Magazine edition: 4-2012

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From the favela to the global stage: Natalie Samarasinghe on the lessons Brazil holds for development

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From the favela to the global stage: Natalie Samarasinghe on the lessons Brazil holds for development

The choice of Brazil as the venue of the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a natural one. After all, the country had hosted the landmark UN ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro 20 years previously. But the world’s fifth largest state also reflects the developmental and environmental challenges facing the world and offers plenty of lessons on how to tackle them.

In many ways, Brazil is a good marker for where we are as a planet. Travel through Brazil and the country switches back and forth from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’. Brazil’s wealthiest city, São Paulo, has a bigger GDP than Ireland while residents of Eldorado, a favela on the outskirts of the conurbation, have lower average incomes than people in Côte d’Ivoire. The richest 1% of Brazil’s population owns as much as the poorest half of the country – a similar distribution to that of the world. And the proportion of Brazilians living below the national poverty line (about a fifth) is roughly the same as the proportion of people worldwide living below the global poverty line of $1.25 a day.

While Brazil continues to struggle with inequality, it has, uniquely among the BRICS countries, managed to narrow the gap through growth. According to the Fundação Getulio Vargas, a higher education institute, the incomes of the poorest 50% have increased almost six times as quickly as those of the top 10% over the past decade. Between 1980 and 2011, life expectancy increased by 11 years and mean years of schooling by 4.6 years. Hunger has been cut by more than a third. José Graziano da Silva who ran Brazil’s Fome Zero (zero hunger) campaign now hopes to replicate this success globally as head of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Getting it right nationally

Brazil recently became the world’s sixth largest economy. It is not a poor country but it has a lot of poor people. Images of deprived favelas, with high levels of disease and crime, are intimately associated with the country. But although the term ‘favela’ is used interchangeably with ‘slum’ and ‘shanty town’, for the most part, they bear little resemblance to the sprawls of tin dwellings and mud huts found in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. For such scenes, one has to seek out Brazil’s rural poor.

After decades of neglect, life has improved in many favelas. Recent Brazilian governments have switched their policy from favela clearance to favela integration. In 2001, the federally-enacted City Statute affirmed the right to housing and the principle of urban development having social functions. It enabled municipalities to play a greater role in favela transformation through formal recognition of the settlements, and through the creation of ‘special social interest zones’ targeted for development. According to the 2012 census, nearly all favelas now have electricity and over 95% have refuse collections. More than 90% of residents are literate and just under that figure have access to water. (The proportion is still much lower for sanitation – see page 11 in New World, Autumn 2012.)

The statute also paved the way for formal land tenure by favelistas – a move with the potential to give millions of Brazilians a secure hold on what is often their most valuable asset. And security isn’t the only benefit. Those granted titles are able to use their address for a range of life-changing purposes, from opening a bank account to applying for jobs. They can get higher loans, and higher returns, on their property. Most importantly, they are recognised by and connected to their city. This year, Rio has issued some 10,000 land titles. It plans to issue another 40,000 over the next four years.

And then there is the Bolsa Familia, Brazil’s most celebrated social programme. The largest of its kind in the world, the ‘Bolsa Familia’ is a system of cash transfers that are conditional on education and health requirements. Poor households are given money in exchange for ensuring their children attend school and receive vaccinations, for example. A 2011 World Bank study showed that the programme has boosted vaccination rates by 12-15% and increased prenatal visits. Overall, seven- to 15-year-olds whose families receive the transfer are roughly 4% more likely to go to school and the figure is much higher among older pupils. A 15-year-old girl is 21% more likely to be in school if her family receives the Bolsa Familia.

These statistics have impressed policy-makers and development economists around the world. Itself a copy of Mexico’s ‘Progresa’ programme, the Bolsa Familia has been replicated in some 20 countries, including Chile, Indonesia and South Africa. Even rich countries are applying the concept. New York City’s ‘Opportunity NYC’ programme offers cash rewards for test scores and school attendance, including parents’ attendance at parentteacher meetings. Until recently, the UK provided ‘Education Maintenance Allowances’ – payments of up to £30 a week – to encourage low-income 16- to 19-year-olds to stay in education (the payments were stopped under the country’s fiscal tightening programme). Speaking at the opening of the UN General Assembly this year, President Dilma Rousseff presented Brazil as a case study for how to solve the global economic crisis without resorting to budget cuts. She called the choice between austerity and economic growth “a false dilemma”. But while Brazil’s progress does indeed offer lessons on how to get it right, it also offers plenty of lessons on how to do it better.

