Monday, March 25, 2013

Economic Booms, Water Committees, and Cambalhotas

Posted by Tessie San Martin - Plan International USA CEO

Youth in Maranhão, Brazil perform a dance.
The World Cup will be coming to Brazil in 2014. This has been joyful news in a country crazy about futbol (what the whole world, except the US, calls soccer). Such events are also always an opportunity to showcase your country. And Brazil has much to showcase. Mention Brazil to the average person, and images of Carnaval, samba, Pele, and beautiful beaches are all conjured up. But more recently Brazil – this lush country of 200 million – has been in the news as one of the world's largest and (until a few years ago) fastest growing economies. Brazil is the "B" in BRIC, the rapidly modernizing economies (that also include Russia, India and China) expected to be the dominant powers of the future.

But this is not quite what I see in Maranhão, a state in the Northeast region of the country. Indeed, though in the last 10 years the poverty rate in the country has been reduced appreciably, Maranhão's poverty rate remains stubbornly high. It has the second lowest state GDP per capita; and well-being indicators, such as the infant mortality rate, remain twice as high as the average for Brazil. As one of the leaders in a community I visited during my trip here said,"...the boom in Brazil has mostly passed us by."

Maranhão is not a state without resources. It is an important base of operations for many of the largest mining companies in the country. Major agribusinesses operate there as well. But the community of Arraial is an example of what being "skipped over by the 'boom'" looks like.

Arraial is just 30 kms. (less than 20 miles) from the center of São Luis, the state capital. The roads towards the town are pretty good, as they serve the mining and industrial companies with operations along the way. But once you get off the main roads, the nicely paved one- and two-lane highways stop, replaced by narrow dirt roads, some heavily pocked with holes made worse by the heavy rains. Arraial is not destitute. It has electricity, the result of a major government-led electrification effort that has helped bring light and some measure of modernity to even the most remote locations. In the center of town, a large cell tower helps ensure that your phone signal is strong. But until relatively recently, the families there lacked running water. It still lacks sanitation and sewage facilities, or a school.

What Arraial does have is an active Community Development Committee (CDC), which decided that if they wanted a better life for themselves and their children, they had to take the initiative. And Plan, which has been operating in Maranhão and in many of these communities for some years, was there to help them. With Plan's support and advice, the CDC built a well. Plan also helped develop a water management committee to set and collect tariffs. This committee also manages water connections, and oversees and finances (from part of the tariff proceeds) the system's operations and maintenance.

Arraial's CDC has drawn a plan with its priorities. This too has been developed with Plan's support. Plan is not instigating these actions, but serving as a trusted listening board, and a facilitator when the community wants to think through and tackle a problem. In some cases, as with the well, it has helped to mobilize funding to support capital investments or provides technical advice and capacity building.

Priority activities identified by the community include addressing the lack of sanitation and the need for a primary school in the community. Not a single one of the 350 families in Arraial have anything but the most rudimentary pit latrines. This leads to infection and disease, and helps explain the state's higher than average infant mortality rates in the region. And the lack of a primary school in the community means little kids must get in a public bus and travel a distance to attend classes. This is not just a monetary burden but a safety concern for the parents.

Addressing these concerns will take time, organization and outreach efforts to advocate with the municipal authorities. The CDC is organizing to do it. But the community is not waiting to address immediate child and youth safety and education concerns. With Plan's support, it is developing safe places for children to play (and educating parents about the importance of play time) and providing enrichment programs. Safe play spaces, called by Plan brinquedotecas (literally libraries for toys) allow children to try different toys, learn about their environment, exercise their bodies and their imagination (I saw some children in another community wearing t-shirts that say, "the right to play").

Another set of activities, the Cambalhotas (which translates as "tumbling") program, provides an opportunity for boys and girls to learn not just how to dance, but also hear a message of respect for each other, of peace, and of healthy living (including saying no to drugs and delaying sexual activity, as crime and sex trafficking come with the better roads). Simple things, that slowly make a difference.

Other activities Plan is supporting in Arraial and neighboring communities are focused on youth. The programs are varied, and range from organizing female soccer teams (a pretty novel thing in a country where futbol is only for boys and men - much like how we Americans see our football), to learning to express yourself through the arts and drama. In every case, the program also helps raise awareness about the consequences of gender stereotypes, and teaches respect for yourself and others, encouraging youth and adolescents to think differently about their life choices, and to engage and work with their peers to improve themselves and life in their communities. Just like the adults in the CDC have learned about the power of self-help, so are youth and children learning about the importance of initiative, and of taking responsibility for your actions.

The activities I've described above will not on their own address the income gaps and fill the huge needs of communities like Arraial. Government too must improve its response and work with civil society to address the very real needs of these marginalized communities. And Plan supports such efforts. But civil society starts at the community level. These activities demonstrate the power of both community organization and individual self-help, two central ingredients, I think, for creating sustainable economic development, progress and that economic "booms" will not continue to by-pass Arraial and hundreds of communities like it.

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