Camila Nobrega in Rio de Janeiro
Ten years ago, Brazil was just one of many countries struggling against extreme poverty. Today, it has become a worldwide reference – an example of how to fight poverty.
Thanks to a programme that no Brazilian politician now dares to go against: Bolsa-Família.
Evoking admiration and criticism, the programme is now 10 years old. Brazil still struggles to create real alternatives of income generation and decent employment for all citizens. But Bolsa-Família is one of the largest existing instruments of income transfer, benefiting 13.8 million families (almost 50 million people.) It means that approximately one in four Brazilians receives the benefit – the total population is about 198 million people. Considering the scope of the programme, it has a major impact on the Brazilian economy and on people's lives.
According to the survey,"Bolsa-Família: a decade of inclusion and citizenship," published recently by the Brazilian Research Institute for Applied Economics, the programme was responsible for approximately 28% of the total poverty reduction in Brazil. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of Brazilians living with less than BRL70 (£20) has decreased from 8.8% to 3.6%.
In 10 years, about 12% (1.7 million people)of the total beneficiaries have even been able to give up the benefit. However, some experts warn that a wide majority cannot get out of this dependence relationship with the government. The benefit is for the "extremely poor", those with a per capita income of BRL70 per month, and for the "poor", those with a per capita income between BRL70,00 and BRL140 per month. The average monthly stipend is BRL152. But will Bolsa-Família alone solve the problem of poverty?
For Francisco Menezes, a prominent Brazilian researcher on Bolsa-Família and food security, the programme is an important instrument of hunger reduction and social empowerment (pdf), especially for women, the main beneficiaries. In spite of that, the big challenge is to reduce the dependence the handouts create, providing recipients with more job opportunities and more access to basic services, such as education and health care.
"Today, hunger is almost nonexistent in Brazil and many people have left poverty. That is undeniable. But there are still many deprivations imposed on the poor. Bolsa-Familia won't solve this. We need other social investments," said Menezes, who works for the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses, one of the oldest NGOs in the country.
One of these deprivations is access to housing. In rural areas, many Brazilians do not have access to land. In urban environments, rental fees are getting more expensive. Many people, thus, depend on Bolsa-Família to pay for housing.
Bernardete Monteiro, 41, lives with her two children in Santa Marta, a favella (Brazilian slum) in Rio de Janeiro. The area's proximity to the World Cup venue increased the cost of living, and her monthly rental nearly doubled. For a tiny room with no windows, she has to pay BRL480. She works as a maid and almost all of her salary is spent on housing expenses.
"Without Bolsa-Família, I cannot buy food for me and my children. It is really good help. But I still feel we don't have an alternative to be able to one day say that we don't need the benefit anymore."
According to a recent UN study, hunger has decreased from 22.8 million people in 1992 to 13.6 million in 2012. The national secretary for income and citizenship in the ministry of social development and hunger combat (MDS), Henrique Silva de Paiva, says that Bolsa-Família has been integrated with 19 other social protection programmes. He said that the country needed to invest primarily in cash transfers because the situation of poverty and inequality was very serious when the programme was introduced in 2003.
"We know that the programme has to be improved every year. We are also planning the development of other programmes to facilitate people's access to the labour market," Paiva said.
Another researcher on Bolsa-Família and executive co-ordinator of Action Aid Brazil, Adriano Campolina, highlights the impact of Bolsa-Família in reducing internal migration. "The northeast is going through one of the worst droughts ever. But people are not migrating. Bolsa-Família is helping them tackle this. On the other hand, there are some negative aspects. It is necessary to combine transfer income with access to productive inclusion and public services that ensure basic quality of life," said Campolina.
To receive the monthly stipend, parents must ensure their children attend local schools and must be brought for regular medical check-ups. Social workers are now also looking for other people living in extreme poverty still not included in the programme.
These surveys are part of Plano Brasil Sem Miséria—Brazil Without Misery. Such is the fascination of Bolsa-Família that Brazil is now being consulted for advice on income transfer programmes by countries across Africa (Ghana, Angola, Mozambique), the Middle East (Egypt, Turkey) and Asia (including India). Even New York City has implemented a version of the programme.