Vitae Civilis: history and achievements

The emergence of Vitae Civilis - Institute for Development, Environment and Peace, in Brazil - coincided with moments of great importance in the national and international scenario in the second half of the twentieth century. Some of the accounts that led up to its creation were the re-democratization of Brazil - a political transition that ended the military regime (1964-85) and generated a new Federal Constitution (1988) based on the valuation of citizen participation - and welcoming into the country the World Commission on Environment and Development of the United Nations (UN) in 1985, which later resulted in the "Brundtland Report".

At that time, its founders had already worked with some kind of militancy in favor of citizenship and direction of development. Touched by the Brundtland commission report, "Our Common Future" as a conceptual platform and policy, and by the new constitutional order in Brazil, they created Vitae Civilis on September 18, 1989. Its name, which means "for the civil society" in Latin, expresses the objective that supports its mission to serve as a tool for building sustainable societies. It also reinforces its guidance in working for the strengthening of citizenship and of civil society organizations.

Integrating sustainable development's dimensions from the outset

Since its inception, one of its differentials was to be active in various spheres and themes to address the various dimensions of sustainability. That is, Vitae Civilis always set out to think, in an integrated manner, the environmental, social, economic, cultural and scientific issues in its various spheres of activity - global, national and local. Another important inspiration is to believe that the building of sustainability is also the building of peace. Since then, Vitae Civilis became successful in its actions, whether by its pioneering themes or its modus operandi, always seeking to associate technical and scientific knowledge on the one hand, and rights and social demands on the other. For Vitae Civilis uses the work tripod Policy, Practice and Research as a strategic foundation.

In the first half of the 1990s, for example, little was said in cultivating and promoting the use of medicinal plants as part of the strategy for environmental conservation and income generation for the population in the Atlantic Forest region. During this period, work activities were carried out with the communities and residents of the Vale do Ribeira, São Paulo, in order to promote conciliation between improving the quality of life of people who live there and the conservation of that biome. Called “Da Mata à Casa”, the project mixed research with field action for income generation and poverty eradication using conservation of medicinal plants, and was awarded the Henry Ford Award of Environmental Conservation (honorable mention) in 1997.

Everything so far has been possible due to focus on a few selected areas, association of motivated people, good technical and scientific knowledge and perspective to qualify and articulate proposals for well settled public policies, allowing for systemic effects, surpassing positive impacts of local projects. Moreover, Vitae Civilis has also always been attentive to communication challenges. Its first bulletins, between 1993 and 1995, were printed when the Internet was still in its infancy in Brazil. Then, the institute started having a regular newsletter for news publications and texts depicting the work of various NGOs and activities of the society; and even today, the institute keeps different channels on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Google+, as well as its website.

Overcoming funding challenges

Throughout its history, Vitae Civilis found low success in achieving financial sustainability and producing content for others to learn from its experiences. International support was prevalent at the beginning of its activities, and gradually the institute also began fundraising in Brazil. But two difficult moments were faced.

The first was in early 1996, when two organizations canceled their support for reasons that did not involve projects. With few resources left, it was decided to close the office, but still keep the team, who worked from their homes. It was an absolutely necessary step to take back in order to take two steps forward, since the institute overcame the situation in early 1997, when better conditions than before were achieved thanks to the credibility of the work done thus far. At that time, it was essential to go through the evaluation process of what had already been reached and reshape the organization and its programs.

A second tricky moment came in early 2009, when several supporters were affected by the economic crisis, and even with signed contracts or approved projects, Vitae Civilis failed to receive a significant portion of resources. This time, the office was kept in a smaller space and the staff was downsized. What allowed for the overcoming of this phase was the image of the Institute, because despite running with minimal structure, the name Vitae Civilis allowed, and still allows, for the maintenance of relationships cultivated over the years. Credibility in the actions and the fact that the Institute always honors its commitments were essential. Nevertheless, the measures that allowed for the continuity of some lines of work led to the temporary suspension of others.

In 2010, the headquarters of Vitae Civilis was moved back to the city of São Paulo to facilitate new partnerships and actions, and since then, there has been considerable growth and institutional renewal. With the experience obtained while facing these moments, it was clear that credibility, seriousness and engagement are assets of Vitae Civilis.

The challenges of disseminating lessons learnt

The fact that it hasn’t been possible to systematize and disseminate lessons learned in the desired fashion, especially at the beginning of the activities, it is also regarded as less successful. Vitae Civilis believes that the lessons and perspectives experienced could have been better shared. This is because, for the institute, the narratives are extremely important so other people are encouraged and learn. The changes in this respect came with time. Since 2000, as a result of an institutional guideline, the experiences of the institute became better shared in the form of books, videos, technical assistance for society groups, training activities (capacity building) and workshops, just to name a few. Maintaining regular communication channels in English and Spanish is also a desire that needs to be further explored.

To improve these issues, some steps are already underway, with a new communication plan and an employee focused on fundraising.

Working with IIED

Regarding the contribution of the IIED, one of the founders of Vitae Civilis, Mr. Rubens Harry Born, had the opportunity to pay a visit to its headquarters in 1989 during a trip through Europe with the goal of starting conversations regarding Rio 92. Since then Vitae Civilis has always been interested in being aware of the work done by Richard Sandbrook and his team members.

It is also worth noting that in early 2002, Vitae Civilis was invited to join the "Ring Alliance" network, which under the leadership of the IIED and inspired by the dialogue and cooperation fostered by Richard, brought together organizations involved with monitoring and compliance of international agreements of Rio 92. In the process of Rio+20, the institute managed to accomplish initiatives in conjunction with the IIED, whether to work with the UN or to share perspectives and proposals of civil society groups. As a result of this synergy, Vitae Civilis recognizes the important values ​​such as persistence, regularity in the activities, perseverance and building alliances that inspired Richard Sandbrook and others who seek to give their best for a better world.

January 2013