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Understanding Poverty in Brazil
Jul 24, 2013

We have become used to Brazil being the subject only of good news stories – renowned for peace (it last went to war in 1942 and has excellent relations with its neigbours), prosperity (only China and India have a better economic record over the last two decades) and political stability (since the end of military rule in the mid 1980s).  All of this is neatly captured in Brazil’s membership of the exclusive BRIC(S) club – along with Russia, India, China (and depending who you ask, South Africa) – as one of the most promising developing countries in the world.  More recently, Brazil’s progress is epitomised in its selection to host the 2014 World Cup as well as the 2016 Olympic Games.

So it came as some surprise to many observers when mass protests and riots broke out across the country in late June and early July of this year.  For those who wish to understand why this happened (and continues, albeit on a smaller scale) and why an NGO such as ChildFund operates in such an apparent utopia, we have made Brazil the subject of this instalment of Where We Work Wednesdays.

Whilst the riots were seemingly sparked by an increase in bus fares in Sao Paolo of just $0.09, underlying causes had been brewing for some time. Whilst Brazil does encapsulate the three P’s referenced above, it is also rife with the three I’s – of inequality, injustice and insecurity.  It would be wrong to say that Brazil’s economic boom has not helped the poorest in society; it has – particularly in the countryside – but in the cities, the contrast between the shimmering high-rise downtown offices and the sprawling, chaotic, overcrowded slums is staggering.

On our development education website, you can read about Anne and Kaylayne – two of the children we work with in Bello Horizonte city – one of the epicentres of the recent protests.  In both cases, the girls’ parents leave home for work very early in the morning and return very late at night.  Despite their long work hours, they earn about a quarter of the Irish minimum wage, but face a similar cost of living.  A minimum-wage worker who’s employer does not cover transport costs must spend around a fifth of their income just on public transport (hence the outcry over the increase, however small).  And recently, a spike in inflation has pushed up food and fuel prices, further squeezing low-income families.

Child Sponsorship in Brazil means that parents do not have to make the difficult choice between educational expenses and other essential household purchases.  Kaylayne’s sister, Sarah, remembers when they were sent a gift of money by their sponsor and were able to buy school clothes and shoes – which otherwise would be relegated below more essential expenses like food and fuel.

Injustice is visible in many forms – from the government’s decision to spend millions on elaborate stadiums for the upcoming sporting events while healthcare services remain insufficient and prohibitively expensive – to the complete failure of the legal system to tackle political corruption.  As an example, a recently proposed constitutional amendment would prevent state prosecutors from investigating politicians.

However, it is the issue of insecurity which is perhaps the most pressing.  Unlike in other countries where ChildFund works, many of the families we assist have access to facilities like electricity and running water.  However, life in the slums presents a different set of problems – especially the threat of crime.  Where Anne and Kaylayne live, it is dangerous children to be out on the streets.  And with their parents working such long hours, it makes community centres for children (such as the one funded by ChildFund Ireland) essential to keep them safe.  Crime is fuelled by the rampant drug trade, which has spawned violent gangs which go to war in the densely-populated slums for control of this lucrative market.  The law and justice systems have proven incapable of handling the situation – see this guest blog post for more details – and in fact it was police brutality in Sao Paolo against protesters that turned a local demonstration against transport costs into a national resistance movement.

This aspect of life for poor families in Brazil is not one faced by our partner communities in rural Africa, for example, and just goes to show that the effects of poverty are diverse and multi-dimensional, and cannot be captured in a simple statistical metric.  While Brazil has much to be proud of, it has a long way to go until its poor urban population can enjoy anything like a western standard of living.

For its part, ChildFund will continue to be there for children living in poverty, wherever they may be, and whatever form their deprivation takes.  We hope that you will too.

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