Defensores del Chaco (Defensores) began with 12 kids on a corner in Chaco Chico, a neighborhood plagued with street violence and apathy. Even before the Argentine economy crumbled in 2001 under a massive international debt and an inflated exchange rate, similar communities in the poor suburbs that constitute the conurbano had struggled with high unemployment and disproportionate poverty. With bleak job prospects, young residents of Chaco Chico often dropped out of school to become a source of “cheap labor for organized crime,” according Fabián Ferraro, the professional soccer player who invited the 12 kids to play a match that would change the future for them and the surrounding communities. Change was well underway in 2005 when Defensores and its partners received an IAF award that they channeled to develop street soccer into an effective means toward more active civic engagement and better conditions in the conourbano. The IAF awarded Defensores $228,300; the Avina Foundation, the Kellogg Foundation and the World Bank contributed $227,040; Defensores committed $22,000 in cash and in kind. The goals were for 3,000 community residents to become aware of their rights to municipal services, to organize toward access, to learn to resolve conflict and to participate in civic life.
- Defensores showed that 1) organizations with diverse missions can work together effectively and 2) sports and culture provide a conduit to civic participation. Seven years after the IAF funding ceased, evaluators found that Defensores, working in partnership with Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (ACIJ) and Culebrón Timbal (CT) and dozens of other community groups, had achieved significant results:
- More than 3,000 young Argentines, including 830 young women, and 170 additional community residents trained as mediators and debate facilitators, worked toward resolving conflict and overcoming obstacles to community development.
- ACIJ, a public interest law firm, trained more than 150 individuals in skills related to budgeting and planning, conflict resolution and mediation, leadership and negotiation.
- Centro para el Apoyo Legal Comunitario (CALC), ACIJ’s on-site office extending legal advice and assistance, built two facilities serving the public.
- CT, which uses music and theater to demonstrate the benefits of civic participation, trained more than 300 youths and other individuals to work toward greater inclusion. Festivals and parades increased Defesores’ visibility.
- Residents of the municipality of San Miguel persuaded local officials to institute a participatory budget and enact a city ordinance allocating a percentage of public resources to infrastructure responding to constituent concerns. More than 11,000 residents became involved in development plans.
The collaboration of Defensores, ACIJ and CT with community residents continues to impact life in the three municipalities. La Posta Regional of June 4, 2014, reported that the first step toward paving roadways in one neighborhood was finalized thanks to the organized actions of ACIJ, the partnership and the community. It highlighted how “good relations among neighbors who regularly got together on their own have made a difference,” and noted the reduction of teen pregnancy and drop-out rates. Over the two decades since the first soccer match, living conditions have improved because of a sports complex, paved roads, streetlights, a sewer system, trash collection and a preschool to accommodate the overflow from the public facility. The collaboration with CT led to a strong cultural and arts center, a community radio, TV station and a newspaper.
Defensores continues its catalytic role in the spread of street soccer in Argentina and beyond, and envisions an international network. Two IAF grantees in Uruguay and Ecuador have already applied the concept. The practice has reached Chile, Costa Rica and Peru. Soccer continues to develop the skills related to conflict resolution and civic participation.
Defensores, ACIJ and CT understood the problems and obstacles, had a vision for an effective approach and coordinated their complementary efforts toward civic action. An age-limit set in Defensore’s bylaws requires board members to step down by age 30, ensuring the regular renewal of the organization’s leadership. Young people in leadership positions routinely mentor their eventual replacements.
Each organization became better at mobilizing the community to work toward better living conditions.
Strong mobilization had an impact regardless of official indifference or opposition. The coordinated effort stimulated residents to press successfully for participatory budgeting in the municipality of San Miguel.
Sports and culture played a significant role in increasing civic participation and improving conditions.
Mothers in El Vergel, an extremely underprivileged community, obtained a court order requiring the municipality to pave roads and fund a permanent clinic.
The development of street soccer had a positive impact on daily life, changed children and adolescents, their families and relationships among neighbors.
What Did Not Work?
Argentine laws on the books that seem to encourage civic participation are ineffective; their practice on the provincial and municipal level is limited; patronage and authoritarianism linger.
Even with strong organized civic action, elected officials can be slow to respond.
The partnership worked. Sharing strengths and knowledge produced benefits, but more willingness on the part of municipal governments would have produced more benefits. The soccer culture that had been competitive, violent and machista became cooperative, respectful and inclusive of girls and young women, small children and senior citizens.