Act: Inspiration

Will Sharing Economy Save Civil Society in Latin America and the Caribbean?

December 11, 2017

Sharing economy has the potential to recreate “communities” in Latin America, a region where most of the population distrusts its neighbors, its government, its community organization and its church. Español

This article is part of our series on the 2017 International Civil Society Week, where CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association of non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO) brought civil society members and activists from around the world together to discuss some of the key challenges our planet is facing. You can see more of what came out of the event here.

Trading is nothing new. Human beings have exchanged skills, information, knowledge and/or assets with each other since the beginning of time. What’s new is the technology that allows people to share with others from all over the world.

However, the exchange is based on trust and, in Latin America and the Caribbean, trust has been lost in recent decades. The study “Confidence in Latin America 1995-2015” shows an alarming fact: only 17% of Latin Americans affirm that a third party can be trusted.

In practice, this lack of trust is reflected in the difficulty that different sectors have in working together toward the same goal. Although problems such as violence and corruption affect everyone, we seldom see civil society and the private sector or civil society and academic circles working together to solve some of these challenges.

Distrust of and in civil society

The sector that is suffering the most from the lack of trust is civil society. The non-existent relationship of trust with the private sector prevents them from collaborating and, in many cases, the private sector prefers to start its own foundations, doubling what already exists, instead of allocating funds to traditional civil society organizations.

On top of this, the philanthropic culture has declined enormously in Latin America and the Caribbean in recent years as the World Generosity Index demonstrates. Civil society organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to attract volunteers because many do not trust the work of these organizations or see them as overly politicized.

Therefore, civil society organizations face a dilemma: how to survive in an era in which international cooperation funds decrease and distrust dominates the region?

The potential of the sharing economy to revitalize civil society

In 2011, TIME magazine mentioned the sharing economy as one of the top 10 ideas that were going to change the world. According to the magazine, the main benefit of the sharing economy is social: “In a time when families are scattered and we do not necessarily know the people in our communities, sharing things – even with strangers that we just met online – allows us to establish meaningful connections”.

Amanda Cahill, director of the Centre for Social Change, explained during the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) that sharing economy models are safe spaces to practice democracy, interdependence and trust. In addition, Cahill said she does not consider platforms like Uber or Airbnb as models of sharing economy because they do not adhere to what she considers the principles of the sharing economy: ecological sustainability, collaboration, social justice and wealth redistribution.

The above shows that the sharing economy has the potential to recreate “communities” in a region where most of the population distrusts its neighbors, its government, its community organization and its church, and highlights a possible path forward for a seriously threatened civil society.

Civil society’s great challenge

Civil society of Latin America and the Caribbean must understand that the sharing economy means to rebuild communities where people are willing to share, or exchange, their time, financial resources and knowledge to strengthen and empower organizations.

This means that civil society has to “enchant” the population again because nobody shares their most valuable asset, their time, or other assets with someone they do not trust. As Luis Bonilla, director of TECHO Internacional (Techo means roof in Spanish), explained during the ICSW: “TECHO is able to get more than half a million volunteers a year to share their time with us because it convinces them that doing so is changing the world”.

Some civil society organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean have already established successful sharing economy communities that are solving some of the most serious problems in the region.

The return of a dream

The dream of a robust civil society is possible again in light of recent success stories. Some civil society organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean have already established successful sharing economy communities that are solving some of the most serious problems in the region.

In Guatemala, Youth Against Violence has created an app called EspantaCacos, around which a community has been formed to share information regarding crimes being committed in Guatemala City. EspantaCacos works because there is trust within the community and members see a real benefit in sharing information.

In Chile, the entrepreneur Cristian Lara has created an app called ReciclApp that connects those who want to share items for recycling, which has created a community of recyclers. People, items and intentions already existed before the app but they had not been integrated into the community.

Civil society could learn a thing or two on how to work with the private sector from Colombia’s Biko app. Biko is an app that encourages people to use bicycles instead of cars, which has prompted businesses to join the community and now offer incentives, such as free coffee, to those who use their bicycles and help the environment. Can you imagine doing something similar for civil society where, for example, the private sector gave incentives to volunteers for donating their time?

At the regional level, the Latin American and Caribbean Hub of Innovation for Change has created a platform called ComuniDAS that promotes solidarity exchange among civil society organizations. Another example is TECHO, which is developing a platform to give voice to more than 100 million people who live in informal settlements in the region, in an attempt to reincorporate them into a society that has systematically marginalized them.

The examples above show that sharing economy is advancing and presents a great opportunity for civil society to innovate and reinvent communities because, as explained by Rachel Botsman, one of the most recognized researchers in the topic of sharing economy: “This works because people are able to trust each other. ”

Teaser photo credit: By Hmaglione10 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Gerardo Torres

Gerardo Torres is a Programe Associate in the Civil Society Innovation Initiative at Counterpart International in Washington, DC

Tags: building resilient societies, civil society, sharing economy