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Brazilian Group Helps Overcome 'Digital Divide' - 2001-08-29


A Brazilian organization called the Committee for the Democratization of Computer Science (CDI) has been helping tens of thousands of poor Brazilians become computer literate and is now expanding its operations to other developing nations in the Americas and Africa. CDI's formula for success is based on empowering the poor to change their lives.

In the Rio de Janeiro slum of Julio Otoni, a teacher helps two boys navigate the Internet as they sit inside a tiny room where almost a dozen computers have been set up. Their eyes light up as the images of multi-colored websites appear on their screens.

The Committee for the Democratization of Computer Science school in Julio Otoni was established a year-and-a-half ago in the slum's ramshackle community center. Rita de Cassia de Carvalho, a Julio Otoni resident, first initiated the contacts with CDI and then was trained by the organization to help run the school. She says the CDI center has helped change the poor community.

She says the community was thrilled because it is very difficult for a person to buy one computer, let alone having 10 computers available. It has been very good for the community, she says, because it has helped raise the self-esteem of the children, of the adults, of everyone.

The experience of the Julio Otoni slum dwellers has been replicated by CDI in poor communities throughout Brazil. Since 1995, CDI has set up 300 schools with computers donated by companies such as IBM to help the under-privileged become computer literate. Some 90,000 people have received the training.

The project is the brainchild of Rodrigo Baggio, a former computer consultant and son of an IBM executive. Mr. Baggio says he first got the idea for CDI in a dream. "I had this idea in 1993 when I had a dream, and in my dream I saw poor youths using computers, having a discussion about their reality, and finding a solution for their problems through the information technology," he said.

Mr. Baggio began in a Rio slum called Dona Marta, where he set up five old computers donated by a local company in a classroom provided by the Roman Catholic Church. He taught the students himself, but after they finished the course - several of them agreed to stay on as teachers and help run the school.

Soon, community members from other Rio slums were asking Mr. Baggio to help them set up similar information technology schools. This concept of involving local community members in teaching the classes and running the schools is key to CDI's success.

Students pay a nominal fee for the computer classes, and each school is operated locally in partnership with CDI. Some community members are even trained to fix the computers, so that the machines can be maintained at the schools. Mr. Baggio says the goal is to make every Information Technology school self-sufficient. "These IT and Citizenship Schools need to be self-sustainable, and self-managed schools," he said. "People who live inside the slums need to run these schools, need to be the teachers of these schools."

Bringing computer literacy to the under-privileged is just one of CDI's goals. Equally important is to foster the sense of citizenship which is why the CDI centers are called "Computer and Citizenship" schools. Discussions about citizenship, human rights, the environment, and non-violence are part of the curriculum.

Monica de Rour of the group Ashoka, which provided funds to help launch CDI six years ago, says these discussions are just as important as teaching computer literacy. "It is not only to just bring computers and train people in computers," she said, "but to provide education, provide access to other values, to other principles, to increase your self-esteem as a human being, that you have the same rights. We are equal, there is no difference of color we are equal and that is the principle that guides that."

CDI's Computer and Citizenship schools become part of the community, and are viewed by residents as belonging to them. Proof of this is that in slums wracked by violence and drug trafficking, the CDI schools remain untouched. CDI spokesman Carlos Andre Ferreira says there has yet been a case of theft at a CDI school. "Through the six years of CDI's work," he said, "we have never had a report of stolen equipment in the community. We think that is because the community sees the project as something that belongs to them because that is the philosophy of CDI, it is not something that comes from the outside world and is installed here. It is something that the community wants."

The goal is to help close what is known as the "digital divide," the wide gap between those living in industrial nations who have access to the new information technology and the large mass of poor in developing countries who do not.

At the Lemos Britto penitentiary in Rio de Janeiro, inmates are learning how to use computers at a small center set up by CDI inside the prison walls. Luciano da Silva Wanderley, 27, knew nothing about computers when he was first jailed for assault seven years ago. Now, he has created a web site for his prison rock band and hopes to pursue either music or computer programming when he is paroled later this year.

Mr. Wanderley says none of this would have happened without CDI. "If this opportunity didn't exist," he said, "I wouldn't be doing anything. I only started with these computers when CDI came and brought these machines and some of the people here began teaching me. Each one teaches what they know to the other. There's a lot of solidarity; here strength comes from unity."

It is this interaction among participants that has helped make the CDI project so successful. First launched in 1995 in a Rio slum by a young computer consultant Rodrigo Baggio, CDI now has more than 300 schools throughout Brazil.

Mr. Baggio says his success has come from having the local community, be it in prisons or in city slums, run its own school. Computers are donated by CDI, and community leaders receive training which they then pass on to others.

The aim, Mr. Baggio says, is to foster what he calls social entrepreneurship. "The most important thing is that the community leaders, the community organizations be entrepreneurial," he said. "It is the most important thing because if they are working like social entrepreneurs we wil have success in our school. It is like the key to our work."

Former Lemos Britto inmate, Altamiro dos Santos Serra, is an example of a "social entrepreneur." Jailed for kidnapping eight years ago, he enrolled in the CDI program and learned how to fix computers. "I was responsible for maintaining all the computers," he said, "not just in the class but in the whole prison complex. So that when one of them broke down, a guard would come and find me and accompany me to where the broken computer was. I would open it up and fix it, and then the guard would take me back to my cell."

Paroled earlier this year, Mr. Santos Serra now has his own business repairing computers, and continues his involvement with CDI. In partnership with the organization, he plans to open a computer school for the children and wives of the Lemos Britto inmates.

He also returns occasionally to the prison to help in training sessions and talk to the prisoners about how they can make a fresh start, using his own experiences as an example. "From the start, when I realized I had to improve myself, I worked for that goal. I studied, I worked inside, and reduced my sentence by three years. The choice was I could improve myself or sink deeper. I chose to improve myself because I have three children and I'm 35 years old, and from now on I have to build something for me and for them.

The "digital divide" is a gap Rodrigo Baggio describes as a new kind of apartheid. "We are living in a new society, the information society, the information age. Now we can see very well a big gap between those who have, and those who don't have IT access. For example, 50 percent of the people who connect to the Internet around the world live in the U.S., one in three Europeans access the Internet. But in Brazil, only four percent of our population connects into the Internet this situation is creating a new kind of apartheid, the digital apartheid," said Mr. Baggio.

Statistics back this up, and show that the poor have been left out. In Brazil, an estimated 72 percent of the almost eight million Internet users come from the wealthiest sectors of society. Just eight percent come from the poorest sectors.

CDI is now exporting its successful model outside of Brazil. It is working in partnership with groups in Mexico, Colombia, and Chile. Later this year, it plans to open up CDI centers in South Africa and Angola in partnership with the YMCA.

While conditions differ in each country, Mr. Baggio says the CDI model can be easily adapted because the poverty and the digital divide are the same as in Brazil.