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Brazzil - Poverty - September 2003
 

Dissecting Brazil's Zero Hunger

In Brazil, a country of abundance, the existence of mass hunger
is a fact to which few of Brazil's urban middle classes have assented.
Brazil is the fourth largest food exporter in the world. Yet as Minister
of Food Safety, José Graziano da Silva states "Nearly a third of the
Brazilian population is in a situation of food insecurity."

Norman Madarasz

 

There may be but one name as connected as the President's to the federal government's flagship Fome Zero—Zero-Hunger program, that of Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo. Universally known as Frei Betto, the liberation theologist and President's senior advisor came to prominence as one of Brazil's leading intellectuals during the later years of the military dictatorship (1964-1988). Since January 1, he is coordinator, alongside Oded Grajew, of the Zero Hunger Program's `Social Mobilization' task force.

Few intellectuals are up to the moral task of this program. As with most of Lula's policies it struggles to exit the parameters of political promise. Given that the former union leader turned president matched wits with the country's premier spin guru, Duda Mendonça, set-backs to this effort can hardly be surprising. Then again, that was campaigning. The time now is to govern.

Endowed with one of the clearest and most erudite expository styles in Lula's intellectually rich government, Frei Betto speaks a language of results. The problem he poses reignites the old theory vs. praxis dilemma. Yet for all his analytical brilliance and morally persuasive power, the question remains whether the Dominican friar is able to translate ought into is.

Philosophically, the program would be of the highest experimental interest were millions of lives not at stake. This factor only raises the science of thought to the most committed tier of social responsibility, for the land of abundance known as Brazil is plagued not only by endemic poverty, but by under- and malnourishment. In Betto's view, the road to tackling poverty is fraught with the milestones of hunger.

Results

On July 30, Frei Betto was in São Paulo, Brazil's financial and industrial capital. The attendance awaited an update on Guaribas, Piauí state, a town of 5000 and among the country's most impoverished. One of the first localities to receive resources linked to Zero Hunger, Guaribas is a test case. Betto's news was encouraging: "The index of child mortality last January was 59.9 per thousand births. Since April not one child has died."

The message also brought a special focus to successful administration. Criticism raised by skeptics of the Workers Party (PT) has continued to bear down on the lack of administrative know-how among party bureaucrats. As opposed to the countless moral arguments he has penned for most of the country's newspapers, the Friar was there to speak facts.

"The city's first market is being built, and families of Guaribas that used to live in the Piratininga favela, in Osasco (São Paulo state), are returning to Piauí." Those who had taken the risk out of desperation to resettle in the teeming slums of the world's second largest city were now choosing to return to a rural community. Like so many others of its kind, the town had been left to wither and waste.

As localized and minute an accomplishment as it is, the news projected its weight in scale. The prospect and size of the change to be carried out in Brazil is daunting. As a first step, the Guaribas pilot project bears out the reason for Betto's optimistic conference. The town resembles others to which Lula brought his entire cabinet for a brusque baptism on the heels of last January's inauguration was standing again. Guaribas had not become affluent overnight from government handouts. Nor did it prove a singular exception compared with the country's currently dire productivity rates, some of the lowest in South America below even Colombia's.

It did something far more important in Betto's eyes: from unfound energy its residents were brought to strength. The next step was theirs to make—under guidance from state social workers. The aim of the program is to have the needy begin using credit card-style food cards in nearly 200 areas in the impoverished North and drought-stricken Northeast states. Each family is to receive a monthly 50 reais (US$ 18) credit. If bureaucrats and social workers prove to be effective administrators, Zero Hunger should be on course to reach up to 1.5 million people by October.

The policy's managerial approach shares little with Northern center-left social management techniques. Those usually involve wholesale transferring of public resources to an often deregulated private sector. Frei Betto's lectures are the nearest form of philosophical lobbying in existence. Through them, he has sought to compel major companies to give resources directly to the program.

This is the so-called Anti-Hunger Mutirão, the community-based collective campaign. And the term is anything but surprising. Wherever change is to be structurally brought about for the greater egalitarian good, it is done so by means of "collective campaigns". The blessed `individual', his freedom and her property, is worth little in this task.

