First lady backs Brazil's literacy bid

July 20, 2001

Brazilian universities are the linchpin in a radical project to cut illiteracy in South America's largest country, its first lady, Ruth Cardoso, told a London audience last month.

Dr Cardoso, an anthropology professor at the University of Sio Paulo, said that an estimated 15 million people were illiterate in Brazil. The University Solidarity programme is expected to have reached 2.3 million of those by the end of this year.

Universities play a two-part role: teachers and community leaders from disadvantaged communities come on to campus to receive training in literacy methods and student volunteers go out into the community to work as literacy helpers during their holidays.

Some 200 Brazilian universities have mobilised 7,404 students in 910 municipalities to help 70,000 literacy teachers in the communities where they are most needed.

"Money may be scarce in today's Brazil, but resources, understood as social capital - mutual trust, skills, expertise and the will to act - are abundant," Dr Cardoso said.

The students also help to promote good-health practice as part of the Community Solidarity programme, with which the president's wife is also involved. University Solidarity is a partnership between the ministry of education and private enterprise. It was launched in 1996, the year after President Fernando Enrique Cardoso came to power, The project is backed by the Brazilian Council of University Presidents, and universities provide most of the materials. The armed forces provide logistical support and transport to remote regions.

Dr Cardoso added: "By bringing together universities, private corporations and local authorities, and by mobilising the community itself, the programme proves it is possible to teach poor youngsters (especially those in the municipalities with the highest illiteracy rates) how to read and write at the very low per capital cost of $14 per month [£9.95]. This investment is shared 50:50 by the ministry of education and the partner companies."

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