Edinéa Alcântara

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2001
PHYSIS-Centro de Crescimento Integral
This description of Edinéa Alcântara's work was prepared when Edinéa Alcântara was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


Edinéa Alcântara is a civil engineer who helps low-income residents plan and build public works projects. While acquiring job skills, residents learn how to use local materials to improve both urban spaces and the environment in their community.

The New Idea

Edinéa is integrating a strong social intervention component into planning and building public works and low-cost housing projects. She engages semi-skilled community members in the design and execution of the project, offering them job training and construction techniques using free recycled materials. Her bids are competitive with for-profit firms. Her products, furthermore, are not merely schools, community centers, or affordable homes, but rather a citizenship-building model for community members. They recognize the human and material resources which come directly from their neighborhood. They also gain a solid sense of ownership for the completed project, increasing the likelihood that it will last and be well cared for. Edinéa's combination of functional, aesthetically pleasing urban plans with job training creates a competitive choice for design-and-build projects that directly benefit the low-income communities where they are developed.

The Problem

Throughout Brazil, migration to urban areas is causing new communities to spring up overnight on the hillsides surrounding cities. This urbanization has increased the demand for construction projects to provide basic infrastructure and facilities to these young settlements. The current bidding process for urban works projects, however, is tainted by corruption. Construction firms with no stake in the community vie for contracts and underbid with no guarantee of quality work. Typically, these projects do not involve any input from the community about design or execution and do not respect the desires or resources that a community possesses. As a result, community members who are intended to be the "beneficiaries" of the public work are presented with a sub-standard facility in which they have no vested interest.The symptoms of this growing problem include vandalism, vacant community centers, locked-up schools, and irregular housing developments. Inappropriate construction disturbs not only the environmental stability of the terrain but also the health and well-being of its residents. A striking sign of the problem is the increasingly catastrophic effects of natural disasters such as floods. Landslides result from irregular urbanization patterns and poorly designed urban landscaping in many cities throughout Brazil. For example, in Recife, Pernambuco, during the 1990s, there were 123 deaths due to landslides. Communities have the potential resources to address these problems on their own but lack the organization and technical skills to do so. The few urban building projects that attempt to incorporate community participation at all usually do so by pulling together local community leaders to meet and discuss the projects. While this reinforces the status of the community leaders, it does not solve the problem of full community ownership. Nor does it provide low-income community members with skills to enable them to improve their own living and environmental conditions.

The Strategy

Edinéa began by inviting engineers, educators, artists, and psychologists to create a new approach to public works projects, focusing on community growth and citizenship-building. She founded a civil society organization called Physis: the Center of Integrated Growth to improve the quality of public buildings and low-income housing settlements, while strengthening community members' investment in improving their surroundings. The final product is an aesthetically-enhanced environment. Buildings maintained by a sense of common ownership improve neighborhoods. Simultaneously, unemployed and underemployed community members receive job training that increases their present income and expands their future job opportunities. Intra-community conflicts decrease when community members work together for mutual benefit. Above all, Edinéa is reinvigorating communities by pointing out that they already possess the resources to improve their conditions. Her first project, "Constructor of the Future," trained twenty-nine students to renovate an abandoned school in their community, benefiting one thousand students. Twelve of these students were referred to other projects as monitors and will become "multipliers," taking on further community construction projects which include day care centers and other community facilities. With the success of her first project, Edinéa is forging local, national and international partnerships to replicate her idea, lining up additional projects together with community members. To decrease the danger of landslides, for example, preventive treatment such as planting the slopes has excellent results. Planting costs less than $10,000 per hectare, whereas corrective treatment after disasters can cost as much as $60,000 per hectare.She has already attracted the interest of foundations to increase the capacity of her organization to administer projects. Her team's educators, psychologists, and artists work together with community members to design the plans and assess the recyclable materials and human resources within the community where the projects will take place. The second component of Edinéa's strategy is to use the public bidding process for urban works as the key to replicating her idea. By competing in the marketplace, she is demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of her alternative design-and-build approach that has an additional advantage: clear social benefits to the community. With each successful project, she is telling government officials and the business community that there is a better way to carry out urban construction projects: include job training and use local resources. In the future, Edinéa plans to help interested civil engineers and planners to organize similar design-and-build firms that embrace this citizen-based approach. In the long run, she intends to change the way government officials, businesspeople, and community members carry out public works projects.

The Person

Edinéa graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Federal University of Pernambuco in 1983 when she was twenty-two. Ever since, she has practiced "social engineering," focusing her skills on serving low-income populations in housing and urban infrastructure projects. She gained experience working in municipal governments near Recife as well as in the civil society organizations Habitec (linked to two Ashoka Fellows) and Arruar.Edinéa's time in the government deepened her vision of socio-environmental projects but also led her to perceive the fragility of public service initiatives, for instance when policy changes interrupted construction projects. Her experience working with citizen-led organizations nurtured her professional growth and helped her understand the viewpoint of the intended beneficiaries. At the same time, Edinéa dedicated herself to studying the theories behind her new idea, completing a master's degree in management and environmental policies. Her studies focused on community participation in designing and implementing hillside land reinforcement projects.