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Brazil Report #2

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Brazil, with a large information technology sector, a huge gap between rich and poor, and a history of grassroots social activism, has an especially active popular movement for technology and social inclusion. The largest and most widespread group working on this issue is the Committee for Democratization of Information (CDI --

The CDI was started about 5 years ago with the aim of bringing information technology training to the masses. In line with their popular orientation, the CDI integrates computer training with broader social issues related to human rights, civil society, etc. This is accomplished through a network of "Schools of Information Technology and Citizens' Rights". The schools make use of an elaborate curriculum that integrates IT skills, citizens' rights themes, and project-based learning based on the particular needs and concerns of the varying participating groups.

CDI has a total of 336 schools and is continuing to expand rapidly. More than 100 are in its home base of Rio de Janeiro, 200 others are scattered throughout the rest of Brazil, and another 25 are in other countries (including one in Japan targetted to immigrant workers). The CDI has two target populations. First is the poor: the majority of CDI's schools are in poor urban and rural areas, such as the "favelas" of Rio and Sao Paulo. The other target is the socially excluded (most, but not all, of whom are also poor), such as the physically or mentally disabled, HIV+ people, indigenous groups, landless movements, prisoners, street children, etc. The CDI thus also has schools located in an HIV/AIDS center, a Brazilian Indian community, a prison, a juvenile delinquent center, care centers, etc.

CDI schools are not (yet) Internet access centers. About 20% of CDI schools have Internet access, though the plan is to increase that in the future. Instead, CDI is emphasizing computer training, based on the needs and concerns of particular communities.

CDI schools are set up and run through multiple-actor partnerships. Usually, community organizations provide the location and help to manage the centers. Community groups also select teachers, usually from the community itself (with commitment to the community a higher prerequisite than advanced computer skills). Computers and software are solicited from Brazil's private sector, with companies such as Microsoft among the strong supporters. CDI provides training to the teachers and follow-up. A university (UNICAMP) has assisted with curriculum development.

I visited two CDI schools in Sao Paulo. One was located in the southern favelas, in a neighborhood called Monte Azul. Monte Azul, though in the middle of the poorest and most violent area of Sao Paulo (and, indeed, reportedly one of the most crime-ridden areas in the entire world), is a remarkably well-organized and safe neighborhood, due to the efforts of the Monte Azul community association, a community group organizing in the area for more than 20 years. Through persistent community organizing and fund-raising, the community association has set up a remarkable array of community services, including day care, a health clinic, cultural events (e.g., a community theatre), and a vast array of vocational training programs (including a bakery, wood-shop, toymaking, metalwork, furniture-making, etc.) The CDI school has been integrated into the overall community development program and helps serve the needs of the broader community. Participants in the CDI program are drawn from the other vocational training programs. Those from the papermaking program use the computers to help design diaries that they then produce. Those in the bakery type up recipes. Participants from a variety of programs learn excel to help them organize their work better.

I then visited a CDI school at "Febem," a juvenile delinquent center in Sao Paulo (basically a prison for youth between the ages of 12-20). The educational program there was carried out with the assistance of PriceWaterhouse Cooper, which supplied a remarkable total of 21 volunteers to help out with the training, under the leadership of a very capable human resources manager from the company, who spent half her days at Febem with the program. There the civil society issues appeared to be more deeply integrated into the program, with every computer task proceeded and followed up by substantial discussion on a range of civil society issues of concern to the young prisoners. Lots of opportunity was provided to the youth to talk and write about issues that concerned them--why they were in prison, what their hopes were for the future, social problems such as drugs and sex, etc. In the course of one 50-hour course, the youth made use of MS Word and Paint to produce two collaborative publications: one a booklet on citizens' rights and obligations, and one a newsprint journal on the social issues that concerned them (the front page articles in that one were titled "Life as it is," "Say no to drugs," "Misery and poverty," and "Liberty is not granted by the oppressor, but instead conquered by the oppressed").

I like the approach of CDI a lot. There are several important elements to their success. They have a passionate leader, Rodrigo Baggio, who has a clear vision, and he has succeeded in building an organization that is based on that vision. They never emphasized computer or Internet access per se, but rather the human and social possibilities that can be enhanced from use of computers. They have set themselves the task of promoting power among the most marginalized sectors of society, whether due to poverty or additional types of social inclusion. They've developed meaningful partnerships, both with the grassroots organizations that are based in and know the communities, and also with the private sector businesses that can help provide funding. They have a well-elaborated curriculum integrating both social content and IT that is flexible enough to be adapted in appropriate ways according to local circumstances. I think they're an outstanding model for social empowerment through technology.

