Mary Gloria Olivo has created an intermediary organization that stimulates, guides, and facilitates the development of local social consortiums in very poor neighborhoods. In turn, these consortiums participate directly in the development and restructuring of their communities.
The New Idea
Mary Gloria Olivo founded an organization named the Foundation for Popular Economic Development with the mission of empowering communities to take hold of their current problems and future development. In a country where few local community development models exist for the poorest neighborhoods of Caracas and other cities, Mary Gloria has created an initiative that puts decisions in the hands of local community members, provides job opportunities for professionals and low-skill labor, and brings together local governments, international and national funding agencies, and local businesses to pool resources to pay for the development. This model is the first of its kind in Venezuela to adopt a holistic, community-led management approach to all areas of development, including education, housing, sanitation, and microenterprise production.When the Foundation began over fifteen years ago, it was designed to provide local communities with basic technical services in microenterprise development, after-school and adult education classes, and preventative health services. As the national and local government social service funding sources for community development quickly dissipated in the early 1990s, Mary Gloria recognized the acute need for a "social consortium" approach that would pool outside resources, tap into existing community leadership and labor, and enlist citizens to become actively involved in their communities' development.
Catuche, a community in central Caracas, is where the Foundation first began its work. It serves as a particularly sharp illustration of the problems facing many city neighborhoods throughout Venezuela. This community was built along the banks of a river which has been transformed, from years of neglect, into a veritable sewage system. The highly contaminated river, once a source of potable water, has been directly linked to very high rates of illness and infections among the 12,000 inhabitants of Catuche. Housing has consisted of poorly built shacks that are in danger of crumbling due to the instability of the river embankments upon which they stand, and a potable water supply is almost non existent. Eighty-five percent of travel is by foot because the municipal transport cannot gain access to the community due to lack of roads. Catuche is a place where the average extended family living in one domicile consists of eight people; 50 percent of the population has not reached the equivalent of a sixth grade education; 57 percent is under the age of 24; and 41 percent of the population is not employed in the formal sector.
Nonetheless, a significant number of the residents are professionals with advanced degrees. Most have been unemployed for much of the past decade during which Venezuela's economic downturn caused a drastic reduction in the number of professional jobs for many middle and lower-income citizens. Catuche is also marked by a high degree of social organization, mostly by religious groups–a factor that greatly helped the establishment of the first social consortium in the community. Though a microcosm of many of the social problems plaguing Venezuela, Catuche is not an isolated example. It is representative of the hundreds of other barrios in Caracas, Valencia, and other cities throughout Venezuela. As the country attempts to rejuvenate its inner cities, vibrant, workable development models are sorely needed.
A key element of the Foundation's approach is to establish legal nonprofit entities, called Social Consortiums, which are founded and run by the communities. Once these entities have been established, detailed proposals for the development of everything from housing to sanitation mechanisms for the community are drawn up with the help of the Foundation's technical assistance team. To implement the project, Mary Gloria helps the community develop a funding plan, connects the project leaders to businesses, government, and international donors, and, when possible, employs both high-and-low-skilled labor from the community.
Mary Gloria sees her role and that of the Foundation as one of facilitation where the necessary skills and capacity for long-term self-management are transferred to the communities. "We have not been successful until we have become irrelevant to the success of the project," she states. The change effected in Catuche is remarkable. In addition to the new housing units, roads, and potable water, the Foundation has helped launch and fund microenterprise projects and job-training programs and provided work for many of the community's unemployed professionals. Now, the Foundation is working with the local schools and other nonprofit organizations, as well as the community at-large, to increase the rate of school attendance.
Over the last several years of leading the Foundation, Mary Gloria has developed sophisticated fundraising strategies that have attracted support from the public and private sectors. Several years ago, she helped put together a funding consortium made up of the Spanish Codespa Foundation, the Inter-American Foundation, the International Youth Foundation, and a State-run petroleum corporation that funds the youth and microenterprise activities of the Foundation. Most recently, the United Nations Development Program has joined the Ministry of Housing and the Ministry of Family to fund the Catuche project and spread it two other communities in Caracas–La Silsa-Moran, and La Vega.
Mary Gloria is now working to spread her methodology and convert the social consortium model into a reality in other communities in partnership with nongovernmental organizations. She has founded a network of community development organizations and with the help of another Ashoka Fellow, Mireya Vargas, Mary Gloria is trying to systematize her experience and communicate it through Mireya's network of over 500 community-based organizations spread throughout Venezuela.
Mary Gloria grew up in a large, closely-knit family in Caracas. Her father was very active in national politics and impressed Mary Gloria with his integrity and dedication in an environment that was frequently characterized by underhandedness and corruption. At an early age Mary Gloria decided to dedicate herself to a religious life. This devotion to her faith was coupled with an early commitment to public service. She remembers clearly her involvement and interest in the scouts with their "ready to serve" motto. She has taken this motto to heart throughout her life and committed herself entirely to the pursuit of solutions and services for the disadvantaged.
Very soon after becoming a nun, Mary Gloria discarded the rigid life of a religious order and instead, with several like-minded friends, founded her own religious organization to meet her spiritual and personal needs. Soon after, she started the Foundation to channel the focus of her work and life in the poorer communities of Venezuela. She does not dress in a traditional habit and does not mix her religious beliefs with her work, which she believes must remain secular to encourage the broadest participation of citizens and other groups.
In starting the Foundation, Mary Gloria was searching for a way to live and work with the residents of the neighborhoods and become an accepted, integral member of the community. She has realized that dream and is now embarking on her next journey to bring the model that she has developed to other communities in Caracas, Venezuela, and beyond. She speaks proudly of a visit in 1997 by the First Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton, who came for what was planned as a quick twenty minute walk-through of her project and ended up staying for over two hours to discuss the Foundation's model and approach, and to meet the residents of the community. "To get that kind of attention_it says a lot about how the community, with our assistance, has transformed itself. We were all very proud."