“Conectas 20”: The challenge of creating an international NGO in Brazil is at the genesis of Conectas

A senior UN official, Malak El-Chichini Poppovic envisaged opening up the country’s third sector to the world and to partnerships between nations of the Global South. Read the text from the publication “Conectas 20”, which celebrates the two decades of the organization

There were many connections that led Egyptian economist Malak El-Chichini to be in the right place and with the key people for the founding of the first Brazilian non-governmental organization with an international scope. 

It was a journey that spanned three continents and involved diplomats, academics, lawyers and activists from Cairo (Egypt), Geneva (Switzerland), Dakar (Senegal) and New York (United States), before finally ending up in Brazil thanks to the Carnival of 1985.

This is because it was during the revelry in Rio de Janeiro that Malak met the editor Pedro Paulo Poppovic, her partner for life ever since. 

The meeting was a twist of fate and brought a senior United Nations official to Brazil when it was in full re-democratization and restoring civil and political rights. 

Malak had been working for a decade at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which she joined after completing a Masters at the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva. 

The work at UNHCR provided not only a stimulating community for colleagues, among them the Brazilian diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello (1948-2003), but also an opportunity to delve into the challenges posed in the humanitarian field and an intense and instructive experience about different realities that led her to visit more than 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

Malak lived for two years in Senegal, where the regional office of the UNHCR covered 13 countries. There, she coordinated programs such as the repatriation and resettlement of refugees from the wars of decolonization in several countries in the region. She was then transferred to New York, where she spent four years working at the US headquarters of the UN before returning to Geneva.

In the coastal West African nation, Malak says she learned more than she taught: about wars, about colonization and about how to protect people. However, these topics were not entirely foreign to her. On the contrary, they had laid the foundations of her dream of being able to change realities and give people a better life, even in their own homeland.

Born in Cairo in 1943 to an upper-class family, Malak is the third of five children. She was educated at the same boarding school of French Catholic nuns that her mother had attended decades earlier. At home, she spoke in Arabic with the father and in French with her mother. 

Malak left school inspired by the humanist vision of the French nuns. “I wanted to be a missionary when I was young, but I didn’t know it wasn’t possible because I wasn’t a Christian,” she recalls, laughing.

As a child, Malak witnessed the socialist revolution of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970) in 1952. She saw parts of the Egyptian capital burned during the riots that ended the power of the royal family and the British occupation of the Suez Canal. She watched the expulsion from the country of foreign minorities, some of them her schoolmates and her mother’s friends, after Egypt was invaded by England, Israel and France in the war of 1956.

“They were turbulent times and I was torn. On the one hand, my family belonged to a privileged group targeted by the Nasser regime, and on the other I believed that more equality was needed in Egypt,” she explains. The regime later became arbitrary and began violating human rights. “That’s when I realized that you can’t carry out reforms without democracy. And that human rights are always indispensable.” The young Malak, who had previously wanted to study literature, then decided to “become an economist because I thought it was important for the development of Egypt and Africa”. After her graduation, she won a scholarship for a postgraduate degree in Geneva.

“I dreamed of living on my own in Europe for a while. French was my first language and I felt practically European. But not long after arriving in Switzerland, I discovered myself as an Arab and an African,” she recalls. “You have to leave your country to be able to find out who you really are.”

In Geneva, in the 1970s, Malak met a group of foreign women who did not subscribe to the debates on European feminism and who met for late-night discussions on gender issues in the context of periphery and underdeveloped countries. Among them was the Brazilian writer Rosiska Darcy de Oliveira, exiled to the diplomatic capital of Europe after denouncing the violations of the 1964 Brazilian military dictatorship.

In February 1985, Malak called Rosiska when a major exhibition on refugees she was organizing in Saudi Arabia was suddenly cancelled. After the conversation, Malak was invited to go to Rio de Janeiro to spend Carnival at Rosiska’s house, where another of her friends was staying. It was Pedro Paulo.

