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  Combating Technological Apartheid
in Brazilian Favelas

By Daniela Katzenstein Hart

As the waiting crowd clapped and cheered, the bands struck up foot-tapping, Afro-samba beats and smiling Japanese passengers aboard the Peace Boat joined Brazilians to carry ashore 120 computers from the hold of the boat. The Peace Boat, travelling from Japan to create a worldwide network of "Peace and Culture" among different peoples, had just docked alongside Rio de Janeiro's harbor on a sunny March 2000 morning.

Minorities in Rio de Janeiro are learning how to use computers, thanks to CDI, which is helping slum residents, Indians, poor children and the blind to learn about computers

In Brazil they had a special mission – to deliver used computers collected in Japan for the Committee for Computer Science Democratization (CDI: Comite para a Democratizacao da Informatica), a non-profit organization that sets up computer and citizenship schools in the poorest of Brazilian slums. Next year, promised the Japanese, they'd be back with one thousand computers.

What could inspire a group of Japanese to work hard for months, collecting second-hand computers to cart half-way across the world to donate to unknown children in Brazil's sprawling shantytowns?

Translating a Dream into Reality

To get the answer, one must meet Rodrigo Baggio. A tall, six footer with boundless energy, Baggio radiates an Rodrigo Baggio infectious enthusiasm for his project. The project? To do away with the technological apartheid that keeps the most exciting revolution of the recent decades – the information technology revolution, and all the opportunities that go with it – firmly out of reach of the poorer sections of society.

Baggio was born in 1969, the very year when Beatle John Lennon proclaimed, "The dream is over." Luckily for the world, new dreamers were being born, with fresh dreams and the determination to make the world a better place.

The idea behind CDI came to Baggio in a dream. In love with computers since the age of 12, he was then working as a consultant and teacher in computer skills in Rio's schools for the elite. One night, he had a dream in which he saw poor children writing about their lives on computers. By the morning, he had decided: he did not want to spend his life teaching computer skills to the rich; somehow, he would find a way of making this whole new technology available to the poor as well.

For some, the spectacular beauty of Rio de Janeiro, with its stunning mixture of sea and mountains forming a unique landscape, hides a less commendable side. Like in the rest of Brazil, the divide between the "haves" and the "have nots" is immense. The rich have access to the best schools, hospitals and jobs. The poor, mostly living in shacks up the mountainsides, in sprawling slums called favelas, are never reached by modern amenities.

Some of these slums are veritable cities, the largest having over 400,000 inhabitants. But medical services are negligible and schools, when they exist at all, are of the poorest quality, and the chances of a reasonable job are almost nil. The only jobs available – and even these can be rare – are as housemaids, office-boys or unskilled workers in factories.

People turn to various forms of underpaid sub-employment: washing cars, selling sweets on streetcorners, distributing pamphlets. Salaries can be much less than the legal minimum of 136 reais (about 70 U.S. dollars) per month.

Adult illiteracy is high and the school drop-out rate even higher – few complete the obligatory eight years' of schooling, and many children give up in their first year itself after failing to make the grade. With little to look forward to, many youngsters are drawn to the profitable drug trade that thrives in this no-man's-land.

The information technology revolution that is changing the world couldn't be further away for favela residents. Out of a population of 170 million, Brazil has 4 million internet users, almost exclusively among the rich.

"Poor children need food, not computers," said family and friends when Rodrigo first spoke of taking computer skills into the favelas. "This idea will never work."

Rodrio Baggio and friends
Rodrigo Baggio (center front) with some of his students from the Cantagalo slum in Rio de Janeiro

But Rodrigo was convinced that what poor children needed was opportunities. Undaunted by the skepticism around him, he went ahead with his dream.

His initial idea was to set up a Bulletin Board System (BBS) on the Internet, so that children – rich and poor – could join in debates and ideas exchange. The BBS failed miserably: poor kids never participated in the chats because they had no access to computers.

Poorer communities had to have computers, Baggio decided. With the help of a few volunteers, students and community members who had heard of the venture, he started collecting used computers, mostly from small firms, and donating them to community centers and neighborhood associations in low-income areas. Julia Michaels, early volunteer and current president of CDI, gives a somewhat wry account of these early days.

