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Brazil making Inroads against Hunger

November 14th, 2009
Children looking in garbage dump, Brazil

Children looking in garbage dump, Brazil

Raimundo Alves used to get his food by scavenging at a garbage dump on the outskirts of Teresina, the capital of the impoverished northeastern Brazilian state of Piaui.

Now he and his family can afford shoes, electricity and a daily meal of rice and beans.

Alves and more than a quarter of Brazil’s 190 million inhabitants receive a monthly stipend called Bolsa Familia, the flagship of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s broader Zero Hunger program designed to cut poverty and eradicate hunger.

Lula, who was born dirt-poor in Brazil’s northeast and often went without meals as a boy, has spent much of his seven years in office rallying at home and abroad to combat hunger.

Under Bolsa Familia, poor families receive up to 200 reais ($115) a month, depending on their income and how many children they have. In exchange, children must attend school and pregnant women and infants must get regular medical check-ups.

Recipients are paid through a state bank and registered in a continuously updated database to reduce error and fraud.

The program’s simplicity, cost-effectiveness and quick results have been widely praised and held up by the World Bank and other international agencies as an example for other countries. While critics say it creates dependency on state handouts, the program stands in stark contrast to previous attempts in Brazil to reduce hunger that were bogged down by food distribution problems and theft.

“It’s cheap and it works — we’ve found a technology to reduce hunger,” said Marcelo Neri, chief economist for social policies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation business school in Rio de Janeiro.

Brazil’s experience is likely to stoke debate at a United Nations food summit next week in Rome, where leaders are expected to focus more on boosting agricultural output as a way of reducing world hunger. [ID:nLA734395]

Brazil, whose economy has powered ahead in recent years under Lula, has consistently spent about a quarter of gross domestic product on social programs, but the strategy that had little effect on reducing poverty.

Bolsa Familia has proven much more effective. It costs just 0.4 percent of GDP but has helped lift millions out of poverty, allowing more people to put food on their plates. Recipients spend around 70 percent of aid on food, a recent study showed.

The program helped reduce child malnutrition between 2003 and 2008 by 62 percent, using body weight comparisons.

“No other developing country in recent years has made as much progress in reducing hunger as Brazil,” said Rosana Heringer, executive coordinator in Brazil for ActionAid, an international anti-poverty agency.

“We’re still hungry some days but we’re doing much better,” Alves said in his adobe hut, standing before a rickety refrigerator held together by a large rubber band.

Despite isolated allegations of favoritism in granting the aid, the program is less corruption-prone because of its electronic database and payments registered by debit card.

Decentralization has helped cut red tape, experts say.

Local governments draft and manage the recipient list and a board made up of community representatives acts as a watchdog.


Many poor people who get enough calories often don’t get enough nutrients to remain healthy. According to a 2006 study, 21 percent of Brazilian children under 5 suffered from anemia. Some government programs may now be making a difference.

Anderson Gomes da Silva, a 12 year-old with anemia, regained his strength after supplementing his diet with vegetables his family received from the government. In Piaui, the program benefits over 400,000 people with food and 5,100 farmers by paying retail prices for their produce.

A farmers’ association outside Teresina doubled its income and escaped bankruptcy after joining the program in 2003.

In downtown Teresina, nearly 1,400 people stand in line for over an hour to get lunch for 1 real ($0.60) in one of around 100 government cafeterias nationwide.

“It’s a balanced meal I couldn’t afford anywhere else,” said Jose de Alinateia, a 45 year-old school teacher, who spends most of his 650 reais salary on child support, clothes and utility and medical bills.

When Lula launched the Zero Hunger program in 2003, he boasted it would also teach people how to fend for themselves. That is proving difficult. While some were taken off the program when their income rose, many shirk self-help.

“They’re afraid they’ll lose their benefits. They don’t want to hear about job training,” said Rosangela Sousa, a coordinator for the Zero Hunger program in Piaui.

Some aid workers propose limiting benefits to five or 10 years, but others say that could reverse inroads on poverty.

“Forcing people off welfare before solving the underlying reasons of poverty will backfire,” says Sergei Soares with the government economic research institute Ipea.

Blessed with booming agricultural output and cutting-edge farming techniques, Brazil has clear advantages in tackling hunger, but political will may have made the difference.

“Lula was able to mobilize society and negotiate a national pact around the issue,” said Heringer, of ActionAid. “Political will is the key ingredient.”

By Raymond Colitt

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