At CEN, our goal is to empower the members of rural communities to create and successfully pursue sustainable economic opportunities. Our work stems from the experiences, observations and conclusions drawn from years of work concerning economic development by CEN's core members. Since 2001, Bob Bortner, founder and executive director of CEN, has been implementing projects directed at improving the quality of life in numerous rural locations around the world, including India, South Africa and Brazil. He has witnessed firsthand many attempts to provide rural communities with what they need to end the cycle of poverty, but one consistent theme throughout CEN's experiences has been the vast amount of unrealized potential within these communities. Information and technology can be excellent tools for overcoming physical and economic isolation, but the truth is, access to these resources alone is not enough for these citizens to realize their potential.
For example, during a visit to Suruacá, a small community in the Brazilian Amazon, Bob attended a meeting with a women's group. The women met to discuss the kitchen that had been installed by a German foundation in an attempt to assist the community to use seasonal fruit, like mangoes, to make various food products such as candies and marmalades. When asked why the kitchen wasn't being used, Bob was confronted with excuses. "It's too hot in there," complained one woman, while the rest nodded in agreement. While more excuses were discussed, one woman finally spoke out and said, "We know how to make doces (sweets), but what we don't know is how to sell them once we make them. We don't even know what to make and who will buy it." Bob then asked what they planned to do about the problem, and the woman responded, "We're waiting for someone to tell us what to do."
Following the women's meeting, Bob was pulled aside by Djalma Lima, a resident of Suruacá with whom Bob had been working for some time. "I just got it, Bob," he said. "We can manage our development ourselves; we don't need you or other organizations to do it for us." Situations such as these, in which rural communities become dependent on foreign aid, are the very issues that counteract sustainable development. CEN is therefore working to help communities solve existing problems independently while equipping them to overcome their struggles in the future.
CEN was officially founded in late 2004 by Bob and a few of his close associates. After Bob's earlier work in several communities along the Brazilian Amazon, in which he oversaw the Amazon Telecenter Project involving the installation of two solar-powered telecenters, the team wanted to see real and lasting improvements that stemmed from the community members becoming empowered to pursue their development initiatives themselves. For the first several years, CEN focused on the Amazon Prototype Project, which focused on developing effective ways to achieve these results. During this time, Bob and other CEN board members made regular visits to mentor key individuals in several communities as they attempted to address development initiatives. Two Johns Hopkins graduate students from the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies also interned in the villages for several months to assist with this project. In addition to this, CEN hosted a team of MBA students from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who spent a semester evaluating Couro Ecológico, or "Ecological Leather," and making specific suggestions for the workers' association. This project deepened our commitment to these communities and demonstrates our approach to sustainable development, which encourages residents to solve their community problems independently. In this way, it is our mission at CEN to democratize information so that all citizens of the world are given agency within the economic pyramid.
In May 2008, we began the cCLEAR pilot program, which developed and tested an effective learning approach called PRATICAR to implement CEN's vision. cCLEAR's focus is to identify and build the basic skills residents need as a strong foundation for subsequent mentoring and training efforts. The premise of PRATICAR and CEN is not to simply give participants material aid, which is only useful to a certain extent, but to help residents determine how to harness the resources they need to thrive in the long run. The pilot was a success and participants not only met the goals they set for themselves, but developed important soft skills such as problem solving, persistence, self-confidence, critical thinking and discipline.
Our top goal for the next few years is to build upon the expertise we've developed strengthening basic skills and mindsets in the region by working with the communities of the Juá Creek watershed in the Brazilian Amazon to envision and implement a comprehensive plan to build local incomes through Community-based Eco-tourism. In addition to strengthening residents' core skills, the Juá Community-Based Tourism Project will also build the entrepreneurial, vocational and information skills residents need, as well as partner with the communities, local and national governments, NGOs and private companies to remove external obstacles faced by the communities.
The scope of CEN's work will continue to grow. Once we have successfully demonstrated the impact of our work in the Brazilian Amazon, we intend to apply what we've learned to other parts of Brazil and eventually expand to the rest of the world, possibly including Mozambique, India and Nepal.