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.
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The government says that the program has little effect on labor trends, and sees its emphasis on social welfare as an economic strategy. While more of the budget has been dedicated to spending on social programs, increasing from $3.4 billion in 2002 to an estimated $13.4 billion this year, the government says it's not just about welfare. "Social programs are helping the economy grow. It's not only grow to include, but include to grow," says Mr. Ananias. "It's not just an ethical matter, but a pragmatic one."Skip to next paragraph
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Next step: Job training
Ananias says that Bolsa Familia is meant to lift people from extreme poverty, not to subsidize them forever, and now that a quarter of the population is receiving it, the ministry is putting more emphasis on job training for recipients.
That is done in part through a host of state and local programs developed to help residents find more economic stability.
Many of these complementary programs can be implemented elsewhere.
The African delegation that visited da Silva's farm in August, for instance, learned about a government and NGO effort by Asa Brasil to bring cisterns to the rural poor.
For da Silva, who also receives Bolsa Familia payments, the program has not only provided economic stability but an opportunity to stay on her land in a place where mass migration to cities is the norm.
"We wanted to show the African people that it is possible to stay here and live a dignified life," says da Silva, who, a few years back, during a particularly harsh drought, had to sell her only cow for food for her three children. Now she has three cows, grows lemons and oranges, and has purchased two hectares of land to expand down the hillside from her home – five times what she previously owned.
Greater access to microcredit is also helping many Brazilians migrate to the middle class, particularly in the northeast.
The government's Bank of the Northeast has 352,000 clients with microloans today, up from 144,000 in 2003. They are aiming for 400,000 clients by the end of this year and 1 million by 2011, says Paulo Eduardo Andrade, manager of business in the microfinance unit at the bank's sprawling headquarters in Fortaleza. "This has given stability to small business owners that they did not have before," he says.
The optimism is not endless. As the financial crisis looms, commodity prices are dropping, and some worry that could have an effect on poverty programs. And Brazil is still dogged by institutional problems, such as poor education and corruption. Poverty cannot be reduced, critics say, if education itself is not improved. Brazil has one of the highest youth illiteracy rates in the region and its students rank close to last in math and reading proficiency, according to a 2006 survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Another criticism is that Bolsa Familia is a form of political populism intended to keep Lula in power. Even though the program began under his predecessor, it has expanded greatly under his leadership – from 3 million families to 11 million. But Cunha says she believes the program has served to give poor voters independence from politicians who cannot compete in handouts with Bolsa Familia. "It takes away the manipulation," she says.
In fact, many point to the presidential elections in 2006 and more recent local elections earlier last month as a sign of how broad-based support has become – and how it can be applied to nations no matter what its politics are. Few, regardless of party affiliation, criticized Bolsa Familia. Instead, one theme of this year's races was a promise to ensure that such programs thrive.
That is because Bolsa Familia has broad political appeal, says Ms. Lindert.
For those on the right, the concept of welfare is more palatable if it's distributed under "contractual" conditions such as education with the long-term goal to help the poor help themselves out of poverty.
The left is drawn to the idea that it empowers citizens to take up their universal rights to education and health. "It's appealing to both the right and the left," she says.