It was the fourth time that Malak had visited Brazil, always on vacation, to visit her friend and one of her sisters, Nayla, who also lived in Rio and worked with political refugees, some of whom she even hid in her own house.

The new reason for this latest trip, however, was crucial: Malak already had plans to return to Brazil to see Pedro Paulo, and she now returned for a long-term stay. In a few months, she was relocating to São Paulo, where she had only ever been once, for just over 24 hours.

“When I arrived in Brazil, at the beginning of the political opening, I found things very promising compared to what was happening in other countries”, she says. “It was a vibrant country, with a very interesting civil society that was considered an example in Africa, where the third sector was colonized by organizations from developed countries.” The first big challenge was to learn the language, inside and outside the home. The second was to find out how to fit in professionally in her new country.

Malak was introduced to the political scientist Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro by a mutual friend and former colleague at UNHCR, Guilherme Lustosa da Cunha (1942-2010). She started to work for the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP), founded by Pinheiro and by the sociologist Sérgio Adorno.

It was there that she met many young researchers and activists, among them the lawyer Oscar Vilhena Vieira, who had recently graduated from university and was working as a volunteer at the Teotônio Vilela Commission, with whom she would found Conectas 13 years later. “Straight away we became very, very close friends.” Malak and Oscar shared ideas, diagnoses and aspirations about justice, human rights and the role of organized civil society.

The duo also anticipated a greater opening of a Brazil in transformation to an increasingly connected and interdependent world. “I was highly influenced by the Egyptian UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who said: we have to democratize globalization,” she explains.

Malak belongs to the generation of senior UN officials who organized the series of large conferences staged by Boutros-Ghali in the 1990s. The conferences on major topics that underpinned the public debate moving forward successfully included activists and civil society organizations from periphery countries in discussions on the environment (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), human rights (Vienna, 1993) and gender (Beijing, 1995).

“The internationalization of these big issues gave a voice to many new actors. It was a time of great strengthening of civil society,” she says. In the context of building international networks, Malak considered that Brazil was isolated even from its neighbors in Latin America, and even more so from other developing economies in Africa and Asia.

Strengthening solidarity between activists and organizations from the third sector in the global periphery seemed important to her. “The fact that I am a displaced person made the idea of solidarity a strong one for me. Here, in Brazil, I am displaced. When I go back to Egypt, I am also displaced because I’ve changed and the country has changed.” 

“The fact that I am a displaced person made the idea of solidarity a strong one for me”

The strategic importance of strengthening the third sector gained even more momentum when Malak joined the Solidarity Community team, created in 1995 by the then first lady Ruth Cardoso (1930-2008), an anthropologist married to the former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

“Ruth Cardoso was a very inspirational person and she was innovating in the relationship between civil society and public policy. She had this idea that the third sector had to be strengthened because it was very important for the social area,” she says. “All the work in the Solidarity Community was extremely useful for determining the impact that an NGO can have personally on an individual.” As special advisor to the international department of the Solidarity Community, Malak built bridges with the recently created United Nations Foundation (UNF), where she later took a job and brought Ruth Cardoso to serve on the board. The Foundation had decided to promote cooperation for development between countries of the so-called Global South, following a proposal from the then head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Mark Malloch-Brown (now president of the Open Society Foundations).

As an enthusiastic supporter of the idea, Malak put this type of cooperation to the test with a pilot project for cooperation between Brazil and the African nation of Botswana in the field of HIV prevention. In 1999, when the program started, Botswana had the highest rate of AIDS infection on the continent. 

Funded by the UN Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the program was very successful. “It was clear that the cooperation between the two countries that do not even share the same language, but that share other characteristics, such as precarious structures and technical difficulties, was very positive,” she says. It was the model for a more ambitious project in her career, by aligning her skills with the expertise of a group of lawyers and activists to create a new type of non-governmental organization in Brazil.