"We had meetings under a mango tree, a motley array of volunteers brimming with goodwill," she said. "Ideas flew back and forth, interrupted now and then by falling mangoes, but we had no way to make it all happen. We had no money, no professional staff. And there was the stumbling block of maintenance. Many of the computers would break down just with the jiggling of the car on the precarious dirt roads in the slums."

The community centers and associations used the computers to ease secretarial work, and found uses for them in accounting and production of pamphlets. But in time, Baggio became convinced that the educational potential of using computer technology was largely being wasted.

Information technology, he realized, could be used not only to increase job opportunities for poor youngsters, but to broaden their minds, to help them understand their reality, point out new directions and raise their self-esteem. The image of computers was linked to a worthy, respectful place in the big, wide world.

Research studies among poor youngsters showed learning to use computers top on their list of priorities. Yet, computers were not part of their culture. Unlike traditional elite computer schools, Baggio's idea was to create schools that addressed not just technical, but also social and community issues.

Booting the System Successfully

In 1994, the first Community Computer School was founded in Santa Marta favela, with five 486 microcomputers, a fax/modem and a color printer. Although no special effort was made to contact the press for the inauguration ceremony, television, radio, magazine and newspaper reporters showed up to cover this highly unusual event.

The coverage succeeded in making the project widely known, and it attracted more volunteers, especially information technology professionals, NGOs and students, as well as more offers of used computers. Rede Globo, Brazil's largest television network, offered a free advertising spot.

In April 1995, the Committee for Computer Science Democratization was founded, with around 70 volunteers. For two and a half years it functioned with no funds at all.

"In ten months we had schools in ten favelas, at no cost, counting only on voluntary work," Baggio said. "I never thought things would snowball so fast."

Rodrio Baggio and friends Hands on: Rodrigo Baggio (right) and students

CDI had found a repressed demand, and a creative solution to addressing it.

Without any conscious strategy for multiplying the experience, CDI continued to grow. It now has 117 computer schools in 13 Brazilian states that reach 35,000 students. It is already reaching beyond the country's borders: in March this year, Baggio traveled to Colombia and Uruguay to help set up CDIs, and a visit to Mexico shortly will probably have the same result.

Different groups get to know the venture through the media or at one of the many lectures and seminars he is invited to countrywide. They then contact CDI headquarters in Rio, and, after a careful screening process that includes interviews and recommendations, they are given the go-ahead to start work in their area. Although there is continual monitoring and exchanges of information, CDIs in each state are autonomous and while they follow the same guidelines, they adapt teaching to local needs.

A Venture with a Difference

An important part of the CDI project is that it is community-based. Communities provide the classroom space, which is usually a room in their community center. The schools, called Schools for Information Technology and Citizenship (EIC – Escola de Informatica e Cidadania), are self-governed and self-supportive.

Instructors are always local people. The symbolic monthly fee equivalent to six American dollars is enough to pay for paper and to cover the salaries of the two or three instructors, many of whom are ex-students.

CDI provides computers, printers and software, as well as technical assistance, teacher training in technical, social and teaching skills and help in developing specific methodologies and curriculi. CDI has developed a special methodology that goes beyond the mere use of computer tools to include projects and activities for students to discuss their reality and their community's problems.

For example, the use of Word can be taught by encouraging the publication of a local newspaper that suggests solutions to local problems. The Windows Paint program can be introduced after a discussion on teenage pregnancies or racism, with pictures inspired by the debate. The Excel program can be used for statistics on infant mortality, deaths by violence and so on.

With this methodology, Baggio found that shanty-town kids learn much faster than the elite students he once taught. They are more interested and their motivation is stronger – they realize this can be a chance for a way out. CDI has no studies on the youngsters once they leave the schools, but they do get to hear of some who have found jobs because of their newly acquired computer skills.

Once the community has arranged the classroom, received the computers and its instructors have completed their training at CDI, the instructors themselves publicize the school on local radio-stations, newsheets, pamphlets and notice-boards. "Often people choose classes because they trust a specific instructor, who is a friend or neighbor," said Luis Claudio Oliveira Marinho, coordinator at the Turano favela school.

The schools are aimed primarily at the 12- to 25-year-old age group, which is considered a high-risk group, but other ages are also welcomed.

