90 Years of Ruth Cardoso: a comprehensive look at the third sector

/ Online Transmission - Zoom

On September 19, Ruth Cardoso, born in Araraquara in 1930, would have turned 90. Her professional career was emblematized by dedication and tenaciousness as an anthropologist and university professor (teaching, research, and thesis advisor). During the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1995-2002), with whom she was married for 55 years and had a son and two daughters, she created the Solidarity Community Program (Programa Comunidade Solidária), which aimed to eliminate assistentialism and clientelism through co-responsibility and cooperation between the government (at its three levels) and society in social issues.

Her main legacy, built during more than 50 years of a nationally and internationally recognized career, was the study and actions taken to develop civil society in Brazil. A civil society which, since the re-democratization (1985), has dramatically expanded, not without difficulties, with the emergence of several non-governmental organizations and a significant increase in social participation. The current moment, however, poses a threat to those achievements and challenges us to keep moving forward. 

Those were the main conclusions drawn from the webinar that brought together economist and statistician Ricardo Paes de Barros (former member of IPEA, Brazil’s Institute of Applied Economic Research) and writer Augusto de Franco, a specialist in the study and formation of networks, mediated by Simone Coelho, specialist in the third sector and a former Ruth Cardoso former doctorate advisee, and the keynote by former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The event was a partnership between the FHC Foundation and Insper.

“Ruth participated in significant changes in Brazilian social policy for half a century and, many a time, spearheaded them,” said Insper professor and researcher Ricardo Paes de Barros, who (for decades) has been dedicated to identifying national challenges and formulating and assessing public policy based on scientific evidence and statistical analysis.

“Ruth left us too early and imparted longing and memories. She was a person who gave herself to others enthusiastically and had a good mix of intellectual respect from her peers and the aptitude to talk to people with simplicity. She genuinely cared about the people,” said FHC in his keynote speech.

“She was an extremely democratic person, who made room for everyone and made sure they knew they were important; she encouraged an attentive look at reality,” recalled Simone Coelho, who holds a Master’s and PhD in Political Science from USP, under the advisement of Prof. Ruth Cardoso. Author of the thesis “Terceiro Setor: um estudo comparado Brasil e Estados Unidos (Third Sector: a comparative study between Brazil and the United States)” (published in a book by Editora Senac SP, in Portuguese), Simone highlighted the anthropologist’s interest in the study of social movements and their relationship with the country.

       ‘Social policy is everyone’s business’ 

According to Augusto de Franco, a “window of social innovation opened in the world” from the 1980s onwards, with a democratic expansion that happened throughout the world and with the popularization of the internet. In Brazil, a new Constitution, dubbed the “Citizen Constitution” by Ulysses Guimarães (president of the 1988 National Constituent Assembly), was enacted in 1988 and the country returned to  directly electing its presidents at the beginning of the following year. 

“That set of national and international novelties resulted in the vigorous rise of the third sector and in an environment of experimentation that spawned a new generation of social policies rooted in inducing development based on investment in social capital,” said the creator and member of the Escola-de-Redes, which connects around 13,500 people dedicated to research on social networks and creating and transferring netweaving technologies. 

In the past, discussions on how to design and implement social policy were hampered by ideas and choices that seemed contradictory. Nonetheless, from then on, it was realized that it was possible to move forward in an integrated way and concomitantly in different dimensions and directions:

- the country’s duty and the responsibility of the citizens;

- public policies and strengthening of community dynamics;

- universal and focused policies;

- social assistance and development-inducing policies;

- economic and social policies; and

- sharing both the operation and the formulation of a social action strategy with society.

The Programa Comunidade Solidária was created in this context, in 1995 (FHC’s first term), with the objective of combating poverty in Brazil, investing federal funds and funds raised in the private sector and in civil society in areas defined as priorities: health, food and nutrition; employment and income; access to rights; and urban and rural development.

According to Simone Coelho, Comunidade Solidária put something that Ruth had already investigated and proposed several years before into practice: “Establishing room for collaboration with two logistical fronts: that of the federal government, which has an obligation to guarantee universal rights to all its citizens, and that of civil society, accentuated by specific interests that need to be directed towards common ends,” explained the researcher. The program – designed by Ruth and implemented by a network of professionals and organizations from different fields – allocated public resources to finance initiatives in densely poverty-stricken communities, based on the premise that the third sector and the local population would both prepare and implement the proposals.  

