IN the past two years, Brazil has won fame as a nation without a conscience, plagued by corrupt politicians, rogue police who murder street kids, and gold miners who massacre rain forest Indians.
Yet countering that image is a massive grass-roots campaign against hunger led by a sociologist who has turned into a tropical Santa Claus for Brazil's poor.
This month, Herbert de Souza, known as ``Betinho,'' has cajoled his compatriots to donate food for needy Brazilians in a campaign called ``Christmas Without Hunger.''
In a nation with little traditional philanthrophy, this is no small feat. And most observers give credit to Mr. de Souza, who has become a national idol.
De Souza has used the media to convince major newspapers to include food sacks in Sunday editions, supermarket chains to provide collection bins, restaurants to give leftover food, prisoners to fast and donate their meals, advertising agencies to give free publicity, and the nation's leading entertainers to charge food in lieu of admission.
``It's like a Frank Capra movie, where the good citizens lend money to the honest banker so he can fight the dishonest banker,'' wrote a Sao Paulo newspaper columnist.
De Souza is a Socialist activist who spent 15 years in exile during the 1964-85 military dictatorship. In 1979, he returned to found a private think tank, the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis.
De Souza's campaign is run by his volunteer organization that distributes food, clothing, and money to the poor.
Currently the two-year-old organization, Citizen Action Against Misery and for Life, operates nationwide with some 3,000 committees and 2.8 million members.
The citizen hunger campaign is an offshoot of the 1992 grass-roots "Movement for Political Ethics," which helped oust President Fernando Collor de Mello, who was impeached on corruption charges. And for Mr. de Souza, an appeal to individual ethics is key to his success.
In an August address to the United Nations Social Development Council, he said poverty is a "problem of ethics" and that the world's political and economic problems are in the hands of its citizens, not market forces or governments. "Nobody is going to give us a new society," he recently told a group of Rio school children. "We have to build it."
As a result, the committees are now providing job training, forming small business ventures, and creating such minimum wage work as painting public hospitals and cleaning neighborhood streets.
He asks Brazilians to reflect on the roots of hunger, such as unemployment, homelessness, political corruption, and Brazil's unequal distribution of wealth - one of the most skewed in the world.
De Souza also challenges Brazilians to stop accepting poverty as "something normal" and to rethink their view of the poor. "Each hungry person has a face and a name," he has said. "If we are to end hunger and poverty, we must recognize their humanity."