Protestors march in Bogotá, Colombia, as part of the Colombian national strike in 2019. Christoffer Wisberg/shutterstock

Protestors march in Bogotá, Colombia, as part of the Colombian national strike in 2019. Christoffer Wisberg/shutterstock

In Colombia, protesters took to the streets as the will to be heard on issues of peace and prosperity were met with a military response. In Chile, protests against the cost of public transportation stirred larger unrest, and fanned the flames of inequality.

At first, when the pandemic hit, many thought it would serve as a reset in Latin America. Instead, COVID-19 laid bare the glaring gaps in care received by the haves and the have nots, the government and the governed. Brazilians in Rio and São Paulo took to banging pots and pans on their balconies, protesting a dismissive response to the virus that left them exposed. Vulnerable populations engaged in informal work disengaged from the economy.

Civic spaces were tightening around the world even before the pandemic, particularly in Latin America, which, after years of making major inroads toward democratization, has experienced a rising tide of social unrest in places like Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. 

As the pandemic’s thrown light on deep-seated social, political and economic inequities that may well drag an estimated 28 million Latin Americans into poverty, democracy and its institutions have come under threat. This societal strain started a slide in sentiments that left just 48% of people polled supporting the simple statement that “democracy is preferred to any other form of government.” 

To de-escalate those sentiments and impulses, Pulsante, a new $3 million fund, launched last week, aiming to protect and expand civic space, ensure that all citizens can participate in the decisions that affect their lives, and improve democracy in Latin America.

Three Partners

The work will be funded over the next three years by three leaders in funding the advance of fair and open societies: Luminate, Open Society Foundations and Avina Foundation, which will be coordinating the work. 

Part of the Omidyar Group, Luminate focuses on empowering citizens to build fair and just societies, help people find their voices on the issues that affect their lives, and make leaders and institutions in positions of power more accountable and responsive. 

Open Society Foundations, the international grantmaking network founded by financier George Soros, is recognized as one of the world’s largest funders on issues of justice, democratic governance and human rights. Its democratic practice budget for 2020 alone tops $140 million.

The Avina Foundation, a Latin America-based organization created more than two decades ago by Swiss entrepreneur Stephan Schmidheiny, works toward sustainable development by bringing national and regional partners together to collaborate across sectors.

Felipe Estefan, investment director of Luminate, says two of the partners have worked together in the same regions previously on two similar-sized, three-year funds that focused on civic tech organizations. The new fund adds a partner, and expands the work from the possibilities of technology to building a transformational movement of civic inclusion. 

Three Objectives 

The fund will focus on three priorities: rapid-response campaigns that can spring into action should an executive order hinder human rights; allowing civic empowerment organizations to experiment with practices that can increase citizen power, improve the quality of democracy, and guarantee greater social justice; and supporting social movements that work to make democracies more transparent, participatory, and representative. 

The Rapid Response Fund will provide grants of between $10,000 and $15,000, and technical support on topics like communication and advocacy over a period of three to six months. The principals have moved decisively. Since launching on August 12, the fund has already received 18 applicants, and has started reaching decisions. Rapid response applications can be accessed by following this link. Funding in the other two areas will start in December.

Geographically, the work is expected to prioritize Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico—but Estefan says the fund is open to other opportunities, like work happening in Nicaragua, for example.   

In addition to the three priority areas, Pulsante will work at the ecosystem level to produce knowledge for the field, support peer learning, and host events on the future of Latin American democracy.

The launch of the fund is well timed.

“Latin America has seen a rise of populist leaders across the political spectrum, many of whom are undermining democracy from within,” Estefan says. “Those leaders have become less concerned about the international implications of their threats to democracy, particularly as the United States’ approach to the region has become less defined by a desire to protect democracy and its defenders. Pulsante hopes to continue being a source of support for those defending democracy across the region.” 

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