Expanding nursery provision, improving educational standards and providing more vocational training to adults will be at the heart of Brazil’s efforts to fight poverty and inequality over the next few years, according to the country’s social development minister.
While she trumpeted the successes of the bolsa familia poverty-relief programme – the cash handout given to almost a quarter of Brazilian families on condition that their children go to school and get vaccinated – Tereza Campello insisted that the country still had a long way to go in creating a fairer and more prosperous society.
Introduced in 2003 by the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the bolsa familia is estimated to have kept 36m families out of extreme poverty and to have been responsible for a dramatic drop in infant mortality, with 0-5 deaths from diarrhoea falling by 46% and deaths from malnutrition down by 58%.
But, said Campello, the programme was not solely responsible for the country’s socio-economic progress: between 2002 and 2013, the poorest 20% of Brazilians saw their incomes rise by 6.2%, while those in the top 20% saw a rise of only 2.6%.
“Everybody thinks it’s because of bolsa familia, but that’s not the case,” said Campello. “Bolsa familia is a small contributor to that, but we’ve also had a 72% growth in the minimum wage – above the rate of inflation – and an increase in employment of 20.8m formal jobs.”
The minister, whose Workers party (PT) squeaked to victory in October’s elections, stressed that education would remain the primary focus of President Dilma Rousseff’s anti-poverty strategies.
“Our poor children don’t have sufficient access to pre-school education,” she said. “We want to ensure that by 2016, all children from 4-6 go to school, and we are starting to expand nursery provision for 0-3 year olds. It’s particularly important in Brazil because when a child is in school, they are being stimulated and getting free school meals. It also allows the mother or the father to go to work. If you’re a really poor family with small children, it’s very limiting and one of the parents has to lose out.”
Of equal importance, said Campello, was raising educational standards by improving teacher training, building libraries and laboratories – and by ensuring that children spend a full day in school.
“We’ve made great efforts to have a full and integral school day,” she said. “Getting poorer children to stay at school all day is vital: not only do they get free meals; it also means they can be kept away from violence and criminality. We need to expand school provision, but we have a physical limitation as there are 260,000 schools in Brazil - we’re not talking about a small country.”
Campello, who was in London to give a talk on Brazil’s efforts to tackle extreme poverty, said the social and economic inclusion of adults was also “absolutely vital”.
Despite an unemployment rate of 4.9%, she added, the country had a serious shortage of skilled workers in the tourism and hospitality industries. “One of the main things is expanding adult opportunities in vocational qualifications,” she said. “A significant proportion of the population already works in those sectors, but we need to improve their skills. Training the poorest people would be an opportunity for both them and for Brazil as a whole.”
Campello rejected suggestions that the close election result reflected a lack of confidence in her party and its efforts to reduce inequality.
“We’re not taking it easy or saying that everything has been done: we still have a lot of work ahead of us,” she said. “Brazil was one of the most unequal countries in the world and you can’t end 500 years of exclusion in 12 years. We’ve made far more progress than at any other point in our history – but we still have a lot to do.”