (ACIJ), a public interest law firm; and Defensores reached 3,000 young players with fútbol callejero, more than a quarter of them girls, and involved some 30,000 other residents of Moreno, San Miguel and José C. Paz in cultural activities, legal aid, surveys of community needs, budget meetings and neighborhood forums. Fútbol callejero, meanwhile, expanded far beyond Chaco Chico to leagues in other areas of Argentina and abroad.

Intense grassroots participation in the municipalities surrounding Buenos Aires dated back to the mid-1980s, well before Defensores received its IAF funding. Among the gains were better housing, transportation and cultural programming. The partners built on this existing social capital to continue channeling political culture in a democratic direction. They stressed democratic modes of communication in activities aimed at developing self-confidence, trust, willingness to cooperate with others and the skills young leaders needed to think about transforming their social reality. Achievements that included street lights, paved roads, connection to sewers and educational opportunities brought cooperation on other issues. Rather than the state, civil society organizations played the decisive role in opening spaces. The habits of association of previous grassroots organizations helped Defensores and its partners to encourage new spaces to deal with community problems. ACIJ opened two Centros de Asesoramiento Legal Comunitario to inform citizens of their cultural, economic and social rights and support their lawsuits and proposals toward exercising those rights.

La consulta a los vecinos, a process for gathering information, debating strategies and planning action, had academic and professional support but its preparation, application and analysis was all done by grassroots groups. The resulting proposals were summed up in the Carta Popular, or Popular Charter, a document backed by a movement comprising more than 30 organizations. That work was publicized through cultural events such as the “Caravana cultural de los barrios,” an annual festival and parade that is a high-visibility mobilization of citizens communicating information about local issues and generating demands for social justice. In the municipality of San Miguel, the Caravanas became the vehicle that led to the allocation of 5 percent of the municipal budget, or between 15 million and 20 million pesos, to public works identified as priorities in 30 barrio forums. Without the initiative of the civil society organizations, the evaluator concluded, this participatory budgeting would not have happened.

By 2014, the evaluator noted a “profound democratization” throughout the Defensores organization and concluded that “many young people have changed the trajectories of their lives in ways clearly stimulated by participatory experiences, working together, training and the commitment that the project encouraged.” Stronger networks of community organizations in close contact worked effectively on shared problems. Among the results were advances in infrastructure and services: paved roads, street lights, trash collection, sewer system improvements and an accredited pre-kindergarten. A striking indicator of progress was that, by 2014, legal professionals were no longer needed in the communities on a permanent basis because of residents’ heightened awareness of their rights.

Sustainability was not in question. The civil society organizations seem to have solved the problem of reproducing effective internal leadership in a democratic manner. Civic capacity in the communities seemed to be permanent and, if not exercised continuously, is available whenever participation is necessary. Many youths who came out of Defensores program have founded and lead other organizations. Defensores and Culebrón Timbal continue to work intensively on cultural activities and to fill gaps in government functions and services. The evaluation suggested the successful articulation with government in San Miguel as another indicator of sustainability since participatory budgeting has become an annual process. But it also suggested potential threats to continued participation such as bureaucratic influences gradually displacing community decision-making, the general reluctance of local officials to see participation expanding, and the wariness of civil society about being used in partisan activity. And it pointed out that, overall, there has been little improvement in the availability of information on budgets.