Not taken for granted: Brazil celebrates Bolsa Familia

Wyre Davies
Rio de Janeiro correspondent

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image captionThe Bolsa Family funds are channelled through the mothers of poor families

The Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, has a lot on her plate these days; a faltering economy, weekly protests (that often turn into riots) by a plethora of groups unhappy with current government polices and concerns what effect all of the above might have when Brazil hosts the Fifa World Cup next year and the Olympic Games in 2016.

But on Wednesday Ms Rousseff, her predecessor as president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and other senior administration figures from the past decade will take time out to pat themselves on the back and celebrate a job well done.

That's because Bolsa Familia is 10 years old.

Roughly translated as "Family Allowance", Bolsa Familia is an ambitious cash-transfer scheme.

Its lofty aim: to elevate millions of Brazilians out of poverty and help to put Brazil on course to become a developed, rather than developing, country.

The scheme was launched nationwide by President Lula's administration in 2003 but had existed in various smaller guises across the country since the 1990s.

Such is the almost universal acclaim with which Bolsa Familia is regarded in Brazil today that various political figures lay claim to being the scheme's original "inventor".

"No one politician or party is gaining from Bolsa Familia," says Tereza Campello, the government minister for social development and combating poverty.

"It is in all 5,570 municipalities, no matter who the local party or politicians are. If you're poor, you qualify," she says.

Mother's role

Bolsa Familia is much more than a government handout and it works roughly like this.

Funds are nearly always channelled through the mothers of poor and working-class families, most often in the thousands of favelas or shantytowns that skirt the fringes of Brazil's main cities.

They are mothers like Ana Cristina, whom I met earlier this year in Rio de Janeiro's Cidade de Deus favela.

image captionAna Cristina is one of many who has benefited from Bolsa Familia

She gets about $140 (£100) per month to buy food for her family. But the money is conditional on her children attending school, making sure they get adequate healthcare and an undertaking that they are properly fed.

Ana Cristina and every other Bolsa Familia recipient has her own personal ID card, which she uses to withdraw the money from a state-run bank.

Apart from allowing the government to regulate and keep tabs on the scheme, this helps to identify any extra needs or assistance the family may be entitled to.

Brazil has already surpassed the UN's Millennium Development Goal of reducing the number of child deaths by 73%; indeed the government claims that people of all ages now benefit from what amounts to a nutritional revolution.

Meal a day

A nearby community kitchen serves up healthy square meals three times a day for less than $1 (60p). Queues form around the block, not just here in the big city but at thousands of other such establishments across the country.

media captionWyre Davies has been to Rio de Janeiro to find out what is being done there to tackle poverty and hunger

The scheme is now thought to cover as many as 50 million Brazilians in a country which still has a large proportion of its population living in poverty, and where subsidising the basic needs of so many people is not cheap.

There are critical voices that say giving people handouts, in effect keeping them dependent on welfare, doesn't encourage self-sufficiency and is a significant burden on state funds.

Others maintain it discourages recipients from actively seeking work.

But campaigners say Bolsa Familia is remarkably cost-effective and accounts for less than 0.5% of GDP.

The basic principles behind Bolsa Familia is simple and has been lauded as a contributory factor in Brazil's impressive economic growth as well as improving social indicators: Better-fed, healthy people are less of a burden on society and, with time, contribute more to a country's well being.

Putting the emphasis on women in the family and empowering them to take responsibility over key decisions has been a masterstroke.

That element, in particular, has been proven to be the best way of ensuring that children from poorer backgrounds get the best opportunity possible to grow and develop.


In addition, by being able to identify and follow individual members of the scheme, the future needs of those individuals can be tracked and addressed.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe programme's aim is to give poor children a better start in life

Ms Campello says that while many recipients of the Bolsa Familia do have jobs, "they are not always the best jobs... and they have little job security".

Through an add-on programme that gives Bolsa Familia recipients professional training, the plan is to make these people more employable.

"So far we have trained 800,000 people. These are individuals with little schooling and these courses help them upgrade their opportunities,' says Ms Campello.

After 10 years, Bolsa Familia is becoming a well-established part of Brazilian society and politics.

Not dissimilar to the National Health Service in the United Kingdom, there are passionate debates in Brazil about the future direction, cost and management of Bolsa Familia.

But there's very little dissent here about its prominent role in Brazilian society and its effectiveness at helping people out of poverty.

Indeed the rest of the world, particularly developing countries in Africa, are increasingly looking to Brazil and asking how they can make such schemes work for them.

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