On the administrative side, Minister José Graziano da Silva oversees the financial coherence of the program at the Special Ministry of Food Security and the Hunger Combat. He is seconded by Brazil's largest supermarket chain in helping with distribution. In addition, Ford Brazil has pledged 200 tons of food. Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, Latin America's largest mining firm, is matching every ton of nonperishable goods donated by its employees with another ton, and has released funds for direct investment. This is a bare minimum to be expected from a company privileged with total tax exemption. As for the merchant banks, one's hard pressed to spot a single one on the list.

If the whole purpose of Zero Hunger is to transform charity into policy, even the notion of party contributions has taken a spin. Funding the political Party should now be done by supporting its social programs directly.

Zero Hunger leaves the realm of charity precisely at the point where related various tasks converge into a hub. The big questions, namely endemic poverty and rampant inequality, are being bypassed as if ruffling shirt collars were to take second place to running surer concessions. Case in point: the town of Guaribas collated 160 tons of those famed Brazilian beans.

Instead of individual farmers searching out middlemen whose ultimate end is to smash prices by trickster practices on ill-prepared peasants, the community organized as a collective. Local decisions were made by a supervisory committee composed of nine representatives of society—and this democratic supplement is to become the standard throughout the program. By then holding auctions, Betto reported on how a sac of beans usually selling at R$ 22 rose to between R$ 50 and R$ 70.

If the policy is not immediately focusing on poverty per se, whom does it deem to be the neediest? Camps of landless families, indigenous communities, members of Afro-Brazilian quilombo communities, and eventually moving toward urban conglomerations: favelas. Despite complaints from the opposition, the government fully intends to use the network of charity organizations already active in municipalities. Above all, the program's objectives are to diminish the very need to distribute food. Betto: "Most important is to promote income, jobs, and hoist up self-esteem and the citizenry."

This is why the conjunction of tasks also opens onto a policy crossroads. Slashing away at illiteracy is the project's crowning part and parcel. Betto recounts how "in Acauã, Piauí, another pilot town, a 73-year-old woman, who learned to read in three months, told the food welfare agent: `I want to go to the rural union to change my pensioner's ID.' He didn't understand why. She explained: `The one I have uses my fingerprint. I want it to have my signature.'"

Policy Knotted to Bureaucracy

In this country of abundance, the existence of mass hunger is a fact to which few of Brazil's urban middle classes have assented. Brazil is the fourth largest food exporter in the world. Yet as Minister Graziano states in the opening pages of the government's official Zero Hunger brochure, "Today, nearly a third of the Brazilian population is in a situation of `food insecurity', meaning that they do not eat well or well enough, with regularity or dignity."

Charity has been a feature of successive governments, while in some parts of the backlands conditions of servitude hark back to previous centuries. Born into dire poverty in Pernambuco state, Lula's devotion to the program is practiced with poignancy. On inauguration day he introduced Zero Hunger twice, first after being handed the presidential sash, and then upon accepting the presidency at the National Congress.

Both occasions led him in a tearful, moving commitment to bolster his ambition to eradicate hunger in this country. "If by the end of my mandate, all Brazilians are able to have a daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, I will have accomplished my life's mission." The message was repeated in Porto Alegre and Davos a few weeks later, and on an international scale at the G7 summit in Athens.

Few moments compel mankind less to stand witness to destiny than the act of watching his next of kin suffer into death from hunger. Denial of one's moral responsibility toward the starving runs deep enough to make universal concern for hunger lie beyond debate. Not even a Wall Street speculator or preacher would dare in his deepest cynicism dismiss hunger as a godly affliction. Were they to accept hunger as a socially permitted ordering of nature, perhaps, just perhaps, would the faceless arrogance depicted by Brent Eastwood Ellis in American Psycho endow literature with flesh again.

Still, hunger has remained worthy of our society's greatest concerns not due to some profound sense of human solidarity. Hunger is but the negative terms by which financial success and domination prove triumphant over the elements. All humans potentially succumb to them, but no victory is greater in its epic self-representation than the one recognizing human beings as having to be conquered as well—just so the few may survive and prosper.

As they watch the world's richest nation spend US$ 1 billion a week on an imperial war, economic sharp-shooters can go on crying wolf about the misunderstood intentions of globalization. Hunger as government policy? Why that's nothing but handouts, social `assistance' programs, socialism. Hunger cannot be solved. No virus, HIV or SARS, no bacterial disease, malaria or pneumonia, kills more year after year, despite technological expansion, than hunger and malnutrition. Yet patents on filling stomachs are not going to be debated at the WTO Cancun meeting on `TRIPS'. It's just a given that the economic philosophy on which capitalism is built produces concentrated riches from scarcity, fostering gourmets at the expense of the undernourished.