I've also had the opportunity to visit several other institutions in Brazil, several of which are focusing on providing Internet access to the poor. has ten telecenters in Sao Paulo favelas and hopes to open 20 more shortly. They are also attempting to use these centers for community empowerment. Their projects include an online publication produced by community youth, who I'll be meeting with this Saturday, and a data-collecting/community resource mapping project, whereby local youth are trained to investigate and digitally record (in maps and data bases) the geographical, demographic, and economic features and resources of a community, creating a valuable resource while they develop marketable skills (of community mapping). Telecentros Brazil ( has built one pilot telecenter and is striving to build hundreds more. I'm also meeting with Brazil's e-governance coordinator, who, under the leadership of the Workers' Party (which holds power in Sao Paulo) has set the goal of building 1000 telecenters in Sao Paulo by the end of 2004.

Another remarkable meeting I had was with Project Clicar (, a computer and multimedia program for street children established at an interactive science center (the latter set up by the University of Sao Paulo). The center is located in a poor urban hub, where a train station, bus station, and a host of outdoor stands attract a lot of the community's poor. Project Clicar caters to kids who either sleep on the streets or work on the streets (the latter group go home to sleep but spend most of their day outside selling gum, begging, guarding cars, prostituting, etc.) When I went there yesterday, some of the dearest kids I had ever met started wandering in about 1:45 (the program is open from 2-5 pm every day). They sat around reading comics, playing board games, or drawing pictures until about 2:30 or 3:00 when the computers were turned on. They, with the assistance of several instructors or interns, they started using "edutainment" games (for math, etc.), simulation games (e.g., Sim City), and, for the older kids, surfing the Internet.

The power of interactivity in the edutainment games really struck me. These kids had little control over most aspects of their life, and they seemed (like all kids) to take immense pleasure in being able to make things move on the computer and control their own learning.

One of the interns there is a 17-year-old boy who himself was a street kid and user of Project Clicar but is now hired to work there. He was using the computer to write the first part of what he says is a book on his life story. The part I glanced over, which is thus far confidential, was fascinating.

Many of the kids there suffer identity problems. As one of the directors of Project Clicar told me, they own nothing of their own, they may never have had seen or owned their own photograph, and they don't full ownership of their name, since they usually use pseudonyms when they work on the street. But at Project Clicar, at least they have their own folder, where they save their writings, their downloaded images, and other multimedia products they have created. Some have even started their own Web pages. It provides a sense of ownership, control, and identity that they lack elsewhere.

Project Clicar has no set curriculum. The conditions of the kids means that formal classes cannot be organized. Some come every day, but others can only drop in once in a while. The staff there accepts them all, whenver they can come. A total of 890 kids participated in Project Clicar last year.

What do Project Clicar, CDI, and many of the other best projects I've visited have in common? They are based in community organizations that have deep local roots. They are led by people who may or may not have a lot of technical skills, but who have close ties to the community, a social commitment, and a knowledge of community organizing. They emphasize general human and community development over technical skill. They muster appropriate technical resources and use them to the maximum. They built partnerships with a variety of stakeholders. They make use of content that has been either specially selected or specially developed to meet the needs and concerns of the local participants. In summary, they are not computer or Internet projects, but they are social projects that make use of computers and the Internet to leverage all the other human, educational, and social resources that a community has.

This will probably be my last formal report from my 2001 summer (and Brazilian winter!) travels. Thanks for listening--I expect Papyrus News will go back to a more traditional format after I get back to California this weekend. (For those new subscribers, that includes a few messages a week of interesting things I find on the Internet with an occasional commentary by me).

I need to finish up my digital divide book in the next few months, so do send me interesting tidbits you come across, either for my own research or to post on the list. (I already subscribe to the Digital Divide list, so no need to forward anything from there.) And I wish all of you a great rest-of-summer (or winter, depending on where you might be.) Mine has been quite tiring, but one of the more fascinating in my life! My thanks to the many people in China, India, Brazil and elsewhere who have helped make this possible.

Mark Warschauer

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Last updated: August 4, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0