Why Latin America Is a Hotbed of Political Innovation

For the past decade, as trust in institutions has declined around the globe, politics in many countries has seemingly turned into a contest pitting self-interested “elites” against everyone else. And as the conviction that “elites” don’t represent the interests of “the people” has become increasingly common, two alternative ways forward have become ascendant, too. One path is rooted in populism and represented by the building of walls, both literal and figurative. The other is inclusive, and founded on collaboration and trust.

At Instituto Update, we aim to help people choose the inclusive option by rebuilding and fostering collaboration and trust between citizens and their governments.

After years of authoritarian rule in many countries, a wave of political innovation is sweeping across Latin America. A 20th century model of government is slowly but surely giving way to more participatory and inclusive democracies in the 21st century. No longer do Latin American citizens and governments have to rely on trends and practices in the United States and Europe.

The world can look to Latin America as a source of inspiration for how citizens can reclaim and advance democracy. There’s a sense that it is being done better and differently in Latin America because that’s the only way to tackle its most deeply rooted problems, including economic inequality, social injustice, corruption, racism, sexism, and environmental degradation.

For example, Instituto Update conducted a massive amount of research in Latin America and discovered more than 600 initiatives that are trying to close the gap between citizens and governments by increasing political participation, improving transparency and accountability, encouraging innovation in government, and doing more to develop independent media.

We also interviewed nearly 300 activists, civil society leaders, politicians, and scholars working to improve politics and governance. One outcome of this project is a four episode television series called Política: modo de usar (A How-To Guide For Politics), which was broadcast on Globo News, Brazil’s largest news channel, in November 2017.

Based on the interviews, we discovered five principal ways in which Latin Americans are developing, experimenting, and implementing new tools and methods to boost political participation and trust in government and the political process.

First, citizens have taken it upon themselves to push for social change. From protests such as the Secundarista Movement in Brazil, where students pushed for educational reforms in São Paulo’s public high schools (the movement later spread across Brazil), to #YoSoy132 in México, in which students protested political corruption during the 2012 presidential election), citizens are developing innovative ways to mobilize resources and pressure elected officials and bureaucrats in order to pursue public policy changes.

Second, political activists are discovering new and better ways to explain complicated public policy to their fellow citizens. From the Latin American feminist movements demanding reproductive rights and bringing attention to the issue of domestic violence—#PrimaveraFeminista, #NiUnaMenos—to Pimp My Carroça, a Brazilian organization that uses street art to raise the profile of those who collect recyclable materials, and GregNews, a comedy news show (basically Last Week Tonight with John Oliver in Brazil), activists and organizations are using social media and humor to bring citizens closer to public interest issues.

Third, elected officials are making an effort to make institutions more participatory and inclusive. Efforts ranging from DemocracyOS (Argentina) and LinQ (Ecuador) to Brazil’s Internet Bill of Rights and the Nariño state government’s GANA (Colombia) have made great strides in mobilizing people and giving them a voice in the policymaking process. For example, in Brazil, the Ministry of Justice, in partnership with NGOs and civil society, sought buy-in from citizens on its internet law through online engagement and a lengthy comment period.

Fourth, civil society organizations are combining open data and technology to monitor and hold politicians and corporations accountable. Groups like Paraguay’s A Quienes Elegimos, Argentina’s Chequeado, and Chile’s Del Dicho al Hecho using well-developed online tools and well-organized public protests to insist on transparency from even their own supporters in government.

And finally, there’s a recognition that politics across Latin America needs new voices and new people to get involved. Today, movements such as Mexico’s WikiPolítica and Brazil’s Bancada Ativista, as well as new political parties like Chile’s Revolución Democrática and Argentina’s Partido de la Red, are working to make politics accessible, cool, and honorable to a new generation of activists.

Part of Instituto Update’s effort is to foster connections between citizens and public institutions. Together with Democracia en Red, Asuntos del Sur, Avina, and Ciudadano Inteligente, we have been building regional alliances to connect and exchange ideas and lessons learned on how to improve governance and politics throughout Latin America. Red de Innovación Política and Conexiones Latinoamericanas de Innovación Política are concrete examples of this collective effort.

