This essay addresses the changing trajectory of grassroots political activity in Latin America, with special reference to Chile and Brazil, and assesses its impact on the policy and practices of social development. It traces this trajectory through the transitions from authoritarian to democratic rule, and focuses on the responses of grassroots organisations to democratic governance and the rise of neo-liberalism. In particular, it shows that social movements have declined or been transformed (or both), while non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have multiplied and become more visible. It appears that where grassroots organisations interact with the state they may be subordinated to state policy, and where they fail to interact they may be ineffective. Their influence on social development mainly occurs piecemeal through social service delivery, not through the shaping of social policy itself.