Page last updated at 06:42 GMT, Sunday, 14 March 2010

Online in Brazil's shanty towns

The Babilonia district of Rio de Janeiro
Children in favelas typically see the internet as a passport to a better life

By Mark Gregory
Technology correspondent, BBC World Service

The internet has created many new opportunities for people to get richer around the world.

But are the benefits of access to the net filtering down to the very poorest in society?

A shanty town in Brazil is a good place to find out.

Babilonia is a favela, a slum district, of about 80,000 inhabitants, most of them very poor.

It's located in Brazil's second city Rio de Janeiro, close to the world famous Copacabana beach.

Police control

The favela looks almost picturesque, with shacks lining the side of a hill amid lush tropical vegetation.

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But until recently this was a dangerous place to live.

It was run by drug dealers. Violence was rife.

Then, a few months ago, the police moved in and retook control.

Despite this uncertain environment, some people living in the favela make quite sophisticated use of the internet.

Web users in Babilonia, unlike many other poor communities around the world, do not face technical difficulties in accessing the net.

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The favela is near the heart of the major city. Communication links are good.

Very few people in the favela are wealthy enough to have a connected computer at home.

Instead, they go online at internet cafes, known as Lan houses.

There are several Lan houses in easy reach.

Internet's role

The first place I stopped at was a creche run by a charity.

It looks after the children of families living in the favela while their parents are at work.

In many families both parents are away from home most of the day, working long hours to make ends meet.

Man by a motorcycle
The web 'could really raise awareness of my services,' says Morelio

The creche provides the kids with a place to go.

The internet plays a crucial role in raising the money it needs to survive.

"We raise 60% of our funds by sending out email appeals," explains Antonia Nascimento, the creche organiser.

She relies on donations from people living outside the favela and corporate sponsors to pay the staff and maintain the building.

"If you're going to call a director from a big company, you won't get him on the phone so you just drop him an e-mail so whenever he has time he can look at our request.

"Maybe we could run the creche without the internet but it would be very hard."

The creche also uses the web to keep in touch with parents.

It tends to be middle class people who make first use of the internet because they have more knowledge of how to make use of computers
Kathi Kitner, anthropologist

At a bar in the favela I met a tough looking man who runs a motorcycle repair business.

Twenty-eight-year-old Morelio says he plans to advertise via the internet to drum up more customers.

"There's a lot of competition, the internet could really raise awareness of my services."

He claims that much of his business comes through word of mouth recommendations from satisfied customers.

"If I could advertise these recommendations on the internet it would really help me get more business," he says.

Technology's appeal

The message of these two small examples is that when given the chance people in poor communities use the internet to gain economic advantage in much the same way as anyone else.

Babilonia is one of many favelas in Brazil targeted for help by an aid charity CDI, Centre for Digital Inclusion, which works with poor communities to increase their access to technology.

The Babilonia district of Rio de Janeiro
Given a chance people in poorer communities use the internet in much the same way as anyone else

"Drug dealers are the role models because they have power, women and money. What we need is to create alternatives," says CDI director Rodrigo Baggio.

He says children in favelas typically see the internet and technology as "cool" and a passport to a better life and improved job prospects.

Charities and governments are involved in internet inclusion projects intended to increase poor and marginalised communities' access to the net in many parts of the world.

Cultural issues

But Kathi Kitner, who works an anthropologist for the computer chipmaker Intel, says it's not enough simply to provide the technology.

To work, digital inclusion projects must come with measures to support poor people's efforts to create income from using the internet.

She says there needs to be an awareness of cultural sensitivities.

For example, in India, she says, rural caste systems are still strong so it's important to know where connected computers will be located as there are places that poor lower caste groups are not allowed to enter.

She also cites the example of an internet access project in northern Brazil that may have exacerbated local inequalities.

"It tends to be middle class people who make first use of the internet, because they have more knowledge of how to make use of computers."

"That's not a bad thing, but it's often wrong to assume that knowledge will trickle down to the poorest."

Potentially, the internet is a powerful tool for people at the bottom of society to improve their fortunes but making it work for them is far from easy.



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