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June 2003

Hungry for change in Brazil

Lula's transformation, from radical socialist to international
statesman, has drawn lazy comparisons with Tony Blair.
The two have little in common. Lula's "third way" involves a
genuine attempt to make the private sector see that its
interests lie with helping to address deep social problems.

Richard Adams

Anyone still nurturing images of Brazil as a country of dazzling carnivals, beaches and footballers will be in for a shock when the country's latest export is screened in British cinemas.

Carandiru, the tale of a bloody São Paulo prison revolt, was acclaimed by both critics at Cannes and the residents of Brazil's poverty-riddled favelas, with the film breaking box-office records in places where the price of a ticket is more than the average daily wage.

Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the newly elected president of Brazil, who grew up in the São Paulo slums, was moved to tears when he saw it. The movie is a stark portrait of the problems Lula faces as the country's first leftwing president for 40 years: the violence and poverty that sit alongside Brazil's wealth and beauty.

Since taking office in January, Lula has moved quickly and controversially to tackle Brazil's biggest problem: the enormous inequality among the country's 175 million population. The gap between rich and poor is one of the widest in the world, according to UN figures, surpassed only by Swaziland and Nicaragua.

Lula's answer has been to launch the ambitious Fome Zero (zero hunger) programme, a crusade by the federal government to bring regular supplies of food and aid to at least 15 million people in the very poorest communities, funded by a combination of private sector partnership, international support and government contributions. Lula's government even put off buying fighter jets to divert funds to it.

Lula's actions are remarkable in an age when the public fully expects politicians to renege on election promises. Given the near economic collapse Brazil recently faced, the new administration could have had easy excuses for delaying the programme. Instead, in his inauguration speech, Lula underlined his commitment to Fome Zero: "If, by the end of my term of office, every Brazilian has food to eat three times a day, I shall have fulfilled my mission in life."

The inspiration for the scheme came from José Graziano, a former agriculture professor appointed by Lula as minister in charge of Fome Zero and its associated social programmes. Graziano's argument was that while Brazil didn't suffer from famine in the manner of Ethiopia, it did suffer from weaknesses in infrastructure and distribution, a consequence of the country's severe inequalities, with most of the poor living in the rural north-east of the country.

The previous administration had established a successful social protection network, aimed at encouraging access to education. The incoming administration quietly set about adapting many of those policies to put Fome Zero into action. To reach the rural poor, Graziano's ministry has attempted to bypass entrenched local politicians to create an alternative distribution network.

Late May, the programme began using credit card-style food cards in nearly 200 areas in the north and north-east, with each family receiving a monthly 50 reais (US$ 16) credit. By October, Fome Zero will be on course to reach up to 1.5 million people.

Since the project was first launched at the end of January, Lula's administration has received surprisingly warm support from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund—institutions that only a few years ago would have been hostile.

The new government has been lucky in one respect: the economic tidal wave that has threatened to engulf Argentina and then Brazil within the past two years has forced the World Bank and IMF to take a softer approach compared with the enforced free-market reforms, known as the Washington consensus, which were in vogue during the 80s and 90s.

Both the IMF and World Bank have been heartened by the new administration's agreement to stick to earlier economic reforms, which it has advanced with the establishment of an independent central bank and its decision to tackle Brazil's perilous debt position and bloated state pension provisions.

The result has been a queue of senior officials from the IMF praising the new administration's mix of prudent fiscal policies and leftwing social platforms, while the World Bank has lent $500m towards social programmes. The bank's director for Brazil, Vinod Thomas, even mused in a Brazilian newspaper: "What does the post-Washington consensus mean in practice? It could be Lula's programme."

That possibility has moved a step closer, with Lula's invitation to address the G8 summit in Evian, where he presented a plan to use Fome Zero as the blueprint for an international zero-hunger fund—managed by a multilateral body and funded by wealthy nations making contributions in proportion to their military spending.

Lula's transformation, from radical socialist to international statesman, has drawn lazy comparisons with Tony Blair; Time magazine has dubbed him "Brazil's Blair". There are some parallels, but in reality the two have little in common. Lula's "third way" involves a genuine attempt to make the private sector see that its interests lie with helping to address deep social problems.

While Blair's variety of third way involves the private sector taking over public resources, Lula's flavour sees major companies giving resources. Brazil's largest supermarket chain is assisting with distribution, while multinationals such as Unilever have pledged to donate food. Ford is giving around 200 tonnes of food, linked to sales of its trucks. "I won't sell any more trucks because of this campaign," Ford's Brazil director has said, "but it's certainly good for brand image." Lula and his government have made it clear that donations to Fome Zero influence them much more than contributions to party funds.


Richard Adams writes for the British daily The Guardian. You can write him at richard.adams@guardian.co.uk  

Copyright: Guardian Newspapers Ltd 2003. The original article can be accessed here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0,3604,966709,00.html


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