Maria do Socorro Mendonça

This description of Maria do Socorro Mendonça's work was prepared when Maria do Socorro Mendonça was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2015 .


Maria do Socorro created Instituto Nossa Ilhéus to cultivate citizenship in municipalities, addressing both population and politicians. On one hand, she connects citizens with their civic role, engaging them through radio, social media, theatre, and workshops. On the other, she monitors politicians and their work, reminding them of their public role.

The New Idea

Socorro Mendoça is from Ilhéus, a medium-sized town in northeasthern Brazil, and has always been uneasy with the political situation in her city. With a history of political and economic hierarchy, politicians still exchange votes for basic civil rights, and citizens do not see politics as a source for solutions or see their responsibility in the political process. To address this disconnect, Socorro founded “Instituto Nossa Ilhéus” (Our Ilhéus Institute) to enable people to step into their role as active citizens, through a social monitoring platform that gives them a clear channel to participate in the political life of the city and to hold elected officials accountable.

Socorro created two main projects to do this. The first is “De Olho na Camara de Vereadores” (An Eye on the City Council), a way of monitoring municipal meetings through digital tools that brings transparency into and within the Council. This initiative comes from the observation that currently any monitoring is done at a federal level, while at the local level, more than 5,000 municipalities remain without any sort of transparency or accountability. The second initiative is “Cultivando Cidadania” (Cultivating Citizenship) through which Socorro organizes educational workshops for low-income communities that explain, in a simple and fun way, how political institutions work, where citizens can and must have influence, and what are their rights and responsibilities. She translates social monitoring into popular language so that people of all backgrounds feel able to play a role in their communities and know how and where to act. Socorro is now bringing this methodology to local schools in order to reach young people.

In addition to these initiatives, Socorro also has a radio program -- the most used media vehicle in Ilhéus and throughout Brazil -- where she discusses public interest issues and contextualizes them for every citizen. An active part of city CSO networks, Socorro is now replicating her double strategy of education and social monitoring outside of Ilheus to Bahia and Minas Gerais through local CSOs. Socorro’s methodology is inspiring other “copy” organizations throughout Brazil, such as Instituto Nossa Uruçuca, BH and Betim, to replicate the model and show citizens and politicians how to work together to create policies for the common good, and ultimately transform the way politics happen.

The Problem

The current political system in Brazil developed in a context of social inequality in which civic participation was hindered by the concentration of economic and decision-making power in a small group of elite. This was especially exaggerated in rural areas where land is concentrated. As a result, Brazilians have become accustomed to receiving political decisions instead of participating in them. In a country where a ruling democracy is still relatively recent, political participation often does not reach all levels of society and is restricted to electoral periods, when, in many cases, there is still an exchange of votes for favors or even for basic rights. As a result, policies and politicians tend to be disconnected from the people’s actual realities and needs and instead reflect their own interests. Furthermore the political system is organized in a highly complex way, and most of the population is not encouraged to understand it, nor are they aware of the spaces that are destined for their participation. Any recognition for a politician that does prioritize social improvement is small, as is the recognition for those acting primarily for their own benefit. This lack of civic engagement and the lack of accountability contribute to a cycle of public disinterest and political neglect.

There are over 5,000 municipalities in Brazil. Frequently, the smaller the municipality, the more the policies impact the local population, and yet these small towns have the least political transparency. Small towns in the southern part of the state of Bahia have prominent social inequality and concentration of revenue and power in a small group, a remnant of the cocoa economy. Cocoa cultivation led to division of the land owners and the rest of the population, and the average citizen was economically dependent on the land owners and barred from local decision-making processes. As cocoa cultivation decreased and urbanization began, most citizens never took responsibility in their municipalities’ management, and an economic dependence transferred to a political one. The disorganized way urbanization and democracy have unfolded has led to many social issues, and also a lack of understanding of how to participate and accelerate putting power in the hands of many instead of a few.

Currently any monitoring is done at a federal level, while the local entities remain without transparency or accountability. The Legislative Power is comprised of “vereadores,” town councilors, who, in addition to drafting and implementing laws, have the power to supervise the actions of the Executive Power. The vereadores are the political agents that should accompany the communities, understand their daily needs, and guarantee that the Executive’s efforts match them. Instead of exercising this role, in Ilhéus and many other municipalities in Brazil, the ‘vereadores’ use public mechanisms to make the citizens even more dependent on them. For example, the exchange of votes for a right that is already the citizen’s, such as access to health care, is common. This is how vereadores maintain their power, so that few people receive benefits over many others who need them. With no mechanism for citizens to hold vereadores accountable, the latter do not fulfill their role of working for the collective wellbeing.

