Few would have imagined in the early days that former IAF grantee partner Fundación Defensores del Chaco would become a youth-led powerhouse mobilizing entire towns to advocate for themselves. It started as a game—literally, a game of soccer with a dozen teenagers playing on a street corner.
People blamed idle teenagers for the many small crimes plaguing the neighborhood of Chaco Chico outside of Buenos Aires, Argentina: petty theft, fights, property damage… and many young people facing bleak educational and professional prospects locally really were at risk of getting drawn into organized crime. Former professional soccer player Fabián Ferraro, himself in his early twenties, saw their hopelessness and desire to belong. He organized them into a soccer team, with a uniform and a shared goal to win a district championship. Winning small victories made them feel unstoppable, and their attention turned to changing their hometown for the better.
Ferraro pioneered the concept of using futból callejero (street soccer) to promote youth leadership, civic engagement, and conflict resolution. Unlike traditional soccer, street soccer would incorporate a wider range of players, including girls, and teams would set their own rules and referees. He created a space where young people could bring in their problems and find solutions together. “It’s a citizenship school without walls,” explains Ferraro. Over time, the young people’s entire families got drawn into a variety of programs, including cultural activities, legal aid programs, planning surveys, participatory budget meetings, and neighborhood forums.
Helping Citizens Be More Engaged and Governments Be More Responsive
Fundación Defensores del Chaco was the perfect candidate for IAF funding during the late 1990s and early 2000s as the agency focused particularly on promoting citizen participation and local government responsiveness. We began funding projects focused on increasing dialogue and coordination between citizens, local elected officials, and the private sector. The goal of this “local development” was to boost participants’ ability to participate democratically in their societies and, simultaneously, to train local government officials to work with project participants to open political spaces for civic engagement.
We don’t often think of grassroots development as a team sport like soccer, but soccer is a good metaphor to describe the delicate balance of competition and cooperation between project participants, elected municipal officials, and private sector players. When it’s successful, individual achievement and collective coordination combine to produce outcomes that work for everyone.
In 2005, we funded a project bringing together Defensores and two other grantee partner organizations, as well as dozens of others, to train more than 3,000 young Argentinians in resolving conflicts and actively exercising their rights as citizens. The initiative took advantage of a strong, yet latent history of democratic participation in the area surrounding Buenos Aires dating back to the mid-1980s. As democratic reforms took hold at the national level, those same expectations of accountability began to manifest in communities’ increasing political culture and local civic participation.
Defensores united community organizations expecting results and municipal officials eager for electoral rewards. Together they created spaces that cultivated young people’s leadership skills, improved their communities, and promoted cooperation on a range of projects from paving roads and fixing light posts to improving educational opportunities. Chaco Chico’s young people succeeded in getting a city ordinance to dedicate a portion of the municipal budget to funding local, resident-led infrastructure projects, mobilizing 11,000 residents to participate in these participatory budgeting dialogues.
Democracy in Action
In 2014, former IAF vice president Patrick Breslin analyzed how eight past grantee initiatives from across Central and South America, including that of Defensores, had expanded civic participation. Or, as Breslin put it, how “the democratic potential emerging at the grassroots throughout the region might connect with the political arena, which should make government more responsive, more in touch with its citizens, better.”
Defensores faced constant challenges that threatened to derail their progress as they graduated from IAF funding, including bureaucratic hurdles, local government officials’ reluctance to embrace expanded public participation, and community organizations’ wariness about potentially being used by politicians for partisan gain. Breslin concluded that two moves had helped the Defensores project sustain its momentum over time despite these barriers:
- First, participants acquired such an expansive knowledge of citizen rights that legal professionals were only required on an occasional, as-needed basis.
- Second, they continued to deliver training consistently to keep citizens and local government officials engaged in participatory budgeting.
From a few teenagers kicking a ball around on a street corner, Defensores got a ball rolling that eventually involved a total of 30,000 citizens in making decisions together as a township. Breslin noted a “profound democratization” among the young participants: “Many of the young people have changed the trajectories of their lives in ways clearly stimulated by participatory experiences, collective work, training and the commitment that the project promoted.” As the original founders felt that they were “aging out” of leading a youth-led organization, they passed the torch to younger leaders they had mentored. They went on to create Fundación Fútbol para el Desarrollo, a current IAF grantee partner, which promotes youth soccer as a vehicle for positive youth development throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. And within a few years, fútbol callejero became an international phenomenon.