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LATIN AMERICA: Community-Based Social Innovation Wins Prizes

Darío Montero

GUATEMALA CITY, Nov 16 2009 (IPS) - Community control of public funds will no longer be just an effective local idea, put into practice by social activists and community leaders in a town in southern Brazil. Now that it has won first prize in ECLAC’s fifth Social Innovation Contest, it is likely to spread throughout Latin America.

“The prize will help us carry out our central goal, which is to replicate our project, sharing the experience we have accumulated so as to benefit other groups in Brazil and the rest of the countries in the region,” Fernando Otero, coordinator of the Social Observatory of Maringá, in the southern Brazilian state of Paraná, told IPS with enthusiasm.

The geographical leap envisaged by the pioneers of this initiative, which ensures transparency in managing local assets, already has a precedent, in that similar observatories have been set up in another 35 Brazilian cities.

“Our methods can be applied anywhere in the world, with some local adaptations, obviously,” said Otero after accepting the award alongside other activists at the close of the Fifth Social Innovation Fair, held Nov. 11-13 at the state University of San Carlos in Guatemala City.

“The Ethically Responsible Society Observatory mobilises the community to monitor government purchases, preventing fraud, corruption and the waste of public resources, which are a common scourge throughout Latin America,” said Norah Rey de Marulanda, spokesperson for the Committee of Notables in charge of selecting the prize-winners.

The aim of the Observatory, according to its organisers, “is to stimulate the exercise of citizenship, mobilise volunteers to get involved in socially responsible activities, educate people about taxes, the environment, civic rights and duties and culture, as well as develop activities to encourage ethical behaviour among the people of Maringá.”

They recognise, on the one hand, the importance of paying taxes, as it is “the only sustainable source of funds to bring about social justice,” and on the other hand, the need to “monitor proper and transparent public spending.”

They are convinced that if these two conditions are met, any municipality can meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), approved by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000, which include the primary objectives of halving extreme poverty and hunger by 2015, from 1990 levels.

The other MDGs include universal primary education; promotion of gender equality; reductions in child and maternal mortality; combating the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensuring environmental sustainability; and creating a North-South global partnership for development.

Amid the exultation when their programme was chosen out of the 13 finalists selected from dozens of innovative social development proposals, Otero announced that the next step would be to coordinate immediate action with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), to reach other communities in the region.

Replicating the innovative social projects is one of the outcomes sought by the contest organised by ECLAC, with the support of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which awards 30,000 dollars for first prize, 20,000 for second, 15,000 for third, 10,000 for fourth and 5,000 dollars for fifth prize, in addition to technical advice.

In order to provide closer follow-up for the approximately 4,800 innovative community programmes presented over the last five years, ECLAC has decided not to hold the Fair next year, Colombian economist María Luisa Bernal, the head of the Social Innovation Project, told IPS.

“We will devote our efforts to recommending that governments incorporate these initiatives, created, designed and managed by the communities, into public policies,” Bernal said. The projects address social development, production, education, citizenship building, literacy, advice on issues of domestic violence, and others, she said.

From Oaxaca to Chaco

With quiet dignity, Catalina Sánchez of Mexico expressed appreciation for the second prize in the Social Innovation Contest, and highlighted the contribution it will make to the development of the organisation of 150 peasant women that she leads.

“I think it is a recognition that is of value to all the producers in my area, because our organisation is a fundamental part of a programme that is trying to link up with others of its kind,” Sánchez, head of MENA (Mujeres Envasadoras de Nopal de Ayoquezco), a women-run food cooperative, and of a processing plant (Procesadora de Alimentos Nostálgicos de Oaxaca) producing traditional Mexican foods, told IPS.

“We still need more resources to expand our work,” she said, referring to the women of Ayoquezco de Aldama, a community of 5,200 people in the southern state of Oaxaca, who grow and sell nopal, or prickly pear cactus.

Sánchez said she expects that the ECLAC prize will help them “get credits and support from institutions, and from local and national governments, which have done little or nothing so far.”

Emigrants from the Ayoquezco area living in the United States are sending remittances to be invested in the women’s food cooperative. Sánchez, herself a one-time migrant, and the other women use the money to produce traditional Mexican food products, for which there is a ready export market among nostalgic immigrants in the United States.

Now the group produces nopal on some 16 hectares, selling part of it fresh for local consumption, and preparing the rest for export in the processing plant, at the rate of two tonnes a month.

The women have succeeded in adding value to a traditional crop, attracting investment from local people who moved abroad, and selling their products directly, without intermediaries.

Another group of women, who live far to the south, in the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco, were surprised and delighted to be awarded the fifth prize in the contest for their work promoting reading among children, as a cultural practice and for transmitting educational values.

They take part in the Storytelling Grandmothers programme, launched by the Mempo Giardinelli Foundation with the money from the 1993 international Rómulo Gallegos Prize for novels, won by its founder Giardinelli, a distinguished writer and journalist.

After eight years of existence, the project involves some 60 schools, as well as orphanages, children’s hospitals, soup kitchens, homes for the elderly and for the blind and prisons, where grandmothers trained in the art of reading captivate a total audience of about 16,000 children.

The project already has a dozen prizes to its name, from bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the Organisation of Ibero-American States, and now ECLAC.

This inter-generational experiment has spread to nearly all of Argentina, with almost 2,000 volunteers, and has crossed borders into Chile and Colombia.

“We hope to continue, and to see the initiative taken up in other countries, because the project is easy to replicate,” one of its representatives at the Fair, who introduced herself as Grandma Maritza, told IPS.

The other prizes at the fifth Social Innovation Contest were awarded to a project providing integral health care for a highly mobile population of indigenous migrant workers in Costa Rica, which took third place, and an initiative giving disabled people in rural areas work opportunities recycling waste materials, in Chile, which won fourth prize.

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