Lessons from the Favela: Favelas at the Vanguard of Collaborative Economies

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For the original article by Hilaine Yaccoub* in Portuguese published by Brasil 247 click here.

Hilaine Yaccoub, PhD in Anthropology of Consumption at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF), came to this conclusion after four years of research in the Barreira do Vasco favela in Rio de Janeiro: “The favela is at the forefront of the shared economy and collective consumerism. It is an intrinsic value that should serve as an example for many societies. Was I seeing a response or an alternative to modern or individualistic ‘consumerism’?” she asks.

What I have experienced and learned from living ‘up close and personal’ with residents of a favela in Rio de Janeiro:

Most anthropologists carry out so-called ‘field work’ to observe and learn facts about the phenomena we study. Through this methodology, known as ‘ethnography,’ we coexist with the group, we live in the place, participating in daily life. We create bonds of friendship and trust with people to take part in local life with the mind-frame of a real local. And so it was that, for almost four years, I was part of daily life in a residents’ network in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Here I will tell the story of two situations that inspired me to write my thesis and changed my way of seeing my profession, my lifestyle and, above all, the way I existed. No one comes back from the field ‘indifferent.’ There’s no doubt, people change.

I was sitting in a nook [copa] of Vaninha’s house when the phone rang and she answered: “Of course come here, I have milk here, you don’t need to bring it, no, but I don’t have oats…haha. Okay, come over, I will be expecting you.” She hung up and I asked who had called. “The lady who works in the Crê bank (called Cleonice, her older sister sells candy and coconut water in the square) needs to make porridge but her gas has run out and so she asked if she can borrow my stove, so she will come over now to make it.” It was Saturday night (quite late) so it was impossible to buy a new gas canister.

During the time that I lived intimately within this social network, I realized this was common practice. Asking neighbors and members of the network for help or support in everyday emergencies came to be routine. It was seen as totally ‘normal,’ something that was part of daily life and needed to be resolved in the order of the day, without any drama. In truth, being a part of the network meant knowing how to deal with these kinds of situations ‘almost naturally.’

I had, therefore, a scenario: a social network that I was in some way part of, or at least that’s how my interlocutors saw me. Conscious of this, I needed to piece this puzzle together and understand how their reciprocal actions translate into their own form of action, which could in many ways converge as a way of life with a perspective at the vanguard of the contemporary world. The favela is at the forefront of the sharing economy and collective consumerism. It is an intrinsic value that should serve as an example for many societies. Was I seeing a response or an alternative to modern and individualistic ‘consumerism’? My first step in responding to this question was to better understand the dynamics at play in this practice.

In fact, there is a core value behind this practice: empathy. For the residents, or ‘favelados’ as they usually refer to themselves, this value is about always being able to ‘see yourself in the place of the other person.’ This was evident during our discussions and in the explanations my interlocutors would give me. They all told me that, depending on the circumstances, they could be the one in the situation with a need for help, so they feel obliged to help, lend, or donate—ways of valuing the collective over the individual. In the case of ‘the better off’ (it’s a heterogeneous social network in relation to local socioeconomic positions), for example, this empathy comes from memory, helping others because they can remember a time of being without food, not being able to effectively provide for their kids, etc. In this case, ‘life’s struggle’ is never forgotten and anyone seeking help serves to remind the others of their own similar problems at some stage. Today’s problems, experienced by someone else, remind the others of their own experience and this motivates them to act because they know and understand how it feels and what role surrounding society should play.

I remember one time a lady (a woman of about 45 years of age) was going to the graduation ceremony of her daughter. She was anxious and worried. She was a domestic worker and the reason for her anxiety was that she didn’t have time to get her hair done or get made up for this special occasion. She came by the Association and told me in such a dramatic tone that she couldn’t see her daughter graduate from school because she did not want her daughter to ‘be ashamed.’ Vaninha quickly sent Fafá running to her house to grab her make-up kit and emphatically told her: “Of course you are going, it’s a great achievement for the both of you, you cannot miss it.” Fafá ran off down Darcy Vargas Road to get Vaninha’s make-up set. Meanwhile, it gave opening to another line of inquiry between Vaninha and the lady: did she have appropriate clothing, shoes, bag, etc. Was there anything more than just the make-up that she needed, like styling her hair, etc. When the lady left the room, Vaninha turned to me and said: “I know just what that’s like, people feel ashamed, they don’t have good clothes to throw on and go to these places because we feel ashamed of ourselves. Imagine missing your kid’s graduation, it’s something you almost never have a chance to see. It’s an achievement of hers too, she has to be there. What girl wouldn’t want her mother at her side on that stage! It can’t be like that, she has to go and we’ll find a way.”

I couldn’t follow the entirety of the story, but on another occasion I asked Vaninha what the outcome had been and she told me that the woman went to the graduation, as she should have done.

We are up against attachment [to objects] and, yes, we need to reassess our values. What would you see as important if you knew that tomorrow at 19:45 you were going to die? To go running out to buy a new bag? Focus on people, focus on emotions, focus on experiences. These things are so much more worth it.

*Hilaine Yaccoub holds a PhD in the Anthropology of Consumption  from UFF–RJ), a Masters Degree in Anthropology of Consumption from UFF–RJ, and a post-graduate degree in Popular Studies and Social Research from ENCE-IBGE. Her undergraduate degree is in Social Sciences from UFRJ. Independent consultant, researcher and lecturer, Hilaine is a professor at the Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing (ESPM – Superior School for Propaganda and Marketing), Institute of European Design (IED) and Instituto Infnet (RJ). She is co-founder of the MBA in the Sciences and Strategies of Consumption at ESPM, Rio de Janeiro.

This text was part of the her doctoral thesis ‘Lessons from the Favela: Economies of shared goods and services in Barreira do Vasco – RJ’, defended in January 2015 for the Post-Graduate program for Social Anthropology at UFF, a line of research within the Anthropology of Consumption.