Instituto Update will continue to be at the forefront of these efforts to democratize Latin American politics and to improve accountability. Looking ahead, we’ll be focusing our efforts to expand our work beyond São Paulo and into Brazil’s cities, so that our work is more accessible to all of Brazil’s citizens. And, since it’s an election year, we’re going to keep focusing on new and innovative ways to improve political participation. 

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Excellent piece. It is refreshing to read how Latin American citizens are encouraged to participate in, not only elections, but in raising awareness of their governments and of course, their participation in politics.

Hey Robert

Thanks for the comment, Latin America is a political innovation lab that is worth looking at! And this year we have a dozen election cycles in the region which will be crucial for the democratic future of the region.

This was like a tease. Now I want much, much more information about these various approaches. Where can I find it?

Hey Mary

You can search through our mapping here: https://www.institutoupdate.org.br/

We are not producing much content in english, since our focus is Latin America, but if we find enough demand we can start a english newsletter (ours is still only in Portuguese).

Any ideias on how we can have english-speaking audiences more connected?


Partido de la Red and DemocracyOS as innovative experiences in Argentina? The researcher doesn't know anything about Argentina to point out those experiences as "innovative" or helping Democracy in any way. Partido de la Red never got the authorization to function as a Political Party -you need a certain amount of signatures from people that backs your Party in Argentina before you can even call yourself a Party-, probably it doesn't even exist anymore. AFAIK, they only exist in Twitter.

Hey Scann

You are right regarding the current status of Partido de La Red (they were unable to get a definitive authorization to become a party), yet they actually got the permit to run for the 2013 elections - a provisory one, and ran a campaign that got around 25 thousand votes in Buenos Aires. This experiment, by itself, was innovative in checking how citizens would react to such a radical participatory process in decision making - this is why we mentioned it here. You can read about it here http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias/2013/10/131025_argentina_partido_red_jrg and here http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1623182-el-partido-que-propone-votar-leyes-po....

Regarding DemocracyOS, the platform is currently used in several countries outside Latin America (check some of the deployments here: https://github.com/DemocracyOS/democracyos), showing precisely how technology produced in Latin America has resonance worldwide.

If you have any more exemples of political innovation in Argentina, please let us know.

Thank you guys for documenting these advances. Please keep us up to date on where and how to get more info.

Hey Ana

Currently we have our mapping online (we are working on updating it right now) and a newsletter (only in portuguese)


Interesting read, thank you! It made me remeber the work of LATINNO (https://www.latinno.net/en/). Is Instituto Update already cooperating in some way? If not it might be interesting for you.

Hey Claudia

We are very fond of the Latinno project. Currently, we are not collaborating directly, but for us what we do is complementary because we are more focused on the political behavior of latin american leaderships, the plurality of organizations and the technologies being produced. Latinno goes deeper on the effectiveness of public policies that foster participation, which reaches many interesting conclusions.

Thank you for your reply Caio. I will keep myself updated as I am especially interested in the processes of making (in)visibile the plurality of organizations and their forms of acting (I do research on youth participation in Northern Peru to learn more about "gray" or "liminal" - or less visible - spaces of participation). In this regard your way of mapping seems to be very promising. Mucha suerte con Instituto Update!

Great ideas to implement in Mexico

Hey Pablo

Mexico has already some incredible initiatives running. Personally, i am very fond of WikiPolítica, R3D, Horizontal, Por Mexico Hoy, Agencia Fosforo and Instituto Simone de Beauvoir. Check them out!

This article is really interesting and inspiring as well. I would be definitely interested in to receiving a newsletter in English or Spanish to have more information about political innovation methods and practices in América Latina. Is there a website where I can find the theoretical or more science based framework of all these programmes?

Political refuge

Hello ! It’s a very interesting classification you made here. I’m a student working on a project for System D (a French incubator) and I am very interested in learning more about how the initiatives grow and become stable in Latin America (through networks, donors, events). If you have more information, papers, scientific articles I would greatly appreciate it.
Ps: my team and I sent an email to Uptade Instiute if you would like to learn more about our project ! Thank you

It is wonderful what is happening in latim America , especially in South America .i have seen during my life the awakening of a strong democracy in this countries , especially on Brazil and Argentina . it is nice to see the democratic process after 21 years of dictatorship in Brazil , in the beginning was terrible , but after all things gone to the right direction . I’m really glad to see the development of strong democracies ( in a good way ) in all South America in general after many dictatorships during the 20th century

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