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DEVELOPMENT-LATIN AMERICA: Local Innovation – Fresh and Fair

Darío Montero

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Dec 7 2007 (IPS) - This is no ordinary contest. The participants are from the most vulnerable areas of Latin America, and they are already winners because they have been selected out of 900 projects applying for the Social Innovation Fair organised by ECLAC in this southern Brazilian city.

Programmes to care for street children, plans for literacy campaigns, experiences in incorporating disabled youngsters in mainstream education, and novel proposals from indigenous communities to combine environmental protection and economic development have met in Porto Alegre under the auspices of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the U.S. W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

Among them is a project for managing and treating sewage by the town council of San Rafael de la Laguna, about 200 kilometres from the capital of Ecuador and at an altitude of 2,000 metres above sea level.

“The most important aspect is the backing and recognition we have already received, just by coming to the fair, although the prize money would come in very handy,” Juan Aguilar, the manager of an indigenous community of craftspeople in Totora Sisa, told IPS.

Since 2000, they have worked on protecting a nearby lagoon, which has resulted in controlling the growth of nuisance aquatic plants like duckweed and water lilies, and optimising the availability of totora reed, fibres from which are used to make a wide range of items for domestic use and decorative purposes.

José Luis Machinea, executive secretary of ECLAC, said the fair is an excellent experience of public bodies and a private foundation working together, at a time when it has become clear that the market cannot automatically solve everything, as was claimed in the 1990s, nor can the state manage everything, as it once did.

In a large fairground erected in the central Alfandega Plaza and the adjacent Santander Cultural Centre, people undertaking hard work in the Andean mountains and valleys of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, volunteers and experts caring for street children in Mexico, Brazilian literacy workers and Peruvian women activists fighting domestic violence have all been mingling and meeting, from Tuesday to Friday.

Five projects emerged as winners of cash prizes from the Kellogg Foundation and technical support and follow-up from ECLAC, which will provide them with backing and credibility in the eyes of other international bodies and the local and national governments of each country, in an attempt to widen their participation and influence, according to the head of the ECLAC project on Social Innovation Experiences, María Elisa Bernal.

“In our view, the contest is useful insofar as it allows us to identify successful projects, on the basis of which we can promote their creative replication, using the technical skills we have,” Bernal told IPS with enthusiasm and conviction, pleased with the results of the fair, which is the third annual event of its kind.

Over the past three years, 3,600 community initiatives of all sorts and characteristics, from community organisation efforts to those with social purposes, have been scrutinised by ECLAC, and during that period a total of 48 finalists have been selected.

The selection process itself was one of the objects of the exercise for the regional U.N. agency, because it allowed it to gain in-depth knowledge of 3,600 projects which arose from the local communities who are the projects’ beneficiaries themselves, without having been imposed from outside, which might have resulted in failure.

Machinea said that ECLAC embarked on these contests, which are atypical in that they are not limited to the traditional functions attributed to these events, because one of its concerns is to discover best practices to combat poverty, promote decentralisation, and other social challenges.

These contests, in fact, have the virtue of tracking initiatives that have emerged from the local community itself, in a region where the community is increasingly important in the fight against marginalisation and violence. They are a means of supporting local projects and of trying to multiply them, he said.

Innovation is the key feature that the selectors are looking for, because the main goal pursued by ECLAC is to use its influence to achieve multiplication of the projects in the rest of Latin America.

“That’s why the idea is not so much to increase resources and widen the field of projects coming forward, but to fight for the initiative to continue over time,” Machinea told IPS.

The notion arose from the Kellogg Foundation’s desire to do something different to mark its 75th anniversary, apart from the traditional social assistance that it has funded in Latin America.

The Foundation was created in 1930 by breakfast cereals pioneer Will Keith Kellogg, with the aim of “helping people to help themselves.”

“That’s why they decided to award a prize for social innovators, and they approached ECLAC, in the knowledge that we cover the whole region, which ensures impartiality and provides analytical capability,” said Bernal.

We asked ourselves at the time what we could learn in general from these social experiences, what a community can do to fight poverty, domestic violence, etc. I think this helps us spread information, which is precisely one of ECLAC’s tasks, said Machinea.

In terms of anti-poverty programmes, Latin America is an example to turn to, while we have a lot to learn from Asia’s experiences in the field of science and technology, he said.

He recalled that Latin America has been very innovative in terms of plans to overcome poverty and foment social inclusion, and there are many projects going on today, some more successful than others, he said, without naming any particular examples.

Bernal added that “the number of finalists has not been the same every year. It’s shrinking, because as knowledge about innovations spreads, it becomes harder to find new projects.”

Winners will receive from the Kellogg Foundation amounts ranging from 30,000 dollars for first prize to 5,000 dollars for fifth prize, and ECLAC will provide technical and institutional support. “But the most important thing for these projects is the credibility they will gain in their own countries as a result of our backing,” she said.

For example, Community Ombudswomen were established as a response to domestic violence in the Peruvian department (province) of Cusco, and after receiving a prize at the Social Innovation Fair last year, they were regarded as valid spokeswomen by the justice system.

“Now the justice system comes to them for practical advice. And the system has spread to other communities in Peru,” said Bernal.

“We keep in touch and follow up their victories and their difficulties, and we create a kind of network between the projects, in which we are constantly together. This is a support mechanism in itself, beyond what we can offer on the technical side,” she said.

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