Deep structural change might alter the stakes for Brazil's government, making it far less glorious in the eyes of the IMF. This is mainly why the government is trying to postpone what will be stirred up irregardless of its long term vision. Frei Betto has kept reminding Brazilians that "first of all, we won an election. We did not wage a revolution. This must be made clear."

In so doing, he offers the population a measure of the task lying ahead, and the options to be chosen. Failing administrative competence, how else, then, is it possible to think or talk of eradicating hunger if not in the words of revolution? For despite the alliteration, charity has never rhymed with Che.

Turning Ahead

The 20th century saw the emergence of charity organizations striving, at best, to alleviate the discrepancies between society's rare privileged few, and the countless poor. The social democratic turn of republican capitalism propelled poverty into the abode of power politics. It became a force to compel leaders, once the age of the senseless butchery of peasant revolts had seemingly passed.

The United Nations Organization grew increasingly into a mission to help displaced and disenfranchised masses endure the pain of warfare. Meanwhile, a handful of national leaders were now starting to emerge from social tiers that had long been deprived of the natural right to govern. Their acts sought to impede elites from merely reproducing at the citizen's expense, and they often paid for the toil with their lives.

In the background lies France's 19th century of class warfare revolutions, and Russia's brighter days of October 1917. The revolt of the exploited would soon be spreading to independence wars, in the lands of fragmented empires from the guts of which nation states were carved, by overthrowing the brutal colonial occupation and exploitation imposed unto them by European powers.

Eradicating poverty, to say nothing of hunger, may not have been the main goal of Marxist-inspired revolutions. Their focus lay more on decreasing the abusive conditions of industrial labor—shortening the work week, increasing salaries, allowing trade union representation, imposing a minimum age to curb child labor, securing health care and job security policies and, finally, allowing women to enter the work force and remain there.

Are these features of labor any different from those we still struggle to keep in the English-speaking world, despite the threat to which executives, boards and managers are inclined to put them? The very possibility of carrying on with such ideas is a privilege that has been conquered through struggle. How quickly has it drifted into the present's oblivion that the slavery of African Americans, servitude of Eastern Europeans, and damnation of India's untouchables and the economies they respectively afforded had barely been challenged prior to the 1848 year of revolutions.

Marxist concerns and Fordist low-end egalitarianism were models adopted in the age of jobs aplenty. Something like full employment in the Soviet Union and its satellite countries was enabled, at least in principle, by the vacuum left from the slaughtered millions in Europe's internal and intercontinental imperial wars. By then, state Marxism had already seen its day.

By asking history for some time to teach, we may realize soon enough that the shift from coordinated charity to a hub-constituted national policy of eradicating hunger, expressed in terms of national security, has never been attempted outside of revolutionary rhetoric. Brazil's Zero Hunger—one part political marketing to three parts of the deepest national commitment—has used all of the resources of social democratic patter to raise itself.

In a knot intertwining Marxism with Christendom, Frei Betto's liberation theology recalls Thomas Aquinas's principle: "One cannot expect the practice of virtue from a hungry man." An aftertaste remains as we keep wondering whether eradicating hunger is the most important springboard to repairing social illness, especially at a time when Brazil's economy is all but thriving.

Behind the Good Intentions Lies Anger

Frei Betto's strategy has aimed at having every step of the program be assimilative. Preserved from a structural make over, the word poverty has not prompted the moneyed tiers to stop cooperating. Corporations, investment banks, and latifúndio owners are the collective objects of Betto's priming. As President Lula repeated in a speech given at the headquarters of Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, on September 2, "an idea has been created in Brazil that the State is capable of everything. We want to prove that the State is able to do far less than people imagine, but that its power to induce is so great that if the policy of involving society is done correctly, I have absolutely no doubt we'll succeed in making a miracle of finishing up with hunger in this country."

Brazilians voted for political reform on a vast scale. Although the former government was also reformist, Fernando Henrique Cardoso attempted to reform Brazil by implementing the neoliberal economic policies of privatizing public assets and deregulating markets. When his social reforms failed to achieve a consensus in his fragile coalition government, he turned his charm to provisional decrees. Until now, Lula's government has pitted his leadership on avoiding this measure of last resort.