First, the potential side effects of policies need to be explored and, if necessary, mitigated. Favela improvements have led to gentrification. There has been an influx of lower-middle class residents keen to take advantage of the services and escape soaring real estate prices elsewhere. Tourists and investors are also increasingly drawn to the open vistas and possibilities of hillside favelas. For some residents, this has been a positive development. Those who are better off have been able to sell their properties and move on. But many now find themselves unable to afford to live in their own community.

Second, the means of delivery should be sustainable. Since 2008 police and military troops have been deployed to favelas in Rio to tackle the drug trade and violent crime. Special forces normally take control of an area, after which dedicated police ‘pacification units’ move in. These units are supposed to foster good relations with residents and embed themselves in community life. In many areas, the results have been astounding. But the programme puts a heavy strain on both human and financial resources, causing many to speculate how long it can continue. And in several favelas, it is an uneasy peace that prevails, one predicated on force and the impunity of the military.

Third, beneficiaries must be kept firmly in mind. As Brazil prepares for its turn in the limelight – in 2014 it will host the football World Cup, two years later the Olympic & Paralympic Games come to Rio – favela projects have been scaled up massively and, to some extent, residents’ wellbeing has been de-prioritised. Several favelas are being cleared for infrastructure projects. The government says these projects will benefit the communities and that residents will be rehoused in improved facilities. However, many favelistas have been left homeless as demolition began before their houses were completed. Some who have refused to relocate have reportedly been forced from their homes.

Fourth, national programmes must be adapted to local contexts. The Bolsa Familia has had a far greater impact in rural areas, where malnutrition has tumbled and the proportion of children in primary education has caught up with that of city children. In urban areas and favelas, where the value of the cash transfers is lower, the picture is more mixed. Some families earn more by sending their children to work and the programme has done little to reduce child labour rates. Others feel they are now worse off as the Bolsa Familia subsumed an array of existing benefits.

Jonathan Hannay, secretary-general of the Association for the Support of Children at Risk (ACER) in Eldorado, notes that under the old system households used to be able to get the equivalent of twice the minimum wage for a family of six. The average Bolsa Familia payment is roughly a fifth of minimum wage. There is also a wider issue: the programme targets only specific needs. School enrolment and attendance are prized above completion and achievement. Many children endlessly repeat years before dropping out. Just 42% complete high school. Those who do can find themselves with few job opportunities. Moreover, these needs may not represent the main barriers to development in a particular area where, say, violence might be the primary impediment.

Getting it right locally

The involvement of communities is crucial to addressing all of the above. Indeed, Brazil’s change in favela policy from clearance to conversion owes much to the efforts of favelistas, who began themselves the process of upgrading their communities whilst campaigning for support. ACER exemplifies this approach. The organisation was set up in 1993 to support vulnerable young people. After working with street children, ACER set up a community centre in Eldorado, one of the most violent and deprived areas of São Paulo, to prevent them from ending up on the streets in the first place. The philosophy is one of participation and empowerment: children and young people can succeed if they are given meaningful opportunities and the support that they (and their families) need. Moreover, they can become effective agents of social change, educating and inspiring their peers and communities.

The centre now works with over 150 families and 500 children through four core programmes: education and culture, social work, community development and supporting teenagers. It includes a computer room, a library (replete with Ruth, the librarian, who is keen to expand the centre’s reading group) and various spaces where children take part in sports, arts and music activities. Particular emphasis is placed on celebrating the African heritage that most of the centre’s children share, including capoeira, a martial art with music and dance elements that instructor Alexandre describes as an essential part of the Brazilian soul.

One of the key functions of the centre is supporting school attendance. Like in other deprived areas of the country, schools in the area run three separate shifts of pupils a day – the last ending late at night – to get the most out of the teachers, the buildings and materials. For many young children, this can result in being left alone for most of the day. For older children, going to school on a Friday night is not always the most attractive option. ACER provides care during the day as well as a range of programmes that encourage teenagers to go to school and make plans for the future. It also provides snacks. This is especially important during holiday periods, when children miss out on the full meal they receive at school.

Many of the teachers and support staff are drawn from the local area – some benefitted from the centre (or from ACER’s previous work) when they were at school. “ACER is my life”, one simply said. A raft of current pupils volunteer at the centre, providing them with valuable work experience that is hard to find in Eldorado. They are given careers support and help with applications. They clearly love what they do and come to work to hang out with friends.

