‘Let me get this right,’ I say, ‘you robbed banks?’


‘Yes, yes, of course,’ replies Fernando, as if the idea of pulling a bank heist is no more unusual than popping out to the shops for a loaf of bread. ‘We all did. We needed to raise money for the resistance. She’, he says pointing and smiling, ‘was a terrorist!’


The diminutive, softly spoken researcher sitting to my right, with her short-cropped, curly brown hair and rectangular thin-rimmed spectacles falls a long way short of the gun-toting, balaclava-wearing fanatic of popular imagination. In fact, Fernando is over-egging the dramatic pudding. Maria never took up arms, although members of her family did.


‘It was a war. I was very young, maybe twenty,’ Maria Inês Nahas (left) says quietly. ‘It changed me, changed everything.’

Philosopher Roger Scruton writes, ‘if we study the words of Western politicians, we will constantly find that the three ideas – democracy, freedom and human rights – are spoken of in one breath, and assumed in all circumstances to coincide’. He points out, however, that it is only under certain conditions that they actually do so.

You can find some excellent musings of Roger’s on the BBC: Is democracy overrated?



There’s vast amounts of documentation on inequality. The Institute of Policy StudiesInequality portal does a good job of making sense of it all. Click on the logo to visit.


Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer reveals, six billion of us live in a country ‘with a serious corruption problem’

Click on the logo to visit Transparency International.


The Economist’s Intelligence Unit provides a diligently researched and well-written analysis on the state of democracy each year with its annual Democracy Index. The titles of each year’s report should give you a clue as to how they feel things are going…

2015: Democracy in an age of anxiety

2014: Democracy and its discontents

2013: Democracy in limbo

2012: Democracy at a standstill

2011: Democracy under stress

2010: Democracy in retreat

Click on the logo for the latest incarnation.

I’m staring at a lightbulb. There’s nothing special about it, except for its location – about twenty feet above us and suspended on a wire strung between two wooden poles on either side of a narrow dirt road. Looking down the street I see several more domestic bulbs of varying designs hanging off a cobbled- together system of wires. ‘Gato,’ explains Duval. ‘It’s Brazilian slang for pirating public services. It’s very common in the favelas. They tap their wires into an official outlet and draw the electricity off. Often it’s streetlamps that act as the source, but there aren’t even those here, so they’ve made their own.’

We meet a wiry lady in a dress printed with large tropical flowers on an immaculate white background. She stands out against the unpainted brickwork and brown clay of what passes for streets here. It turns out she’s president of the local Community Association, a community she tells us doesn’t officially exist. All the property rights here are informal, with no standing in law. Legally speaking, the favela’s buildings and the 4,000 people in them are invisible.


‘We have no official address, we cannot prove we live here. You cannot call the police here…’

It all started more than thirty years ago. In October 1985 the first free elections since the end of military rule earlier that year were on the horizon. Mayoral candidates for the city of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southernmost and historically rebellious Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, were meeting community activists, and in particular the União das Associações de Moradores (Union of Neighbourhood Associations), who had a radical suggestion for doing things differently.

After several false starts, and near disaster, pioneer mayor Olívio Dutra‘s (right) administration was able to translate those ideas into the first workable system of direct democracy since the 2000 year old Athens’ Citizens’ Assembly.

Dutra and his team had pulled a rabbit out of a hat. More importantly they’d lit a touch paper.