What does a Bogotá urban waste recycler teach us about conquering democratic rights?

Any right, once conquered, needs institutionalising for it to be maintained over time and become an opportunity for all, and to protect it from abuse from the powerful. Español Português

Carlos March
2 March 2016

People collecting and sorting garbage and selling them for recycling. Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.

Norah Padilla embodies the difference between a strong woman by birth and a woman hardened by life. She experienced all the evils derived from extreme poverty and this tempered her humanity. She suffered the painful shortcomings of indigence and this deepened her understanding. She endured the most unfair inequalities and this made her become a crusader for the rule of law. Norah is one of the major Latin American referents of urban recyclers.

Her struggle began some years ago in Bogotá, where she organized a group of recyclers to demand their right to be recognised as public service providers, namely the urban waste recycling service. In 2012 the Colombian Constitutional Court, acting on the basis of an appeal filed by the recyclers, forced the government to set national standards for recyclers organized in cooperatives to take part in the bidding process for the household waste collection system.

This recognition made Norah adapt her strategy from claiming a right to influencing the legislation that would make the right she had been claiming a reality. To this end, she called on different actors to contribute their knowledge to the drafting of adequate regulation and procedures which could counterbalance the powerful interests of the business sector.

Finally, once the rule was enacted, she had to adapt her strategy again, so that the recognized right could be exercised. She had to seek alliances and the necessary resources to turn the frail cooperatives into providers of an efficient and competitive public service. In this way, fighting for her rights, Norah, who used to recycle waste to survive indignity, recycled herself to regain her human dignity.

From recognising to exercising

The weakest point in any process of recognition of a right that involves as protagonists vulnerable sectors of society is when the right that has been infringed is finally recognized. This is the turning point: he who was claiming as excluded, has now to assume the role of legal subject.

At the same time, the process designed to reclaim and challenge a third party has to mutate in order to generate proposals for making it possible for the recognized right to be exercised. The way in which the progression from claiming a right to exercising it is done, is key to its consolidation.

The paradox that arises is this: one of the ways to neutralize a right that is being claimed is to recognise it. In other words, the vulnerable subject who fails to generate the power needed to require the State to provide the conditions for the exercise of that right, and who, at the same time, does not develop its own capacity to face the exercise of that right, ends up becoming a hostage of the right that has been won.

1) From the heroic to the institutional phase

For vulnerable sectors to carry out a phase of heroic struggle for their rights, three conditions are to be met. There should be: 1) personalistic leaders who are able to communicate, mobilize and convince; 2) social actions that can mobilize collective emotions; 3) victimhood stories that highlight and legitimise both personalism and the actions.

When a right is finally recognised, the incentives of the heroic struggle phase must be maintained. But it is vital to build an institutional base, because the right claimed from activism and emotionality needs a much more solid foundation than the capacity of people to fight, which is always vulnerable.

The ability to move from the heroic struggle phase, from marginality, to a phase of institutionalisation of what society should recognise so that the exercise of the right that has been won has a legitimacy of origin, depends on the transition. That is, on moving from a phase based on people, to another phase of organizational designing which must create the conditions for the effective exercise of that right and for carrying out the actions required.

2) From victim to leader

The vulnerable person, or group, is no longer a victim once he is empowered. That is, when he acquires the capacity to fight for his own quality of life and to influence the collective quality of life. From being an "object of assistance", he becomes a "legal subject”. And although the learning involved in being a victim should not be forgotten, leadership skills must be acquired.

There are three main reasons for shedding the victim’s dress and putting on the leader’s clothes: 1) The victim does not thank, but demands; 2) The victim does not reason, but gets emotional; 3) The victim does not lead, but mobilizes.

It is necessary to be grateful to whoever collaborates with the processes of recognition of rights, because thanking those who behave rightly encourages others to do so, and because those who helped once, can continue to do so. It is necessary to lead from rationality, as this allows the use of emotions not to get emotional, but to inspire. And it should be understood that sometimes one can choose to play the role of a victim, but never that of a leader.

Leadership is a quality that is granted by followers, and this means that to be a leader, one has to be able to interpret where the whole wants to be heading for. The leader’s duty is to embody the collective vision and not be blinded by any personal mission. The leader should elevate and link. The challenge is to stop acting as a pitied victim and become a validated leader.

