Associaçao de Moradores do Conjunto Palmeiras (ASMOCONP) began in 1981 as an effort to organize and empower residents of a settlement area on the outskirts of Fortaleza. The residents’ association first addressed issues of infrastructure and access to public services, and then turned to strengthening the local economy. The association founded Banco Palmas, a school for socioeconomic solidarity, a women’s job incubator, and three local businesses. Based on a participative needs assessment, ASMOCONP added a community bank recognized by the central bank.
The 2003 census showed a high and increasing (14.7 percent) youth unemployment rate. The federal government conducted a two-year youth employment program from 2003-05 in which ASMOCONP participated. In 2004, the association submitted a request to the IAF to fund a project to address youth employment and integration in the local economy.
The IAF-funded project supported ASMOCONP’s establishment of a neighborhood school to provide viable employment alternatives for youth. The plan was to work with 16-24 year olds, who constitute 24 percent of the local population, to provide an entry into the work world. The IAF provided $225,000, ASMOCONP committed to provide $72,500, and the association’s beneficiaries and partners contributed $40,000.
The two-year project was eventually extended to five years up until 2010. It had three areas of activity: job training for 640 youth at the community school; investment funding for at least 45 businesses employing the school’s interns and graduates; and business incubation for youth, including start-up capital.
Results were collected and analyzed using the Grassroots Development Framework (GDF), which measures results at three levels: the individual or family, the organization or grantee partner, and the society or community. At the lower level of the cone, the youths who took part in project activities learned to be good employees and business people. At the middle level, ASMOCONP obtained new federal and business support to train 1,000 youth in its community school. At the upper level, in 2007, Palmeiras was formally recognized as a neighborhood, and the use of “social money: (the local currency created by the project) helped to grow the local economy.
Additional findings regarding the project included the following:
640 youth received technical training, gained work experience through an internship, and received stipends to support them during training. All small new businesses received business space and microcredit.
Of participants interviewed, 56 percent returned to school or continued their schooling, with a third of them reaching university studies. In contrast, among the control group in Palmeiras that did not take part in the program, 78 percent attended school only through middle school, and 22 percent dropped out earlier.
Currently, 56.5 percent of project participants interviewed are working and studying, 37.5 percent are working full-time, and six percent are in school full-time.
Participating youths opened new local businesses, providing 181 full-time jobs and 198 part-time jobs.
Credit was extended to 45 small businesses and 21 industries.
ASMOCONP created “social money” (a type of local currency called palmaras) that helped compensate the businesses that provided internships and scholarships for students.
The project was complemented by a local economic forum that opened a dialogue on economic priorities.
Responsibility: Commonly mentioned benefits of the project for interviewees included helping them break into the work world, improve their self-esteem and discover a sense of responsibility for their lives and families, and in some cases for their community. One businesswoman who had hosted student workers commented that the most important thing the students learned was responsibility. The responsibility and care shown to clients by the students led one business owner to hire two of them.
Contribution: Project activities and interactions at work gave adults a more positive image of youth and their capacity to take on a job. Before, business owners did not have much confidence in the young people. For their part, the youth are more positive about working and being a part of the local economy. In the last year of the project, ASMOCONP arranged a meeting of over 1,000 young people to discuss ways to improve life in the neighborhood, and they came up with 10 most creative ideas for a more dynamic social and economic space. The meeting garnered enough attention that the Ceara state representatives held a public meeting to hear the ideas of the youth and take those ideas into account for future policies. As a rite of passage, the young people interviewed recalled this meeting as the first time they were recognized as citizens. Almost 20 percent of those interviewed represent their social organizations in municipal councils.
Economic and educational opportunities: By the end of the project, students had created almost three hundred full-time and part-time jobs. Business owners saw that the job internships offered youth an alternative to lives of drugs and crime, which are a serious problem in the region. Several students also said that participation in the project helped them avoid a life of crime. The students interviewed for the evaluation had a much higher rate than the control group of continuing their education and achieving greater education levels.
