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Brazil becomes antipoverty showcase

The country's Bolsa Familia program – which pays poor mothers to keep their children in school and follow healthcare rules – is reducing poverty.

By Staff writer / November 13, 2008

Boost: Maria Joelma da Silva (c.) used state subsidies to build a cistern and start a business selling crops and honey.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor

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Cumaru, Brazil

In the arid, impoverished expanse of northeast Brazil, Cumaru is the town no one's ever heard of. And once you get here, Maria Joelma da Silva's house is a 20-minute ride beyond where the paved road ends.

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Ms. da Silva gets few guests.

Yet in August, officials from Angola, Ghana, the African Union, and the African Development Bank – here to study Brazil's social programs – stood in da Silva's yard gleaning lessons from the small but productive garden that is flourishing where cacti once dominated.

"Everyone talks about how we can't do anything right in the northeast, but if these people came here from so far away, we have to be doing something important in the countryside," says da Silva, who has used government subsidies and help from a nonprofit to build a cistern and start a small business selling honey and other crops. Today, she is part of a transformation under way among Brazil's underclass.

Although the global financial crisis is taking its toll on Brazil, the country's economy has boomed in the past five years, and the poor have risen with the swell. Lower inflation and easier access to credit – along with a higher minimum wage – have created a new class of consumers who have kept the economy growing. And with the world's largest conditional welfare program for the poor, and a slew of complementary local, state, and federal initiatives that continue to target the poor – a cornerstone of the presidency of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – many Brazilians are feeling economic stability as they have never before.

"The question of poverty is at the forefront of Latin American governments today. The poor are visible again, and Brazil is playing a leading role in this," says Patrus Ananias, Brazil's minister of social development, who traveled to Namibia last month to help the African Union review its social policy framework.

The arid plains of Brazil's impoverished northeast, where Lula was born, seem a world away from the booming southeast.

Towns are isolated from one another, connected by roads that, when paved, are riddled with potholes. And yet, the poverty in this region has been reduced more than anywhere else in the country.

Half the nation's welfare subsidies go to small rural towns, like Manari, where mass migration to the cities was once the only hope. Manari, in the state of Pernambuco, sits at the edge of the "sertao" or "backlands," a land of dusty fields and craggy trees. Five years ago, it received the lowest human development index ranking in the country by the United Nations Development Program, with an average monthly income of $13 and 57 percent of the population illiterate – on par with Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Today Manari is undergoing a boom. The town received potable water for the first time last year.

In the past three years, the first high school and health clinic were built. This summer, the government inaugurated the final 15-mile stretch of asphalt connecting Manari to the main highway.

But the most immediate improvement to the quality of life has been the government's monthly conditional cash payments to two-thirds of the town, or 3,000 families.

Mothers receive up to 182 reais – about $82 – as long as they keep their children in school, get them vaccinated, and participate in regular health checkups.