3) From accumulation to distribution

Social movements that stem from vulnerability must show their strength so as to become visible where they are being denied. The strategy of accumulating power on the part of the victims who are denied their right to hold a space and play a role, is thus fully justified. But in the same way as recognition of that right compels to switch status from victim to leader, building leadership requires evolving from power accumulation to freedom distribution.

To influence the conditions that will make it possible for the conquered right to be exercised, the leader must take care to create, within the group to which he belongs, the necessary capacities to influence decisions. This can be achieved when the leader’s space becomes a place everyone can access: "We all get to climb a step when the last of us does it".

Loneliness is not a necessary condition for leadership, and concentration of capabilities is the negation of collective evolution. Concentration of power prevents the building of diffuse power, a power that is not owned by anyone, but is handled at the service of collective goals, and that cannot be neutralized because it cannot be concentrated. As far as public incidence is concerned, the more diffuse power is, the more concrete its impact. Leaders should not therefore accumulate power, but distribute capacities and opportunities.

4) From lumpen to public servant

If we want to further our understanding of the argument, we need to shed social hypocrisies and conceptual packagings and assume the gritty look that society has on those who inhabit the land of exclusion.

Modern society tends to sweeten its atrocities with a rhetoric that is both cynical and ambiguous. Those whom it labels poor from the point of view of their lack of wealth, vulnerable from a social point of view, excluded from a political point of view, and dangerous from the point of view of class, can be defined with a word that, being denied by society, inevitably condemns them to a life sentence: lumpen. This is the definition that society hides under the carpet of euphemism.

Lumpen is the word which designates any group of socially and economically marginalized people in urban environments. Karl Marx used the term to refer to the social strata living in very precarious conditions. The social category reserved for the lumpen is the beggar: that is, one who has to beg to access opportunities and does not constitute a social class.

Our societies generate lumpen, and this does not speak ill of the people who find themselves in this situation, but rather of the society that subjects them to this condition, and then denies them. For example, when a population does not separate their waste at source and condemns recyclers to have to stir the garbage bins, it is clear that it is not the vulnerable sectors that put themselves in a situation of poverty, but rather the affluent society that pushes them into a lumpen position. The lumpen are denied a class identity and their dignity as persons. We live in societies that are unable to build successful collective projects to ensure the dignity of those who fail individually.

The basis for the lumpen to cease to exist has to be built from the recognition of the rights that are being denied and violated. At the individual level, the right to access opportunities; at the collective level, the right to constitute a class. The foundation for building the social role of the lumpen is the recognised right. When established as a legal subject, the lumpen’s previously denied individual rights are guaranteed, and he acquires the ability to fight for the conditions under which he will be able to exercise them. This is the case of cooperativists, it is the case of the workers who recover companies, and the case of the recyclers who get integrated into the urban waste collection systems.

5) From the comfort of the claim to the challenge of the proposal

The right that vulnerable sectors win with their fight should not accommodate them in the comfort zone of having achieved their aim, or in the contentment of the lessons they have learned. The attitude that was useful to reach their goal, the know-how they have assimilated, and the integrated strategy that was adequate for winning the recognition of that right, as well as its enforcers and allies, should be reviewed and analysed according to a new scenario.

A new action plan must be devised that fits the necessary mutation from the complaint or demand phase to the proposal phase. The conditions for the exercise of a right cannot be built with the same logic, attitude, strategy and actions that made it visible and led to winning that right.

Nor do the same actors and allies have to occupy necessarily similar positions, or identical alliances be repeated. The force that was used to turn the need into a claim, and that claim into law, is not necessarily effective for: 1) obtaining the critical mass necessary to achieve the conditions for exercising the recognised right, and no longer claim it; 2) institutionalising these conditions to anchor them in the long-term, and no longer demand that the institutions recognise that right, and 3) aligning the interests of the actors involved to undertake a negotiation aimed at achieving agreements for the exercise of that right, and no longer give expression to emotions and claims stemming from an infringed right.

