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LATIN AMERICA: Social Innovation Award Aims to Open Government Policy Doors

Darío Montero

LA JOLLA, California, Nov 21 2010 (IPS) - “Now it’s just a matter of showing the projects to the governments so they can transform them into public policies,” said Martín Hopenhayn, director of social development for the Latin American and Caribbean economic agency ECLAC, at the close of a conference here that showcased thousands of community-based development initiatives.

Francisco Tancredo: "Our initial idea was to publicly recognise the region's social innovators." Credit: Milton Bellintani/ECLAC

Francisco Tancredo: "Our initial idea was to publicly recognise the region's social innovators." Credit: Milton Bellintani/ECLAC

Hopenhayn was underscoring one of the main goals of the Experiences in Social Innovation contest organised by ECLAC (Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean), which in five annual events has recognised the most leading-edge projects that are also low-cost, highly participatory endeavours aimed at overcoming poverty and inequality in the region.

The projects range from cooperatives and other types of associations for generating income, to support services for at-risk youth, to the affirmation of rights to health and education, to the promotion of volunteering and community participation, according to the contest’s four thematic areas.

The ECLAC expert said he was confident that these community programmes would change the ways that government leaders appraise the work that emerges from the communities themselves, and would better mobilise the community resources.

“Despite the important advances achieved in recent years in reducing poverty and indigence, the region remains the most unequal in the world,” Hopenhayn told IPS. In this context, it is essential to incorporate into our public policies “this great social wealth we have, and to deepen it.”

It has already been proved that civil society’s creativity can “buffer the serious problems that affected large segments of the population in the absence of government during the neoliberal fervour of the 1990s,” he stated at the end of the conference last week at the Institute of the Americas, in the southern California city of La Jolla, neighbouring San Diego.

The Experiences in Social Innovation contest, organised with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, involved 4,800 participants over five years, with a wide array of activities and proposals that emerged and developed from the grassroots — and were largely unknown to anyone beyond the communities themselves.

After being narrowed down to 3,000 applicants, 25 winners were chosen: “Success Stories in Latin America and the Caribbean,” which is also the title of the book presented at the forum, recording the profiles and achievements of the innovative social projects developed in 13 countries in the region.

Among the winners are initiatives for rural development in Bolivia and Haiti, support for at-risk youth in Argentina, an anti-corruption observatory in Brazil, community programmes against domestic violence in Peru, health services in the Amazon jungle, and even football as a means for protecting the environment in Belize.

“The contest itself was innovative in that it created a useful database of information for decision-makers across Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Brazilian Francisco Tancredo, member of the selection community and one of the project’s promoters since it began when he was still director of the Kellogg Foundation.

“Our initial idea was to publicly recognise the social innovators who exist throughout the region and who often are only known in the communities where they work, and to give them visibility,” he told IPS.

It was of great importance to Tancredo to organise the information so that the experiences could be replicated in other places. He also believed that, in addition to the book, it was essential that the project’s protagonists themselves gathered to share their experiences.

“Everything is condensed into those pages, which are now available to national and local governments,” said Tancredo, who alongside Colombian economist Norah Rey de Marulanda, also a member of the panel of judges, edited and published the book presented at the La Jolla conference.

The overarching goal of becoming public policy is already a reality for the Projeto Saude e Alegria (Health and Happiness Project) in the Brazilian Amazon city of Santarém, which will be expanded to the national arena as a government policy in December.

However, some of the other social innovation projects have run into government indifference or bureaucratic obstacles.

Tancredo and Rey de Marulanda stress in their book that successful projects like the prizewinners should be widely replicated. They say it is imperative to “create a dialogue between their leaders and the governments” so that their initiatives are incorporated into government policy.

After five years, ECLAC has accumulated fundamental knowledge through the projects presented, with great innovation and potential, said Tancredo, noting, “They are illustrative examples of social and community capabilities.”

“We have tried to put a ‘stamp’ on these social innovation initiatives so that the prize might help open more doors for them,” he said, and in itself serve to promote social development.

The award carries with it the credibility of ECLAC, and according to Tancredo, “may help break down barriers that governments often create for incorporating into their public policies the successful programmes that have emerged from community initiative.”

“We know that the latter is difficult to achieve, because it implies bringing local initiatives to the national scale, but ‘you create your path as you walk’,” he said, quoting a well-known 1912 poem by Spain’s Antonio Machado.

Many of the winners over the five years have confirmed that after going through the contest procedures and winning the ECLAC stamp, doors have indeed opened to government officials — who are often reluctant because they tend to seek short-term results — and to private resources.

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