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Socio-economic Context

Over the last decade, Brazil has emerged as a major economic player on the world stage. Now the sixth-largest economy, it is estimated to be worth £1.6 trillion, with over £217 billion in international reserves. It is the fastest growing economy in South America boasting a GDP growth of 7.5% in 2010. However, despite the strength of the economy, Brazil ranks a disproportionately low 84th out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI) with approximately 16.2 million people living in extreme poverty (earning less than R$70 (£23) per month). The most recent census (2010) revealed that the richest 10% of Brazilians earn thirty-nine times more than the poorest 10%.

Rapid economic growth has undoubtedly been advantageous to many Brazilians and increased access to credit has stimulated the growth of the middle class. Furthermore, Brazil’s inequality rate has dropped to the lowest point since PNAD (Brazil’s National Household Survey) records began in 1967. Nonetheless, with low social mobility and high social inequality, millions remain significantly disadvantaged. The 2010 census revealed that, per month, a quarter of the population were living on an average income of R$188 (£61) and half the population earned under R$375 (£121), constituting 37% and 74% of the minimum wage of R$510 (£164) respectively.

Poverty in Brazil is as diverse as the country’s cultural and demographic landscape. A fundamental distinction exists between rural and urban poverty. Rural poverty has been characterised by the features of so-called ‘old’ poverty – hunger and lack of access to drinkable water, sanitation and basic healthcare. The majority of people living in urban poverty, by contrast, may have access to these basic necessities but are subject to complex social, legal, economic and environmental challenges. Oxfam’s Urban Poverty and Development in the 21st Century report lists some of the key characteristics of urban poverty and vulnerability as:

• Reliance on a monetised economy
• Reliance on the informal economy
• Inadequate housing
• Insecurity of tenure
• Lack of access to basic services
• Vulnerability to disease
• Environmental hazards
• Social fragmentation
• Exposure to violence and crime

However, urban poverty cannot be defined simply as a combination of these characteristics. It is better understood as a dynamic condition of vulnerability and exposure to social, economic, institutional and personal exclusion, hazard and risk.

Brazil’s national poverty reduction strategy has had considerable success. Its Fome Zero programme has helped to reduce hunger in the country by more than a third. The more recent Bolsa Familia, now being extended to the Brasil Sem Miseria programme, is a social assistance programme which provides payment to families on the condition that their children attend school and medical check-ups regularly and receive vaccinations. The welfare scheme has benefited 12.4 million households and become adopted as a development model in other countries.

Whilst state-led programmes have accomplished a great deal, the government is by no means the only stakeholder engaged in tackling exclusion and inequality. Voluntary organisations, foundations and enterprises play a fundamental role in the social economy addressing these issues through the effective generation of social capital – aspects of social organisation which promote mutual benefit, social inclusion and equality of opportunity. One arena where this contribution is critical is youth unemployment

© Tuca Vieira