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DEVELOPMENT-LATAM: The Greater the Solidarity, the Lower the Cost

Darío Montero

MEDELLÍN, Colombia, Dec 1 2008 (IPS) - Football in Belize does not aim for international achievements, but that does not matter to the environmental group that uses the sport to recruit children and young people to fight for the protection of local biodiversity under threat.

Now the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) is promoting it to the major leagues.

The uniqueness, effectiveness and simplicity of the Freshwater Cup Environmental Football League were the key to its being awarded first prize on Nov. 28 in the Fourth Experiences in Social Innovation contest, organised by ECLAC, in the northwestern Colombian city of Medellín, at the end of the long annual selection process among nearly 900 community projects.

“We use the power of football to involve the community in environmental work in an area where biodiversity is as rich as it is fragile, and we already have 10 adult teams and six teams of teenagers,” Celia Mahung, one of those responsible for the project, told IPS.

“This 30,000 dollar prize will allow us to include women’s football,” she said.

A football league to commit players, their families and the community to protecting the environment, like the one set up by the non-governmental Toledo Institute for Development and Environment in Belize, is an example of a sustainable social project which is “low-cost and easily reproducible,” said economist Norah Rey de Marulanda, spokeswoman for the evaluation committee.


The final exhibition of the contest, organised since 2004 by ECLAC with the support of the U.S.-based W. K. Kellogg Foundation, is an opportunity for communities with diverse characteristics, concerns and places of origin in Latin America and the Caribbean to make themselves known and, at the same time, to demonstrate that the best solutions among and from society’s most excluded members emerge from solidarity-based joint action among the people themselves.

Holding the fair this year in the central square of the University of Antioquía “confirmed that the best location for a fair of this kind is an academic environment,” María Elisa Bernal, the head of the Experiences in Social Innovation project at ECLAC, told IPS.

The Nov. 26-28 exhibition was visited by a steady flow of students, professors and researchers, she said.

At the closing ceremony, the fifth Contest for 2009 was also launched. “Although the economic and financial crisis is expected to be at its worst, the contest will not be affected, because the Kellogg Foundation has already assigned resources to it, and ECLAC provides technical and follow-up support,” she said.

On the contrary, the importance of encouraging community initiatives is greater than ever, she added.

“These projects ought to be an inspiration for governments, because without the least hesitation we can tell them that these are ways of getting results in health care, education or productive development that are more efficient and less costly than traditional methods,” Bernal said.

She described, for example, the initiative that took second prize in 2007, which was a family-style student hostel. “It costs seven time less than the traditional model of boarding facilities, and so offers a convincing solution in the midst of the crisis,” she said.

Another positive lesson from this fourth fair, in Bernal’s view, was the joint activities with the local government of the department (province) of Antioquía, the municipal authorities in Medellín, which is the provincial capital, the federation of non-governmental organisations, and the university itself.

“This enabled us to organise thematic forums for target audiences, which were attended by representatives of the local governments, academics and the social organisations that are, or will be, working on the themes of each project,” she said.

Clearly enthused, Bernal said she was confident that they would be able to motivate local authorities from other parts of Latin America to get involved in future social innovation fairs.

Over its four-year lifespan, the Experiences in Social Innovation contest has assessed 4,400 projects, of which 70 have been selected as finalists and 21 as award winners. Rey de Marulanda emphasised that the high number of applicants is due to ECLAC’s presence in the region, and demonstrates that society is active from below, seeking intelligent solutions for its pressing problems.

“When I was invited to take part in this project four years ago, and I was told that around 1,000 applications were expected, I thought it was an exaggeration, but to my surprise, every year that extraordinary level of participation is repeated,” the Colombian economist told IPS.

“We eliminate from the word go any project that doesn’t really involve community participation,” she said.

The evaluation committee is looking for new ways in which people are trying to solve old problems, a premise which was the original basis of the Kellogg Foundation-ECLAC project.

In order for proposals to receive backing from ECLAC, those responsible must calculate the costs of the project, even if not a single cent changes hands: for instance, the value of voluntary work, not because it is paid but in order to know how much that work is worth.

“The value of inputs used must also be known, even if many are donations. It’s a key component of sustainability,” the expert said.

All these elements contributed to the choice of the second prize for 2008, of 20,000 dollars. It went to the “Hermes school conflict management programme,” which teaches people how to overcome confrontations and create a culture of peace, through mediation, and reaches children, parents and teachers in 225 schools, in 19 districts in Bogotá and 10 municipalities in the neighbouring province of Cundinamarca.

The third prize, of 15,000 dollars, was awarded to a programme from Ecuador called “Strengthening popular finances in Azuay and Cañar: consolidation of a local development proposal in the context of a high level of international migration,” which provides banking and loan services to low-income sectors, using funds from remittances sent home by Ecuadoreans living abroad.

“A Roof for Chile: from ‘campamento’ (shanty town) to neighbourhood. Implementing participative work groups of residents and volunteers in the ‘campamentos’ of the Metropolitan Region,” won the 10,000 dollar fourth prize.

The fifth prize, of 5,000 dollars, went to a school in the northwestern Argentine province of Jujuy, for its systematic education method “Nuestras huellas” (Our Footprints) which strengthens the skills of indigenous children, recovering the history of their communities.

Chilean student Pablo Carvacho said that in proposals like “A Roof for Chile,” in which he participates, “we try to to make the projects as cooperative as possible.” This is a guiding principle in all the experiences submitted to the contest.

Carvacho said that in the case of the Chilean project, “the contribution is provided by the professionals who work with us for less than the going rate of pay.”

Active in 13 of the region’s countries, the goal of “A Roof for Chile” is to remove families from their social exclusion and connect them to the formal state networks of health care, education, access to justice, and all the things that are there for them but they do not know about.

That is why, at the same time as they start the process that will lead to building houses, they hold training workshops covering different areas, he told IPS.

They have set themselves an ambitious target, but are convinced that it is viable: they want to eliminate “campamentos” or slums in Chile by 2010. Problems just seem to be grist to the mill of a well-organised community and a good cause.

 
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