Discussions of the need for transparency are increasing in Brazil, and many organizations are working on monitoring the public sector and collecting information. However, most people still lack a means of understanding this information and of knowing how to use it to participate in politics.

The Strategy

Socorro created Instituto Nossa Ilhéus (Our Ilhéus Institute, INI) in order to bring about full citizenship for all, and to work with both citizens and politicians to connect citizens with their political role and the politicians to the needs of the population.
First, Socorro created the project “De Olho na Câmara dos vereadores” (An Eye on the Town Council Chamber) to improve transparency and the means of communication within the Council. Even though Council sessions are open for civil society to participate, it does not actually happen because people often do not even know they are allowed to attend. In order to show people that it is possible – and necessary – to be involved, Instituto Nossa Ilheus attends the council meetings, records them, and live broadcasts them on the INI website and on YouTube. INI then asks the Chamber for information that should be public, according to the Law of Information Access. Much of this information, such as the vereadores’ council attendance list, is not actually captured or shared, so INI creates demand and an outlet for it in order to make legislative decisions even more accessible for citizens to monitor.

Each month, Socorro compiles all the legislative output and the councilors’ participation records and creates visual quantitative reports with the information. Every day, she shares the individual results of each Councilor, such as new laws, their monitoring of the Executive, and their suggestions of what the Executive could do for the city. Socorro uses social media to report this daily, and she makes bi-annual reports on the Chamber’s activities. The information is available for free on the INI website, social media, and in newsletters that are sent to civil society, media, and researchers. Her first reports had over 11,200 downloads and the YouTube channel had over 400,000 views. Socorro managed to get closer to the media as well, mainly radio, where the publications are reported and reviewed. The data published by “De Olho na Câmara” serves as a foundation for the local media and university researchers to analyze the councilors’ performance as well as to get citizens to engage in municipal politics. Socorro does not make value judgements or advocate for a particular candidate or party, she just exposes what happens in the Legislature. In this sense, all councilors are equally exposed, those actively working on the public’s behalf, and those that are not. Her approach is to strengthen leadership: “Do your job and the INI will be your ally, because we will show your work to everyone.”

With the transparency INI creates, people are able to hold their candidates accountable for what they promised. Other associations of CSOs have started attending the meetings, such as ARENA (the Regional Association of Architects) and CRECI (the Regional Real Estate Council), to question and take a position on the laws that directly affect their interests, and indirectly affect the population. The councilors, on the other hand, are encouraged to work more responsibly, since there is accountability and recognition for their work. The methodology used is simple and can be easily replicated and multiplied. With this in mind, INI created a guide that explains step by step how to monitor a municipality’s Legislative branch, and another that teaches citizens in general how to monitor and influence public policies; both are available for free on the INI website. Socorro has been presenting the experience from “De Olho na Câmara de Vereadores” in diverse events and throughout the networks she participates in. The first replication of the project has been implemented in the neighboring municipality of Uruçuca, where Instituto Nossa Uruçuca was created in 2014.

Creating monitoring tools is not enough if citizens do not see their responsibilities in the political scene or do not know how to use the information they now have access to. Socorro created the “Cultivating Citizenship” program to conduct citizenship workshops in Ilhéus’ low-income communities. She mapped the community leaders and local associations, with whom she built partnerships to mobilize the residents. The workshops are taught by INI staff, and cover topics such as the three powers of government, the notion of citizenship, and the ways to influence policies, all with a simple and fun approach. The goal of the workshops is to inform participants, but also to make them protagonists, capable of transforming their city and their lives. Building on this motivation, the workshops include a section on entrepreneurship, in partnership with SEBRAE.

To explain complex concepts such as the three powers to people who are usually not highly educated, Socorro uses creative metaphors linked with every-day concepts. One example is the analogy of a voter choosing a mayor as a shop owner choosing a manager. Just as the owner would not leave the manager in the shop without monitoring his performance, the voters should not elect the mayor and leave him alone for four years without checking on what he is doing. The workshops also include guest experts for more specific topics, music to lighten the atmosphere, and an actor that plays the role of an “unethical” citizen to show people how not to behave. Socorro also discusses statistics and social indicators from Ilhéus, and, when exposing the social problems, she provokes the participants to think about the role of each citizen in solving them. The workshop closes with a charge for everyone to bring change to their community. All participants receive a certificate and a small mirror with the inscription “Who can change the world?”

