Mexico Wins $1-Million Gates Access Award

Mexico Wins $1-Million Gates Access Award

A computer and internet training program designed to help some of Mexico’s poorest people gain educational and economic opportunities has been awarded the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s 2008 Access to Learning Award, presented August 13 at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institution’s world congress in Québec, Canada. The award of $1 million went to the Vasconcelos Program in Mexico’s Veracruz state “for its innovative efforts to connect people to information and knowledge through free access to computers, the internet, and training,” according to a Gates Foundation statement.

The organization is being rewarded for bringing library services to rural, indigenous communities using all-terrain vehicles equipped with technology classrooms. Microsoft, will also contribute to the Vasconcelos Program by providing software and technology training curriculum through its applicable programs.

“Veracruz is a rural state. Its towns and villages are poor and remote. There isn’t enough electricity or equipment or money or staff to make sure that every one of them can maintain a good library with computers and internet access,” said William H. Gates Sr., cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who was in Québec to announce the winner. “So the Vasconcelos Program delivers all the resources people need via bus, with top-of-the-line equipment and a skilled, dedicated staff. When Vasconcelos visits a community, it opens up new worlds of opportunity.”

Created and managed by the Veracruz secretary of public education, Vasconcelos targets communities where state and federal authorities have provided computers in public spaces such as schools and community centers but the equipment remains underused because residents lack basic computer skills. A bus and training team spends up to two weeks in each village providing computer literacy and other training to people of all ages. Prior to each visit, Vasconcelos works with local leaders to make sure the training meets each community’s needs and identifies support so the centers can continue these services. Since 2005, Vasconcelos’s fleet of 24 all-terrain vehicles—each equipped with computers, satellite internet connections, and a team of experienced trainers—has supported more than 120,000 people in more than 200 communities.

“Let me give you a few examples of how Vasconcelos has changed people’s lives, in large and small ways,” Gates explained. “First, the large: Coffee is key to the economy of Veracruz, and Vasconcelos is helping to grow that industry. Thousands of coffee farmers have worked with Vasconcelos’ staffers to build up their businesses. They learn how to look up coffee prices so they can make more strategic marketing decisions. They get loans to expand their operations. And they participate in government-sponsored fertilizer programs that help increase their yields.”

Gates went on to say that “there are countless small examples. One craftsman, a candle maker, produced a brochure to help him sell his products—with Vasconcelos’ help. Two things have happened as a result. He is earning more money, and more people in more places are being exposed to the beautiful, traditional art he makes.” Vasconcelos devises a curriculum and outreach activities tailored to the needs of each community. A typical curriculum combines technology literacy training and community-specific activities, such as health education, cultural preservation, and indigenous art and dance projects.

“When people understand the world of opportunity they can find through computers and the Internet, they are inspired to learn 21st-century technology skills,” said Victor Arredondo, Veracruz’s secretary of public education and founder of the Vasconcelos Program, in Quebec City to accept the award. “Many of the communities we visit are initially hesitant to embrace information technology, but we remove this barrier by tailoring our programs to meet local economic, health, and educational needs, and ensuring our approach aligns with the indigenous cultures in which we work.”

Deborah Jacobs, the foundation’s newly appointed deputy director for global libraries and former Seattle Public Library director, hosted the award presentation. The Access to Learning Award, now in its ninth year, recognizes the innovative efforts of libraries and similar organizations outside the United States in providing free access to computers and the internet. It is awarded by Global Libraries, a special initiative of the Gates Foundation’s Global Development Program, which works to create opportunities for people to lift themselves out of poverty and hunger. More information about the award can be found at on the foundation’s website.

Posted on August 13, 2008. Discuss.