“I spoke to Oscar, who had the idea of setting up a network of activists to strengthen the justice system, while I wanted to open up Brazil to the region, even open it up to Africa and, if possible, to Asia, in South-South connections,” she recalls. “For me, it was also important to create an organization with more international representation: other cultures, different perspectives, other accents,” she explains. “I was very lucky to find like-minded people.”

The political option for South-South cooperation and for promoting new voices in global debates, strengthening human rights defenders and dialogue between social leaders, academics and experts resulted in the creation of Conectas.

Connecting activists and promoting their access to human rights protection systems, connecting disciplines and academics, building bridges between organizations and relationships between networks.

Its debut was the first International Human Rights Colloquium, in May 2001. Considered the organization’s starting point, the week-long conference in São Paulo put young activists from Portuguese-speaking countries into contact with one another, uniting Africa and Brazil. The experience was repeated over the years, bringing together academics and advocates, lawyers and researchers for talks, workshops, working groups and experience sharing activities.

The NGO was then set up with initial funding from the UN Foundation for the Global South Program and the Justice Program, which years later evolved into a project to monitor Foreign Policy and Human Rights and into a journal called Sur – International Journal on Human Rights.

“When we started, civil society was very fragmented: anti-racist groups, women’s groups, LGBTQIA+ groups, groups working on issues of violence, groups working on land issues. We saw the need to connect these groups. That was our big dream,” says Malak, who today says she overestimated Brazil’s re-democratization process. 

“We underestimated the difficulties of the period because, when you have a democratization of rights without an economic democratization, inequality remains so high that it cannot be said that everyone has the same rights,” she says. “We learned that this does not happen automatically. We learned it the hard way.”

An example? “We learned that it’s not because there is no official racism that blacks will not be discriminated against, because society is still racist.” From the outset, the NGO has worked on cases of human rights violations in the country’s prison systems. But no single case shocked the organization as much as the one in the state of Espírito Santo, which in 2009 was the scene of wars between rival gangs in the overcrowded prison system.

Incidents of people being found dismembered in their cells were frequent. Some cells had up to eight times more prisoners than their capacity. To relieve them, the government had created cells in shipping containers, where temperatures reached 50°C. 

“It was the first case in which we used all the resources and instruments at our disposal,” recalls Malak. First, Conectas formed local partnerships with NGOs and human rights councils. Then it sent a letter to the President of the Republic, with no reply. Finally, it produced a report that was sent to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, in Geneva, where a side event was organized on the matter. 

“Nobody answered us, neither internationally nor locally,” says Malak. “We realized that, without more visibility, it would be impossible to change anything.” So Conectas sent the report to the journalist Elio Gaspari, who was interested in the topic and published a column in several newspapers in the country entitled “Hartung’s Dungeons to be exposed in the UN”. 

The repercussions were such that the event in Geneva was a success and changes started to be made to the state’s prisons: overcrowding was reduced fourfold and the container cells were closed. “We discovered that strategy was important. And that we had to use all the methods at our disposal to defend people who cannot defend themselves. The work we did transformed many people’s lives for the better,” recalls Malak, who was executive director of Conectas between 2005 and 2011.

She believes that the major challenge in her field today is to expand the dialogue on human rights. “We have been speaking to a limited audience, and a lot of people have not yet heard the human rights discourse, both on the right and the left. We need to open some doors, see where the communication is not being heard, and ask why and reassess,” she explains. 

I never wanted to be a politician, but at the same time I wanted to change realities,” she admits. “My dream as an activist has always been to be able to give people a better life, more justice. A dream of development, which came true and continued even after I left Conectas – and continued for the better,” she says. “I don’t say I got it right. But I do say: we got it right together.” She says the transformations undergone by the NGO since its foundation reveal how well it has adapted to the challenges of our changing times. “In my time, for example, Conectas was much more international than it is today, and for good reason. Brazil was an exporter of good ideas, but now it is Brazil that is in need of help,” she points out. “Renewing yourself means living in the present.”

By Fernanda Mena

The profile of Malak El-Chichini Poppovic and other key activists in the history of Conectas can be found in the publication “Conectas 20”. See below:

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