Democracy “At Risk”? Governmental and Non-governmental Organizations, “At Risk” Youth, and Programming in Juiz de Fora, Brazil

Penelope Kay Morrison

PhD Thesis 2010

This dissertation examines the notion of “risk” utilized by youth-oriented non-governmental (NGO) and governmental (GO) organizations in Juiz de Fora, MG - Brazil. I argue that the Child and Adolescent Act of 1990 (ECA), a piece of democratic legislation concerned with the rights of youth, has restructured the activities that organizations provide around socio-educative, rights-based initiatives as well as caused a shift in organizational focus away from the previous category of “street youth” toward an emphasis on “at risk” youth. In doing so, however, I argue that ECA has subsequently institutionalized the notion of “risk” and despite the new “democratic” approach to child and adolescent advocacy embedded in ECA’s interpretation at the local level are lingering views of youth as both the referents of the nation-state and as “in danger” or “dangerous.”

Based on 12 months of ethnographic research with six organizations in Juiz de Fora, I describe how these entities utilize ECA in their outreach, the kinds of activities they engage in and how these activities are connected to the “rights-based” approach ECA promotes. I analyze from the perspective of NGO and GO staff and the youth they serve the notion of “risk” and discuss how this concept is perceived differently by each. I situate the local context of programming in Juiz de Fora within larger debates in Brazil over issues of formal education, citizenry, social exclusion and democracy. I present the perspectives of youth to highlight these debates and give voice to this increasingly frustrated population.

Finally, I examine the implications these discussions have for democracy at large in Brazil as well as the notion of “cidadania invertida” (inverted citizenship) as a means of asserting social inclusion. I examine the need for more family-oriented programs and educational reform in Brazil. I discuss the connection of this work to childhood social theory and point to the importance of engaging youth in ethnographic research. I conclude with a discussion of both the theoretical and policy implications of this work.