To spread the ideas of social monitoring and civic engagement outside the workshops, Socorro hosts a weekly show on the radio. On “Debating Citizenship,” she discusses civic engagement- related subjects, such as the role of the Three Powers and of civil society; the right of accessing information; the performance of local councilors; and topics that are on the national agenda. She then invites a specialist, someone from civil society, and an elected official to join the conversation. Radio is the most used media in Ilhéus and across Brazil, which makes this partnership very important to spread the idea of active citizenship. In partnership with the Popular Theater of Ilhéus, the INI also promotes open discussion, through theatre and other artistic interventions in public spaces, about current issues with academics and the public. For example, by watching a play about a mayor, citizens can better understand what it means to be a mayor, the responsibilities this person has, but also empathize with the complexity of the role.

Although the impact of Socorro’s work is long-term, changes are already visible. In Ilhéus, the number of people participating in the Council Chambers has increased from 5 to 200 people; the Council Chamber has convened special sessions to debate relevant subjects; and the Chamber now regularly invites INI to participate. Socorro is currently focused on scaling her work and expanding her reach by replicating the program in other cities through regional networks of CSOs, including “My City Network,” “Social Brazilian Network,” and “Latin-American Network for Fair and Democratic Cities.” She has detected the need to spread the citizenship education beyond the community associations to reach young people. To do that, Socorro is now inserting her citizenship workshops inside schools, starting with a pilot program in partnership with the Paulo Montenegro Institute that gets 14-15 year-olds to think about how they can improve their city. In parallel, she is developing a mobile phone application to facilitate access to the Council monitoring. In terms of replicating it to different cities, Socorro is partnering with local organizations in different municipalities to adapt her methodology to the local language, in Uruçuca, Betim and Belo Horizonte. This is facilitated by her participation in different networks where she presents the work she has developed.

The Person

Socorro Mendonça born in a rural part of southern Bahia, was always passionate about her region. Although her family experienced financial difficulty, Socorro recalls her childhood fondly; she loved being surrounded by the natural beauty of her state. Then, her family moved to the city of Ilhéus so that Socorro and her sister could study. As she grew up, Socorro stood out for her willingness to take action, believing that when you really put effort into something, you will succeed. She was an athlete and part of her city’s official team even though she was not the best player technically, but because of her team spirit and good sportsmanship.

Socorro had to start working at a young age to support herself. Seeking financial sustainability, she became a public servant at Embratel, a major state telecommunication company in Brazil. There, she began as an administrative assistant and left as an account manager for key customers, gaining recognition for top sales. When the company was privatized and Socorro would have had to move to another city to keep her job, she decided to quit and start her own company in the communications sector in order to stay in Ilhéus.

In 2004, Socorro took part in a conference about politics, where she was given a document to sign, which she later discovered to be an affiliation to a political party that wanted to increase the number of members to reach the required minimum to run for the elections. Upset by the way she had been manipulated, she promoted the story in the media and created a task-force to disaffiliate all the members that were also deceptively engaged. In less than a day, she managed to disaffiliate 60 people and the party had to be dissolved. Socorro had always wanted to be more engaged in her city and this pushed her to pay attention to the passivity of citizens who would always complain about Ilhéus, but not do anything to make a change. To learn how she might change things, Socorro joined the electoral campaign of a mayoral candidate. Through that experience, she saw dishonesty, manipulation, and unethical behavior. This is where she realized that her civic participation could be more effective outside of political parties.

When Socorro learned that a harbor would be built in Ilhéus, she researched the project and found that its impact would be dramatic for the region. She started to participate in meetings organized by environmentalists and concerned businessmen. Thanks to her ability to identify and connect people and information, she became the secretary of the association, and began to take part in the places where governing decisions in Ilhéus’ happened. This led Socorro to found the “Ação Ilhéus” (Action Ilhéus), an association to mobilize people against the construction of the harbor and its development model. As president of the association, her approach was “against something,” and she soon realized that her impact could be bigger if she instead reinforced the practices she believes in. Socorro then created Instituto Nossa Ilhéus as a platform to build these good practices by cultivating citizenship and monitoring the public sector.