Relationships: The relationships students established with university graduates from their community gave them confidence to continue their studies and gave them pride in their community. The students gained communications skills that helped build and maintain relationships with others, including their instructors and ASMOCONP staff who served as positive role models.
ASMOCONP established a Local Economic Forum to hold discussions among local businesses, organizations, teachers and other citizens to reach consensus on economic priorities for the neighborhood.
Resiliency: Simply participating in the project gave young people a means to resist negative influences and take a different path in life. Two youths who had started down the road to drug trafficking said that they recovered their lives through the project and the relationships they established with their colleagues and instructors. There is a notable difference in the youth who attended the school and prepared life plans. They felt more prepared to confront obstacles such as drug activities and local violence, and they were more apt to view the issues they face as challenges rather than as obstacles that immobilize them.
Unexpected Results: These included young people starting a small business based on the arts, and not simply technical areas. The project built up Instituto Palma as a local development agency, representing a second generation for the grantee association, with more professionalization and programs. The neighborhood school was ASMOCONP’s most complex and planned initiative. It was part of the grantee’s move from an organization focused on obtaining public services to one focused on local development. Participants influenced the project to add new technology and an economic focus.
The palmaras currency and Banco Palmas supported the community in building social capital among poor people who had not used banks. The working youth, who were paid in palmaras, gained confidence in the currency. The bank’s link with the local business sector further helped its acceptance and resulted in more local buying.
While migration was not mentioned as an issue, all youth commented on both urban and domestic violence as an issue. Urban violence has been increasing with the influx of drug gangs. Youth who see few job opportunities and no connection between school and work easily can fall prey to the gangs or become ninis (those who neither work nor study).
With its focus on a local socioeconomic network, the methodology of including local businesses opened opportunities for youth and changed the views of businesses toward youth.
Preparing young people for future jobs has continued since the project ended, but subsequent employment is not as strong. According to the school’s staff, this is due to students having internships with smaller family business that have limited ability to absorb more personnel. Also, the school was less responsive to more recent interests of the younger students in new technological skills, such as telecommunications. There were also fewer businesses locally focused on the new technologies.
Instituto Palma and the Banco Palma are more active than the association, with a hostel, dining center and store for artisan products. The association was more associated with the youths’ parents and with work on infrastructure, so it was critical that ASMOCONP created the institute, bank, and school to reach the new generation.
ASMOCONP’s preparation of the project included a series of widely participative community meetings and consultations. This was a basis for the project’s positive results, with diverse community members working together.
After the project, ASMOCONP was able to make a needed adjustment and add a PalmaLab that facilitated training youth in the digital age and provided some job opportunities as well. The training included a variety of professions, including the arts that appealed to a variety of student interests. This openness to adaptation has been critical for the association.
The project, which enabled ASMOCONP to test its dynamic between professional teaching, internships with local businesses and the circulation of the project’s “social money,” generated innovative interactions and positive results. The association earned the “National Award as a Reference in Social Technology” and became known outside the community. It was asked to participate in events and consult with organizations and social networks on possible replication of the experience.
The project enabled the association to consolidate a community social network around the community bank.
What Did Not Work?
ASMOCONP only added training in new digital and telecommunications to complement other careers and did not adapt a new model to reflect and get ahead of new demands. There were no instructors available to teach such skills.
The project method to provide credit as part of helping youth to start up businesses did not function very well; most youths wanted to get a job where they did their internship. When the grantee noticed this, it dedicated a lot of time to accompanying the interns and speaking with the business people to support them. But because young people were seeking income first, instead of being interested in investing the time and effort to develop a business, this aspect of the project was the most difficult for ASMOCONP.
Surprising for the grantee partner was that perhaps 25-35 percent of project youth did not seek an immediate job, but rather focused on furthering their education, working in art or taking part in social organizations. The project deterred them from urban crime.
The neighborhood school training and internships were not only a critical step in students’ entrance into the workforce, but also inspired them to do more in their lives and with their families and community.
Living in Conjunto Palmeiras became a source of pride for citizens in what was once a favela, despite lingering violence and drugs issues in the community.