Others have come from outside. Luiz and Rafael, two social workers from more affluent areas of São Paulo, came to ACER out of a compulsion to help those who, by pure chance, were born in the wrong part of town. But they believe things are – slowly – getting better, not least due to the centre. While they do not dismiss the impact of the Bolsa Familia, they think it is inadequate, describing their ongoing struggle to change attitudes towards child labour. They feel ACER’s approach of immersion into the local community has had more of an effect in this regard. The centre’s work has also been credited with contributing to the reduction in violence in recent years. (The only time your correspondent felt even slightly apprehensive in Eldorado was during a somewhat chaotic car journey with one of ACER’s volunteers, a 19-year-old boy racer from France.)

But ACER’s success demonstrates that however proactive they are, communities need assistance and not always the assistance that decision-makers prioritise. In Eldorado, like elsewhere, there is much excitement at the thought of Brazil winning the World Cup at home. But there is also great scepticism as to whether the proposed regeneration and infrastructure projects will make a difference. “A few weeks of fun and then back to reality”, said Alexandre, before returning to happier football reveries.

What really did make a difference in Eldorado was the opening of its first bank. In 2009, Bradesco, one of Brazil’s largest banks, set up a branch. “It took 17 years”, Hannay said in an interview with The Economist. “We got 5,000 petitions to open the branch, and 75 businesses promised to keep their money in the bank.” In the past, residents had to travel to neighbouring Diadema to pay their bills or transfer money. After the bank came shops and restaurants. Commerce had arrived.

Getting it right globally

Perhaps the key lesson, then, is the importance of fully consulting and integrating communities into the design and delivery of programmes. This is not just a lesson for Brazil but for the international community which is currently working on setting global sustainable development goals and figuring out what should follow the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the UN’s anti-poverty initiative which is due to expire in 2015.

Like Brazil’s Bolsa Familia, the MDGs have facilitated great successes in tackling extreme poverty but progress has been uneven. Like the Bolsa, they have been criticised for putting quantitative outcomes ahead of qualitative ones, and for neglecting important issues (e.g. focusing on infectious but not other diseases, which kill more people). And like the Bolsa, many have questioned the largely top-down methods of conceiving and implementing the MDGs.

Whilst there is great merit in devising broad, simple goals that are easy to communicate, the priorities within them must be set at the local level. At the Rio+20 summit, NGO and community leaders stood up time and again to say that the single most important factor for development, sustainable or otherwise, was partnership-working, not just with developing-country governments but at the community level, with those who know what the biggest obstacles are to progress and how to remove them.

This is deceptively simple. Brazil, which has comparatively progressive laws about consultations, attracted some unwanted attention during the summit when thousands took to the streets to protest the construction of the Belo Monte dam. The dam is the world’s biggest new hydro-electric project and an important part of Brazil’s strategy to reduce its dependency on fossil fuels and lower its emissions by 36% by 2020 – a far more ambitious target than the EU’s. Brazil’s population should, on the face of it, support the project. According to a survey carried out by Pew in 2010, a full 95% of Brazilians said that climate change is a serious problem, with 85% believing it to be ‘very serious’ (the figure for India was 62%, for Russia 43%, for China 41% and for the US, 37%). However, the construction will flood an area of around 500 km2, destroying forests and forcing at least 16,000 people, if not significantly more, to relocate. Indigenous groups claim their way of life is being destroyed. In August 2012, a federal appeals court halted construction, urging proper consultation.

Balancing competing interests will not be easy, whether they are between sustainable and economic development, or between national governments and local communities. The UN’s decision to facilitate (and, crucially, to fund) inclusive national consultations on the post-MDGs framework in 50 developing countries is a good start. But a much more creative and flexible approach will be needed to ensure that whatever goals are agreed, they can be moulded into the right ones for vulnerable communities around the world. Can it be done? Again, we can look to the Brazilians for a lesson, this time in optimism. A recent poll by the International Trade Union Confederation found that 69% of Brazilians believe they are heading in the right direction – the highest percentage in the world.

In June 2012, Natalie Samarasinghe represented UNA-UK at the ‘Rio+20’ conference on sustainable development and took the opportunity to explore the country more widely. She would like to express her gratitude to the staff and volunteers at ACER who hosted her and gave so generously of their time and their views.

(Photo: social workers Luiz Cesar Madueira and Rafael Pelvini)

The Children at Risk Foundation, known by the acronym ACER in Brazil, was founded in 1993 to offer an alternative way of life to vulnerable children and young people living on the streets of São Paulo. In 2003, ACER established a community centre in Eldorado, one of the city’s most violent suburbs, to promote education and culture, social work and community development. Since then, the centre has worked with hundreds of local children and youths, and the area’s crime rate has decreased significantly, thanks in large part to its work. To find out more about the project and how to support it, visit

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