An illustration depicting the protests in Brazil
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It’s a peaceful winter’s day in the favela of Monte Azul, São Paulo. Customers sit chatting around the hot-dog stand (which accepts credit cards). A state “health agent” patrols the undulating main street, looking for sick people to advise. At the crèche, the purple curtains are closed to let the children nap. And the rain runs neatly into the gutters, instead of flooding the street. A lot has changed since 20 years ago, when some local men worked as “security guards” for bakeries and supermarkets – which meant they were paid to murder suspected thieves.

In the wake of Brazil’s biggest protests since 1992, Monte Azul shows how much the country has improved. What has happened in this neighbourhood is what billions of poor people worldwide crave: the state has come to the favela. Services that underpin a dignified life, from running water to schools, are reaching Monte Azul. (I even spotted a state hearse driving around.) Bringing these services here wasn’t easy. Many neighbourhoods in Brazil still lack them. The question is: what does it take to bring the state to the poor?

Economic growth helps. About 40 million Brazilians have escaped poverty this past decade. But as we’ve seen elsewhere, growth doesn’t inevitably trickle down to poor neighbourhoods. The Brazilian lesson is that they must agitate for it.

A birdlike old German lady named Ute Craemer walked me around Monte Azul. She has lived nearby since 1975, and has been through a lot with the locals. She has comforted people whose children were shot dead. She has helped the inhabitants improve the neighbourhood. When I put it to her that the state had come to Monte Azul, she replied: “You can’t say that. You can say that the favela spent a lot of effort getting the state to notice that it exists.” In Craemer’s account, backed up by various people I spoke to, Monte Azul’s inhabitants had to campaign to get things such as crèches and street lighting.

In short, a strong civil society was crucial. By organising themselves, the poor forced the state to see that they existed as anything other than labourers or potential criminals. “Social movements in Brazil are always important,” São Paulo’s mayor Fernando Haddad told me.

Indeed, favelas that haven’t organised themselves haven’t managed to bring in the state. Oded Grajew, who set up the civic pressure group Rede Nossa São Paulo, said at the recent New Cities Summit here: “In some favelas you have the state absolutely absent. These are places where someone else is governing – like a criminal organisation.”

Yet when the poor do make demands, Brazil’s rulers often listen. Grajew, former right-hand-man to then President Lula, explained: “The poor are the majority of the electors.” Their voices can counter campaign donations from business. Ordinary people protesting this month got Brazilian states to ditch a planned 20-centavo rise in bus fares.

Ordinary people’s voices are heard constantly in Brazil, not just during protests. Haddad was obliged to sell his governing plan at meetings all over São Paulo, even in poor neighbourhoods. “What you see most in these hearings,” he said, “is humble people connected to the housing movement.”

True, São Paulo remains fantastically unequal. Luxury apartments with tennis courts sit 10m from a slum, separated only by a thin wall. Yet in Monte Azul, you see how change can happen. No longer does sewage dirty the stream running through the favela. Consequently, fewer rats bite inhabitants. There are schools now, and even school buses. Some of the schools are bad but many kids from Monte Azul get to university. And, as life improves, violence has declined. People no longer walk around Monte Azul with revolvers, says Craemer. São Paulo’s homicide rate dropped nearly 75 per cent between 1999 and 2011, before a smaller recent rebound – though as the German security expert Dennis Pauschinger notes, the Brazil-wide rate hasn’t fallen.

Progress can happen, but not by itself. Even if the poor organise themselves, the state will respond only if it thinks it needs to please them. I would love to conclude that this mechanism has worked (a bit) in Brazil because Brazil is a democracy. But sadly, democracy isn’t enough. Visiting Brazil, I’m always reminded of the country my parents come from: South Africa. Both countries are unequal, multicoloured, fairly recent democracies. Both have noisy civil societies. But because South Africa’s ruling African National Congress knows it will be re-elected no matter what, it rarely bothers pleasing the poor. By contrast, China isn’t a democracy but its rulers think they need to please the masses to stay in power, and so China has pulled more than 600 million people out of poverty since 1978. Perhaps the poor need a responsive state as much as they need democracy.

Pelé recently urged Brazilians to stop protesting and get behind their national football team. But Brazilians have learnt that the state will hear them only if they shout.

Twitter @KuperSimon

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