Cardoso also focused on opening money markets to capital flow in an attempt to undermine the dominance of Brazil's land-owning oligarchy. The latter had most benefited from the decades of military dictatorship. Though at first his policies brought prosperity back to what has been Latin American's largest middle class, they did so at the expense of dramatically increasing the public external debt, now at 54 percent of GDP (after having been cut by the present government from 60 percent). The cost of victoriously curbing spiraling inflation had depleted the national reserves and produced an economy ground down into stagnation. In this year's budget alone, Brazil will be paying for 52 Fome Zero programs in servicing its public debt alone.

Simply put, Cardoso's dollar-pegged, reformed currency worked on a trade-off. It sold away the national wealth in exchange for the promise of a surplus in foreign direct investment. But when the same promise was being given worldwide—the principle of globalization—not all financial exposure could be assumed in a global economic system where value is acquired from scarcity.

When the time came for refunding creditors, ever higher interest rates could not keep their money within country. The cycle closed in another turn of the spiral. But the main reason that the government had to borrow from the IMF in the first place was to cover the amount of capital flight exported by the country's own oligarchy.

Brazilians have had to pay a high price for their PT government. Since the election campaign thrust into full swing in August 2002, the average wealth of Brazilians has tumbled by 16 percent. The Central Bank administers one of the highest prime interest rates worldwide, notwithstanding its recent reduction from 26.5 percent to 22 percent. And unemployment is the highest in 20 years. For all but the country's biggest companies, 2002 was a year to forget. The ghost of the 1980s, dubbed by economists as Latin America's "forgotten decade", is bursting from a whimper.

As a hub, Zero Hunger aims to parlay several social programs into a pulsating web of interaction. One of the key sectors being solicited in this campaign is energy. The Financial Times recently profiled Brazil's dynamic Energy Minister, Dilma Rousseff, a former guerilla fighter, against the dictatorship. She now seeks partnership between the state and private sectors to bring power to an estimated 13 million homes in the country's poorest regions. She is joined by the head of Brazil's federal power company, Dr. Pinguelli-Rosa, who refers to this campaign as `Zero Outage', inserting it clearly into the government's overall plan.

Yet critics point out that the government's input to the energy sector has done little thus far to change from previous policies. The most important program, Luz no Campo (Light in the Countryside), has aimed for years to fulfill what Ms Rousseff spoke of as her most heartfelt vision. On the other hand, the current staff has halted the privatization plan of the energy generation sector in a bid to transform the basis on which foreign energy firms may invest in Brazil—and the criteria by which they can borrow money from Brazil's government to do so.

The Strangest of Crusaders

Urubu Camelô, a recently produced 13-minute independent video (by Gerheim, Oliveira, Abujamra and Sant'Anna), traces the life of a superhero doll street vendor into the infernal hell of homelessness and hunger. In a last resort to keep from starving, Camelô seeks out one of the city's gigantic garbage dumps. There he is joined by the wretched of the earth, who stand even below pigs and buzzards in nature's hierarchy. For these animals are allowed by the dump keepers to their picking of food scrubs and waste prior to the humans themselves. As he eats the food until suffocating, the singular Camelô turns into the superhero Buzzard-Vendor. It's a moment when the most wasteful destiny of human kind is transfigured—but so deep is the horror that only the absurd can do it justice.

The Zero Hunger program looks down into the scandalous gulf afflicting all societies labored by concentration of wealth aided and abetted by deregulated `free' markets. For the 1.5 billion poor living below the international measure of US$ 1 a day, no good intentions can reverse a long legacy of attacking the peasantry. By hoisting the program to policy status, a new cycle of struggle may be emerging.

It is said that Brazilians are gifted with the highest degree of tolerance. For all the talk of solidarity, for all the cooperation and good will, it must continually be recalled that Zero Hunger is built not on the desperation linked to hunger, but on acts of anger fired toward what has permitted these circumstances to take flight in the first place.

Norman Madarasz, Ph.D. in philosophy from the Université de Paris, is a frequent contributor to Brazzil. He writes from Rio de Janeiro, and welcomes comments at nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca.

 









 
 
 







 



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