In the sprawling shantytown ofEstructural, Norberia Brito holds her newborn daughter in one arm, while with the other she stirs her feijao, a lunch of black beans and rice. It's one of the few dishes the young mother of three can afford on the 95 reals ($44) she gets monthly from the government.
That's just enough to buy food, and cover water and utility bills. "This program has helped me so much," she says. "Before, I just didn't have enough money to eat."
Norberia belongs to the Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) program – the flagship of Brazil's Zero Hunger Initiative. Zero Hunger was the first program President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva launched when he took the helm in 2003.
Brazil is the world's fourth-largest food exporter, but more than 40 million Brazilians – a quarter of the population – lived below the poverty line, prompting Lula to vow to stamp out hunger by December 2006. This June, the government said it had surpassed its goal,reaching 11.1 million families.
The program, which gives cash directly to mothers on a sliding scale, has been criticized for its uneven distribution and potential for breeding dependency. Corruption charges leveled against members of Lula's administration last year also contributed to a general distrust of government programs, although there were never any specific charges against Zero Hunger.
But supporters, including the World Bank and USAID, say it provides a model that can transcend national boundaries, showing countries how to streamline bureaucracies and give individuals skills to pull themselves out of poverty.
"Bolsa Familia is a very promising instrument that integrates four preexisting programs into a single program," says Kathy Lindert, a World Bank economist based in Brasilia. "That has an immediate efficiency gain."
The program is funded by a combination of private-sector partnerships, international support, and government contributions. Since Lula took power, Brazil's social spending has more than tripled – to 17 billion reals ($8 billion) in 2005 from 6 billion reals in 2002. This year's expenditures could reach 21 billion reals ($9.8 billion).
Lending institutions, typically conservative about social spending, haven't raised many alarms about Brazil's strategy. This January, Lula announced Brazil had fully paid off its $15 billion debt to the International Monetary Fund. Brazil has kept inflation in check and its economy has grown slowly but steadily.
In January, a delegation of government officials from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau, and Zambia visited Brazil to learn about the Family Grant program. Ms. Lindert calls Brazil a "superstar" in exporting its program to Latin American and African countries.
A key element of the program is its practice of giving grants of 50 to 95 reals ($23-$44) per month directly to mothers, depending on the number of children they have in school.
"We decided to give it to female heads of household instead of men because our research showed that mothers are more zealous in controlling family resources," says Brazil's minister for social development and hunger eradication, Patrus Ananias. "Mothers are more careful, and they prioritize basic needs."
This sort of cash support, coupled with specific requirements, can be very effective, some analysts say.
"In North Africa, they have largely relied on price-distorting food subsidies for their social-safety nets," says Lindert. "If a country there could switch to a conditional cash-transfer model like Brazil's, I think there would be a lot of improvements – both for efficiency and for equity, and promoting educational and health links."
Brazil has even gotten a boost from celebrities: U2's Bono donated one of his guitars to the campaign while in Brazil last February; it is expected to net even more than the $132,000 earned last year for Lenny Kravitz's donated guitar.
Still, the program has been the subject of fierce domestic criticism and has been hurt by repeated bad press in the lead-up to the Oct. 1st elections.
"They want to make a name for Brazil abroad for this program," says Rogerio Crisostomo as he waits for fares at a taxi stand in São Paolo. "But the only way to really end hunger is with more work."
While part of the Zero Hunger strategy has involved increasing the minimum wage, unemployment still hovers above 10 percent.
Some critics have accused the program of being aimed at buying votes from the poor. They have also pointed to what they say is mismanagement in getting goods to people effectively.
"There have been problems with the distribution of resources and with finding families," says Maria Carmeli Yasbek, a professor at Sao Paolo's Catholic University. "Moreover, many poor people still don't have access."
José Graziano da Silva, the Latin American representative for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), a former minister under Lula, acknowledges that Zero Hunger would sometimes organize public donation campaigns where companies would give foodstuffs, or people would bring bags of beans or rice to soccer games. But often, collecting and transporting those donations ended up costing more than buying them.
"Many people didn't believe in the sincerity of the Lula government at the beginning of this program, and there were all sorts of criticisms, especially from the media," says Mr. Graziano.
But, he says, Zero Hunger benefits from having specific goals. It combines emergency measures with structural changes, like family agriculture programs, agrarian reform, and initiatives to educate families about nutrition – something he says has never been done before in Latin America.
He adds that the president rallied private and public interests and coordinated between federal, state, and local government.
The FAO, which has donated funds to Zero Hunger sent experts this year to evaluate the program. It is waiting until after the elections to release the results.
Another concern has been the prospects for weaning participants from the program.
"Far from creating dependency, people can use the program for a year [extendable to two]," says Josita Correto da Rocha, a social-work professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso. "And while receiving Family Grant, they have to undertake activities to end their dependency."
Proponents also argue that literacy training and rural job-training encourages self-sufficiency. There are more than 60 programs under the Zero Hunger umbrella – which have also targeted clean water and electricity supplies.
Back in Estructural, Norberia walks through the neighborhood store, loading her cart with rice, beans, cooking oil, and eggs. At the cash register, she takes out the magnetic card she uses to buy groceries. She says she wants to go back to school when her kids are older. She plans to leave the program soon.
"I want to be able to make my own living," she says, "and pass this card on to someone who may need it more than I do."