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Brazzil - People - September 2003

Brazil: Zero Hunger Is Dead, Long Live Zero Hunger

A revamped and unified social assistance program to be soon
launched in Brazil intends to reach in a first stage 4 million of
the poorest families in the country. Lula believes that such
an integration of agencies will be revolutionary cutting
much of the red tape involved and saving lots of money.

Elma-Lia Nascimento


Lula has a very important meeting this Tuesday. After a dizzying week in which he went to New York for the opening speech of UN's 58th General Assembly and meetings with European leaders and President Bush— with stop bys at Mexico City and Havana—the Brazilian President will be talking to the 27 Brazilian state governors about his plans for what he is calling a "revolution" in the social area.

The faltering Zero Hunger program will undergo a complete overhaul. Lula is also studying the possibility of extinguishing some ministries linked to social programs. The Food Safety Ministry, led by José Graziano da Silva, which is in charge of Zero Hunger, would be one of them. The trademark Zero Hunger (Fome Zero) program, however, thanks to its strength as a national and international marketing took will continue to be used.

In the new model, MESA (Ministério Extraordinário de Segurança Alimentar—Food Safety Extraordinary Ministry) becomes less important. The 2004 budget reduces the resources given that office from R$ 1.7 billion (US$ 600 million) this year to R$ 400 million (US$ 133 million). The President, according to the Brazilian media is not happy with Graziano or Benedita da Silva, the minister for Assistance and Social Promotion. Both are expected to be fired in the coming weeks.

The Lula Administration had announced previously its intention of unifying all the government social programs by mid-September. The launching of the plan—which had already a massive marketing campaign waiting in the wings—was postponed and the encounter with the governors is an effort to find out the best way to implement this integration. Many observers believe that such a strategic retreat gives the program a chance of not becoming a new Zero Hunger, which has been launched with lots of fanfare, but has showed very little for itself up to now.

The governors will be invited to say how their states can participate in the plan. The federal government seems intent in pleasing governors since the administration needs their help in Congress to pass legislation for the fiscal and pension reforms. According to André Singer, the President's spokesman, "The President decided that the new program, which intends to increase the fight against poverty in the country, could benefit from a bigger cooperation of the states. For that, the consultation period to governors and mayors has been extended, in order that they can have a better knowledge of the project."

Poorest of Poor

The goal of the revamped and unified program is to reach in a first stage 4 million of the poorest families in the country, a little more than half of the 7.3 million families enrolled by the end of July at Caixa Econômica Federal, the federal savings bank.

Today there are five agencies in charge of the distribution of money to the needy: Bolsa-Escola (School Scholarship), Bolsa-Alimentação (Food Coupon), Cartão Alimentação (Food-Card) and Vale-Gás (Cooking Gas Coupon) and PETI (Programa de Erradicação do Trabalho Infantil—Child Labor Eradication Program) and Agente Jovem, for youngster 15 or younger. All these programs together should cost US$ 2 billion to the federal government this year. They will be unified under the name Bolsa Família (Family Coupon).

Lula believes that such an integration of agencies will be revolutionary because would cut much of the red tape involved and would also save a lot of money with the deactivation of unneeded services. The programs will be tailor made to the needs of every specific family. According to the needs of each family, they will get a magnetic card with values between 50 and 95 reais (17 to 32 dollars).

In a first phase, the program will benefit only the poorest of the poor, or those families who make below 50 reais (17 dollars) a month. Close to 30 million Brazilians have already been enrolled by Caixa Econômica Federal (Federal Savings Bank), the state-owned bank in charge of the program. Information and forms for the program can be accessed in the Internet at www.caixa.gov.br.

The Lula administration understands the danger of too many agencies involved. The government plan states: "The strategy for social inclusion should avoid the overlapping of programs, which pulverize public resources, cause disputes between institutions and fragment action, making them less effective."

For São Paulo's PUC (Pontifical Catholic University) professor, sociologist Luiz Eduardo Wanderley, Lula's government can't be labeled either popular or populist. "Trying to solve the hunger problem with the mere distribution of food is a populist measure. But if this action is only the first stage to be followed by other more profound measure, then this administration will be, in a good sense, popular."

Wanderley criticizes the way Lula chose his cabinet: "In order to attend political interests Lula didn't choose the best people for each ministry. Each minister wants to defend his territory and there is no dialogue between them. While the proposal to create a sole national register listing all the needy people and to concentrate measures in a sole ministry is fundamental, such a change is impossible with the present cabinet members."

Brazil has today 53 million people under the line of poverty. A survey by Ipsos-Marplan shows that the situation is getting worse fast for the Brazilian middle class as well. The middle class represents today 17 percent of Brazil's population. From 1997 to 2002, middle class families lost 30 percent of their purchasing power. Half of this loss happened last year.




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