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From Fome Zero to Bolsa Família: Social Policies and Poverty Alleviation under Lula

  • DOI:
  • Published online: 24 October 2006

Under the administrations of Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995–2002) and especially President Lula (2003–), conditional cash transfer (CCT) programmes have become adopted as mainstream social policy in Brazil. This follows a marked trend since the 1990s in Latin America towards the setting up of targeted safety nets to alleviate poverty. Lula consolidated and expanded CCTs, firstly under Fome Zero and later Bolsa Família, now the largest such scheme in the world. Its four sub-programmes (educational stipends to boost school attendance, maternal nutrition, food supplements and a domestic gas subsidy) benefit some 30 million of Brazil's poorest people, with a target of 44 million by 2006. Since 2003, spending on Bolsa Família has risen significantly to consume over one-third of the social assistance budget for the poorest sectors and it remained a flagship policy in the run-up to the presidential elections of October 2006. Although coverage of Bolsa Família is impressive, however, systematic evaluation of its social and economic impacts is still lacking. Evidence from other CCT programmes in Latin America suggests that positive results may be achieved in terms of meeting some immediate needs of the poor. However, there have been many implementation problems. These include poor beneficiary targeting, lack of inter-ministerial coordination, inadequate monitoring, clientelism, weak accountability and alleged political bias. Given the heightened profile of cash transfers in Brazil's social policy agenda, key questions need to be asked. These concern, firstly, the extent to which Bolsa Família does indeed contribute to poverty alleviation; and secondly, whether it creates greater dependence of the poor on government hand-outs and political patronage at the expense of long-term social investment for development.

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This article is based on a paper presented at the LASA 2004 conference, Las Vegas, NV. The author is indebted to several anonymous JLAS reviewers who provided valuable comments on a first draft.
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