LATIN AMERICA: Prizes for Communities Fighting Exclusion

LATIN AMERICA: Prizes for Communities Fighting Exclusion
By Darío Montero

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Dec 10 (IPS) – They work in the deep heartland of Brazil, or in urban slums. They all seek social inclusion, and their starting point is the bottom of the social ladder, with people who have a wide experience of life, contrasting with their short years.

One of these programmes, "The Four-Leaf Clover", aims to reduce maternal, perinatal and infant morbidity and mortality in Sobral, a city of 183,000 people in the impoverished northeastern state of Ceará.

This project was awarded the first prize, worth 30,000 dollars, at the Social Innovation Fair in Porto Alegre organised by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

The jury made the selection from 12 finalists out of 900 projects that had entered the competition, and said that the programme, carried out by the Secretariat of Health and Social Action in Sobral, was "technically well-designed to make the most of the community’s social energy and intervene in this important problem of infant mortality."

"The strategy was adopted in 2001 under a different government, and was appropriated by the community to such an extent that changes in the elected authorities, of whatever political persuasion, are incapable of thwarting it, even if they wanted to," the project’s first coordinator, nurse Julia Santos, told IPS.

So strongly held is her conviction that Santos, who is today just another member of "The Four-Leafed Clover", has no interest in who is actually governing, and was unable to tell IPS what party or coalition is in charge of the local government in this city, where 36 percent of the residents are poor.

"Not only has this project influenced the public agenda, it is sustainable and its impact can be measured. It also conveys an essential message about social organisation, and shows that concrete results are achievable," said Nohra Rey de Marulanda, former manager of the Department of Integration and Regional Programmes at the Inter-American Development Bank.

Rey, the spokeswoman for the jury of the Experiences of Social Innovation contest, announced the results on Friday at the Fair organised by ECLAC in a central square of Porto Alegre, the capital of the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul.

Among the achievements of the group is caring for 1,148 families last year, at a cost of 175 dollars each. Furthermore, since the project started in 2001, prenatal care indicators have improved, and the infant mortality rate has fallen from 29.7 per 1,000 live births to 16.5 per 1,000.

Santos said the contribution of civil society through the participation of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), private corporations and volunteers managed to overcome one of the main hurdles, which was funding. When the project first got under way, the city government funded the entire budget, whereas now it contributes 74 percent.

But there was more than one winner. Four other projects left Porto Alegre with cash prizes of 20,000, 15,000, 10,000 and 5,000 dollars, but all 12 finalists have earned the backing of ECLAC, which enhances their credibility and calls on national and local governments to pay more attention to these social innovation projects and the public policies they propose.

The members of "Education with Street Children" (EDNICA), awarded a Special Mention at last week’s meeting, are particularly looking forward to this prestige. They work in Colonia Morelos, in the historic centre of Mexico City, and in a slum on the southside of the city.

Their work even goes beyond their own title, because they look after youngsters ranging in age from a few months to 25.

As a civil society organisation, EDNICA is independent of state bodies or political parties. "This independence has meant that we can work with whatever government is in office, whether it is rightwing, like the federal (national) government, or leftwing, as in the capital city," Rocío Morales, a young lawyer, told IPS.

But recently, the hardline policy against crime adopted by Mexican President Felipe Calderón has caused the project to "be treated with suspicion" and it is under pressure from police officers who surround their centres, Morales said.

"Street kids suffer social stigma. They are all viewed as drug dealers, and that’s not the case. Drug consumption has increased all over the country because of the sealing of the border with the United States, and street children have become the first victims in this fight against drug trafficking."

The centres are staffed with social services personnel, volunteers, and especially people from the local community.

The Morelos centre works with 80 children and young people who live on the streets, and another 150 who come in on a daily basis and receive specific support for their formal education studies, and efforts are made to convince their parents to take them out of the labour market, in return for a grant to compensate them for lost income.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Education Centre in Colonia Ajusco, in the south of the city, only looks after working children, of whom there are already 230.

EDNICA is part of the Child Rights Network, which is made up of 53 Mexican NGOs that had a good rapport with the government of former President Vicente Fox (2000-2006). But now, according to Morales, Calderón has sidelined them. On the other hand, cooperation with agencies of the local government of Mexico City continues to be positive, the activist said.

"But even within the Mexico City government, proposals are being made to ‘clean up’ the historic centre and remove the street kids from the area, because it’s a tourist attraction and it should look nice," she complained. Such policies are often expressions of "social cleansing", and violate the children’s human rights, she said.

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