On Aug. 3, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva unveiled an audacious goal for the country: to eradicate extreme poverty in Brazil, Latin America´s most populous nation, by 2014.
With elections approaching in October, it would seem that Lula was trying to propel his Workers´ Party to another victory. While previous governments have tried to stamp out poverty, figures show that Lula´s government programs have helped made a major dent in the problem.
According to Crispim Moreira, an official at the Ministry of Social Development and Fight against Hunger, in 2003, when Lula first took office, 12 percent of Brazil´s 190 million people were living in extreme poverty – or less than US$1 a day.
That figure is now 4.8 percent, meaning Brazil has already achieved one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals set in 2000: to halve extreme poverty by 2015. The number of poor Brazilians fell from near 43 percent in 2003 to close to 30 percent now, or 24 million Brazilians, according to the government.
Some analysts credit Lula´s Zero Hunger program with the reduction in poverty figures. He launched the sweeping social assistance program in 2003 to guarantee food for a third of Brazil´s poor. One branch of the program, Bolsa Familia, or Family Grant, gives low-income families a subsidy ranging from $40 to $100 each month, under the condition that they ensure that their children attend school.
Several analysts, including João Batista Natali of the daily Folha de São Paulo, say the program has helped reduce poverty, but also note that it has roots in previous administrations, such as the 1992-95 government of Itamar Franco and the 1995-2003 governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Similar programs were enacted also at a private level, including one called Citizens Action against Misery and for Life, a campaign led by sociologist Herbert de Souza, best known as Betinho, which distributed food to 10 million Brazilians between 1993 and 2004.
Right to food
What Lula did was broaden these programs into Zero Hunger, which has become the flagship social program of his administration.
Under Zero Hunger, the government created the National Food and Nutrition Safety System, the National Program of School Nutrition, the Bolsa Familia and a series of public policies to reduce poverty and ensure the right to proper nutrition.
Bolsa Familia is one of the most well-known elements of the campaign, and similar programs have been since launched in Argentina, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela.
Moreira says this program reaches 12.4 million poor families, 2.7 million of whom live in rural areas, mainly in northeastern Brazil, Lula´s home region and one of the country´s poorest.
The nongovernmental Brazilian Social Studies Institute, or IBASE, which was founded by Betinho, recognizes that this program and other policies have not only reduced poverty but also inequality. According to the Institute of Applied Economic Research, the income of the 10 poorest percent of the population has grown six times more than the 10 richest percent.
There are, however, many critics of the Bolsa Familia program. Sayuri, a vegetable seller in a São Paulo market, says that recipients “receive that and then they don´t do anything.”
The IBASE argues that there were still 6 million people living without food security last year. So the program is far from over, despite the president´s lofty goal for 2014.
For Zero Hunger´s school meals program, 30 percent of the food comes from family farming. There are also 142 popular restaurants and 640 popular kitchens funded by the government.
On an organizational level, the government has incorporated 38 civil society members into the National Food Safety Council, a 57-member body, which also includes 19 ministers, in an effort to have the public monitor the programs, not just the government.
Still, this elaborate program has a long road ahead of it to fight poverty, an epidemic that is far from over.