The goal achieved should not be understood as the roof that shelters the actors, but as the floor of a new phase of advocacy that will pose new challenges: proposals and much fewer protests. In the same way as social legitimacy of origin depends on the ability of the vulnerable actors to institutionalise their organization, the social legitimacy of its management depends on their competence to exercise the recognized right in the collective space.

6) From claiming to putting forward conditions

Meeting a need expressed as a claim and turning this claim into a right: this is something to be thankful for, because gratefulness is a strategically altruistic gesture. Whoever has won his right must assume that his struggle has turned into an achievement, recognise that the other has now become an ally, motivate those who remain indifferent but are also potential allies, and prove to others in similar circumstances that the state or the private sector, which had been ignoring his needs, can also change their attitude and restore rights. Being grateful for the achievement is worth not for its reference to the past, but for the conditions it creates for the future: a possible future.

The next step in any process that reaches recognition of a right is the struggle to build what is to come. After proclaiming a right, the conditions for exercising that right must be at times demanded and always negotiated.

When a right is established, there come the duties. The vulnerable sectors that have been leading the fight must now face two challenges: 1) building a technically consistent and politically feasible proposal, based on information and knowledge, so that whoever must set the conditions for the effective exercise of that right has all the necessary inputs to effectively guarantee it; 2) defining a plan for this, in order to ensure that these conditions become, at state level, regulations, resolutions, bidding documents and public policies and, within the market and value-chain framework, contracts under a win-win logic.

7) From ethics to power

The discussion of the social agendas propounded by the vulnerable sectors is led by those who exercise power in terms of ethics, understood as the abstract expression of the wishes of those who do not have access to an opportunity. The challenge here is to establish this discussion of the social agenda, which has already been preceded by the process that ushered the recognition of a right, in the tangible power space that belongs to an actor who has been, until then, disrespected. It is not a matter of demanding a power that must be granted, but of gaining access to the power that derives from the recognised right.

The ability to exercise that right depends on the ability to win that space, for what guarantees a right is access to power: that is, the opportunity to define the rules of the game.

8) From social to economic

Vulnerable sectors must enforce the following logic: a recognised right becomes an effective right when resources for its full enjoyment are guaranteed. The context that creates vulnerability is that which separates social from economic capital, which confines the vulnerable sectors to the social agenda level and grants the state and formal economy sectors the privilege to access and manage the economic capital.

Social capital includes economic capital and the only possible discussion on the conditions for exercising a right is that which arises from the negotiation of budgets, resources, access to financing and investment conditions; that is, all the necessary financial architecture, public and private, so that the right recognised from a vulnerable position be exercised and protected by the institutions that give access to funding.

Vulnerable sectors must acquire the necessary skills to exercise the right they have won in the economic field, as there is nothing more economic than a social need.

9) From informality to institutionality

Structural poverty does not reside in a lack of access to the economy, but in the inaccessible opportunities being offered by the structured and registered social capital. One way of denying such access is by subjecting a portion of society to informality.

Recognition of the right that has been denied is thus a necessary first step, so that informality can turn into institutionality, which is the social architecture that ensures that an individual, or group of people, can progress within a framework defined by the rule of law and under legal security protection.

Institutionality for that right must be built, so that it can last over time, so that it can mean opportunities for all, and so that it can be shielded from abuse by the powerful.

10) From local to regional

Latin America being the most unequal region in the world, the gap between those who possess the most and those who have less reflects the state’s deep inefficiency in balancing the accumulation capacity of a small portion of the population and the constraints experienced by vast sectors of society for generating wealth.

Therefore, when a social actor recognises a right demanded by vulnerable sectors, it is a vital duty for him to record the process and spread it to other countries in the region. There is no way in which each of the nations can be transformed if the patterns and the logic governing the building of Latin America are not changed.

Changing the regional conditions of social exclusion depends largely on the excluded sectors being able to disseminate regionally their achievements in terms of rights. This requires building advocacy capacity at the regional level through collective spaces with the necessary power to push common agendas and to structure leadership. At the same time, it requires the building of common regional initiatives by the vulnerable sectors’ allies, who assist them in their struggles and conquests.

The aim of this Decalogue is to enable social actors who live in conditions of full vulnerability not only to conquer the rights that are denied them, but also to exercise them fully. Norah’s case in Bogotá shows that this is possible.

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