A little girl learns to use a computer in the
Cantagalo slum of Rio de Janeiro

Marinho said he likes mixing age groups because while the young are more daring and learn quicker, elder students are more focused and help encourage concentration. He points out that because the computer schools are such an intrinsic part of the community, equipment has never been damaged or stolen, even in the roughest favelas where this is common practice.

Students applying to the courses are expected to be at least semi-literate, but exceptions are made. One day at the Julio Otoni favela in the Santa Teresa district of Rio, the instructor noticed that a woman who had walked into the classroom was obviously illiterate.

Gently, he taught her to read and write using the computer. Eventually she was able to produce posters and cards advertising her home-made cakes and sweets. This allowed her to expand her clientele way beyond the immediate neighborhood where she had sold her goods. With the extra money, she not only improved her small house, but has recently bought herself a computer!

Max Freitas is another of CDI's success stories. Living in Mangueira favela, he started studying at EIC at 15. Last year, at the age of 16, he was chosen in a worldwide competition run by UNESCO in partnership with Disney and McDonalds, to attend the "Disney of Millenium Dreamers" congress in May. It will be attended by 2,000 youngsters from around the globe who are considered to be leaders of the future.

"Earlier, I had no outlook, no prospects whatsoever," Freitas said. "The CDI school showed me a way – not any way, but my own path, which is to work in the social area." The discussion of local problems and their solutions, essential to CDI teaching, had a deep impact on him.

The CDI teaching model has also been adapted for people with special needs: there is a school for pre-school children, a school for the blind, for the mentally deficient, for prisoners in a high-security jail and even one in an Indian village that had no electricity. A generator was provided, but the Indian chief complained he did not like the sound of the word "computer." Could they use one in their own Guarani language? So they chose a name in Guarani that means "The box that keeps language" – which is much more original than the English words copied by Brazilians for most technological innovations.

At the high-security prison, the CDI school also made a special impact: hierarchy was turned on its head when prison guards started asking for help from student-prisoners about their problems in managing computers.

The Spin-Offs of Recognition

The Ashoka fellowship Baggio received in 1997 enabled a qualitative jump in the project. CDI became more professional, as Baggio was able to dedicate himself full-time to the project. Before this, he was compelled to divide his time between teaching and consulting work to provide an income. And, with the help of volunteers, Baggio was able to work on handbooks on the specific methodology for instructors and different curriculi for different social groups.

At present, CDI employes 16 full-time staff, works with 140 volunteers and has just moved from a cramped little office to a large house, with space for meetings, courses and ample office space. Their financial resources come from partnerships with federal, state and municipal governments, as well as philanthropic organizations and businesses. International partners include Microsoft, Ashoka, Global partnerships and the United Methodist Church.

Tomoya Inyaku, who is responsible for the campaign that brought the computers from Japan, got to know CDI while travelling in Brazil, through a newspaper advertisement requesting second-hand computers. He contacted the group, became an enthusiastic supporter and invited Baggio to lecture on the project in Tokyo. The talk was such a success that Inyaku founded a CDI support group in Japan that is responsible for campaigning for second-hand computers.

"I don't know another project as good as this one, combating technological apartheid while strengthening communities," said Inyaku, justifying his involvement.

There is an excess of used computers in Japan, and the problem was transporting them to Brazil, Inyaku said. One of those present at Baggio's lecture in Tokyo was Nami Yamamoto, organizer of the Peace Boat trip. Deeply touched when she heard that "for poor children, hope can come through a computer," she offered the Peace Boat for transporting the precious cargo.

In the near future, CDI has plans to create a digital newspaper to put out general CDI news and to improve communication with the media. While CDI receives ample news coverage, it wants to address specialized media with specific items.

Rushing between lectures and seminars and endless phone calls asking for information and requests for the creation of new schools, Baggio explains the ever-growing interest generated by the project "We have a product with a high social impact at a low cost," he said. "We are showing how to do much with very little."



Financial contributions to enable CDI to reach its financial goal in 2001 of a US$300,000 budget, to cover operational costs and staff salaries. Donations of used computers in working condition.


Comite para a Democratizacao da Informatica
Rua Alice 150
Rio de Janeiro
Tel: 55 21 5578440
55 21 5578509
Web site:

Daniela Katzenstein Hart is an anthropologist and journalist living in Sao Paulo.

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