November 2, 2023 — When COVID-19 hit Brazil, people living in the poor, densely populated urban neighborhoods known as favelas were among those whose health and livelihoods were most affected. To fill gaps in the government’s response, the organization G10 Favelas implemented emergency actions to support residents, including providing food and sanitation supplies and mobilizing a cadre of volunteer “street presidents” to provide health and nutrition assistance. Leaders from G10 Favelas visited Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health last month to discuss the innovative strategies they’ve been using to help and empower vulnerable communities during the pandemic and beyond.
The event was sponsored by the Department of Global Health and Population (GHP) and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) and moderated by Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography, and chair of GHP and the Brazil Studies Program faculty committee at DRCLAS.
G10 Favelas—which takes its name from the informal group of countries known as the G7—was founded in 2019 to bring together social impact leaders and entrepreneurs from across 10 of Brazil’s largest favelas. The NGO is involved in a variety of efforts aimed at improving economic growth in favelas, including a bank, a stock exchange for local startups, and a logistics company that delivers packages to neighborhoods often shunned by traditional delivery companies.
At the start of the pandemic, G10 Favelas quickly leveraged its social entrepreneurship efforts into emergency response initiatives. For example, job training programs focused on sewing and cooking became hubs for preparing face masks and lunchboxes that were freely distributed to residents.
Community cohesion seemed to play a big role in the success of G10 Favelas’ efforts, said Carolina Mendonca, PhD ’25, who attended the group’s talk at Harvard Chan School on October 4. Mendonca, who is Brazilian, grew up in a city with many favelas and worked in one as a volunteer teacher when she was an undergraduate, but she said that prior to this event she hadn’t completely understood why COVID-19 infection rates stayed lower than expected in favelas, given their density. One potential reason is that residents supported each other through volunteer efforts like the street presidents, which helped people safely quarantine at home. As the speakers at the event made clear, Mendonca said, residents view a neighbor as “not simply a person who occupies the plot next door, [but] someone to count on and to look after.”
Mendonca said that she hopes that the School hosts more events with community experts like the representatives from G10 Favelas.
Castro said, “G10 is one of many community organizations that seek local solutions to local problems but that often do not get the visibility they deserve, especially in prestigious academic settings. They have a lot to teach us about listening to the local community, seeking solutions adapted to the local context, exercising empathy, and changing the public perception of favelas. The event was truly inspiring.”
Photo: Courtesy of David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies