It’s a way of saying, “Who matters?” It’s also, literally, a question about how we count people.
As people—such as the descendants of Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean or indigenous groups—work to make themselves visible as a distinct group, one of the first moves they often have to make is to get a sense of their numbers and circumstances. By getting themselves counted, whether through a local study, national census, or demographic survey, they can get themselves factored in to planning and programming.
This month, we want to share how the Inter-American Foundation has supported Afro-descendants’ grassroots efforts to bring attention to their potential, concerns, and needs in Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Peru. Backing from the IAF has helped Afro-descendent groups make these topics more visible throughout the region, amplifying their contributions and innovations, as well as strengthening their capacity to engage with their governments. By quantifying the extent to which Afro-descendants in Latin America and the Caribbean are more likely to be impoverished and less likely to be represented in politics than other groups, they can work to change those realities.
The term “Afro-descendant” became widespread at the dawn of the millennium, when many black community leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean began to identify as a transnational group with a common identity. These community leaders, including several IAF grantees, went on to profoundly shift the debate around racial inclusion and civil rights in their respective countries.
With this rise in personal identification, they began achieving increasing official recognition during the 2000s. Collecting data on Afro-descendent populations didn’t become universal across Latin American and Caribbean countries until a decade ago. That’s why it was so significant when, due in large part to the efforts of IAF grantee Mundo Afro, the 2011 Uruguay National Census explicitly included Afro-descendants as a unique category, a crucial first step to providing services and resources to meet their needs.
Mundo Afro: From Promoting Social Development to Defining Public Policy
Launched in 1988 as a magazine to promote Afro-descendent rights and recognize their contributions to society, Mundo Afro had grown into a regional network for communities of African descent across Uruguay, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay by the time the IAF first funded it in 2003.
With IAF support, Mundo Afro pioneered social development programs focused on education, microenterprise development, cultural preservation, and project planning. It also inaugurated the Institute for Afro-Latino Development, where it trained community leaders, teachers, professors, and police officers on Afro-descendent history and culture.
Mundo Afro partnered with another IAF grantee, Asociación Afro Paraguaya Kamba Cua (AAPKC), to make a count of Afro-Paraguayans. With support from an IAF grant that began in 2006, they surveyed the demographics and living conditions of three Afro-Paraguayan communities. Later, when reflecting on their efforts to make their lives visible with an independent researcher, Tianna Paschel, these grantees “confirmed that were it not for several IAF grants, Afro-Paraguayans would likely still be completely invisible to local officials and uncounted in national censuses.”
Mundo Afro also worked with organized Afro-Uruguayans in different parts of the country to raise understanding of the historic struggles of Afro-Uruguayan populations and developed proposals and programs. Their work soon gained national attention. “The word ‘African descendant’ has definitely entered the Uruguayan vocabulary,” said Alexander Silver of Mundo Afro, quoted in our 2007 special issue of Grassroots Development Journal on Afro-descendants. Five years later, the word “Afro-descendant” also entered the 2011 national census.
Being counted made it possible for Afro-Uruguayans to receive more public resources and recognition. Through advocacy from Mundo Afro and other groups, the Uruguayan government began creating spaces for representatives of Afro-Uruguayan civil society groups in nine ministries, including its Ministries of the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Planning and Budgeting, and Social Development. Their contributions to these ministries have been key to helping the country develop a cross-cutting and comprehensive approach to inclusion and recognition.
Just last week, the government of Uruguay officially launched its National Council of Racial Equity, which will implement a national plan (available here, in Spanish) that addresses racial discrimination and ensures equal access to jobs, educational opportunities, and health services for Afro-Uruguayans.
According to Luisa Casalet, an ethno-racial specialist for the Ministry of the Interior of Uruguay, Mundo Afro’s story is an example of a grassroots effort snowballing to have an impact on public policy “through the vision of a civil society organization—and the [Inter-American] Foundation.”
For stories about how the IAF has helped Afro-descendants make themselves visible in Peru and Colombia, see:
UTCE in Colombia
Street Theater on Afro-Colombian heritage