To Augusto de Franco, member of the Executive Committee of the Board of Comunidade Solidária between 1995 and 2002, the program was based on the assumption that social policy is not only useful to solve emergency problems for the survival of part of society, but is necessary for everyone to develop, especially in contexts of severe inequality (income, wealth, knowledge, and power), like in Brazil. “Poverty cannot be transformed into a passive and permanent beneficiary of the federal government; the poorest need to be able to pave their own paths,” he recounted.

“Ruth not only encouraged civil society organizations to participate but also companies (large and small), and she knew how to accommodate them in an environment that was often hostile to their participation. She enabled the conversation between actors with sometimes antagonistic interests, workers, entrepreneurs, and social activists,” said Paes de Barros, who was Undersecretary of Strategic Actions of Brazil’s Department of Strategic Affairs (Dilma Rousseff administration). 

Not only in the FHC administration but also in those who followed (Lula and Dilma), as well as in several state and municipal administrations, the room for society to participate in defining Brazilian social policies was progressively expanded. Participatory councils and conferences (municipal, state, and national) were created, and non-profit institutes and associations were expanded. Private companies also began to participate in defining priorities and spending in the social area, which today represents around 25% of the GDP. As an example, he cited the Group of Institutions, Foundations, and Companies (GIFE, in Portuguese, for Grupo de Instituições, Fundações e Empresas), which invests between 3 billion BRL and 4 billion BRL per year in the social area.

       ‘Room for experimentation’

According to Paes de Barros, the adherence of various public and private actors to the new proposal defended by Ruth Cardoso in the 1990s did not happen automatically: “She always voiced her concern that the boards were not being occupied with the professionalism and efficiency needed.”

The professor also pointed out the chronic misuse of public resources: “Although Brazil has greatly increased social spending, social indicators are not improving significantly,” he said. According to him, the participation of civil society is essential to improve the quality of these investments, pointing out they should always be based on data and evidence, what essential areas and topics should be prioritized, and which locales and target-public should be served.

“Civil society has to work in partnership and not in substitution or separated from  the public sector. The government (federal, state, and municipal) must also be synergistic with civil society and businesses,” said the engineer who graduated from ITA and who holds a Master’s in statistics from IMPA and a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago.

According to Paes de Barros, civil society, through its organizations and the communities, must also take part in inspecting the government and act as its operational arm for implementing social policies. In exercising this last function, it faces the challenge of staying autonomous, which is something put at risk when the government is its leading financier, which is not recommended. 

The third sector has another essential role in the production of public policies: experimentation. According to the Insper professor, these organizations are more distant from governmental pressures and should test social innovations. They can also document good practices from the government, who does not have time to do so, and ensure that the knowledge gained from past experiences is used in the future. 

“In Ruth’s view, if we have a third sector that works closely with the public sector, but in an independent and coordinated manner, it is possible to achieve the objective of making public and private social investments reach those who need it most, efficiently and transparently,” he concluded.

       ‘Democracy is coexistence’

The main difficulty in engaging more social actors in the public policy implementation cycle is to come to a consensus. “This is a dilemma that is part of democracy,” said Augusto de Franco, author of several books on local development, social capital, democracy, and social networks.  

According to the consultant, at the time he worked with Ruth Cardoso, dialogue was a complex and time-consuming process and, at the beginning of the discussions, there was hardly ever an agreement. The realization of new laws, policies and programs was only possible after much debate and permanent adjustments and adaptations. As an example, he cited the Civil Society Organizations of Public Interest Act (the OSCIPs Act, in its acronym in Portuguese), whose wording required 20 months of intense talks with the third sector and was sanctioned by President FHC in 1999 (Law 9790). 

For the Comunitas co-founder, it is more difficult to reach common understandings these days. “The period we are living in is unprecedented because society is polarized at its core. Democracy is not so minimalist to the point it can be defined as a change of government without bloodshed. Democracy is coexistence,” he said.

According to Franco, polarization has reached an extreme level where part of society believes that those who think differently are their enemies and have no legitimacy. “We have to have the tolerance to build consensus, but that is almost impossible today,” he continued.

Paes de Barros agreed: “It is easy to be open and listen when we are among like-minded people, the difficulty is doing this in increasingly polarized environments.” According to him, the example of Ruth Cardoso conducting the Comunidade Solidária is a way out: “A good mediator, one who knows how to listen in difficult and polarized situations, makes all the difference. In addition, it is crucial to always rely on evidence,” he concluded, recalling another of Ruth Cardoso’s most prized practices.


Beatriz Kipnis has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Public Administration and Government (FGV-SP) and is an assistant coordinator of studies and debates at the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Foundation.

Portuguese to English translation by Melissa Harkin & Todd Harkin (Harkin Translations)

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