- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

SAO PAULO, Brazil, Jan. 13 (UPI) — Efforts to eradicate hunger among Brazil's poor will cost nearly three times the amount budgeted by the federal government for the year, local news media reported Monday citing remarks by the official in charge of the program.

Jose Graziano, Brazil's secretary of Security, Food and the Combating of Hunger, said South America's largest nation needs 5 billion reals (about $1.5 billion) to implement the new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's much-heralded "Zero Hunger Program" in the first year.

The federal government has set aside 1.8 billion reals (about $545 million) in the 2003 budget.

Known locally as "Zero Fome," the project has become priority No. 1 for Lula, who just finished a three-day tour of the nation's impoverished northeast "favelas," or slums — an unprecedented move by a Brazilian leader — to commemorate the beginning of the program.

A former metalworker and leader of the leftist Workers' Party, Lula, as the president is known, grew up in a Sao Paulo favela, shining shoes as a child to help his family make ends meet.

The program will be officially kicked off at the beginning of February, Brazilian officials said. The initial goal is to assist 10 million people via an aggressive food allotment program over the next 5 years.

Those initial few Brazilians deemed poor enough to qualify for Zero Fome benefits will receive a magnetic card that will enable them to withdraw funds to purchase food at select stores and distribution centers.

Government statistics show some 44 million Brazilians are eligible for Zero Fome benefits as they earn less than a dollar a day. Come February, however, the program will have just enough funds to help a fraction of those in need.

Despite Graziano's assessment, and the daunting task of narrowing one of the world's largest economic divides, Lula has repeatedly stated his position on ending hunger, emphasizing its importance to him during his Jan. 1 inaugural speech.

"If, by the end of my term, all Brazilians have the opportunity to eat breakfast, lunch, and supper, I will have fulfilled my life's mission," said Lula.

That won't be easy considering the dismal poverty statistics and budget constraints the new president faces in 2003, as there is little room to allocate additional funding for the program.

In an effort to supplement the program's needs, the Inter-American development Bank President Enrique Iglesias said last week the IDB would allocate $12 billion to fund it and other projects.

The United States has also pledged between $6-10 billion over the next 3 years.

"I find interesting this balance they are striving to maintain between a well-managed macro economy and the grand goals of social change that the Administration is pursuing," Iglesias said.

Since winning the presidency in late October, Lula has vowed to remain relatively hands off regarding the economy while concentrating his efforts on improving social services.

While lauded by many, Zero Fome had come under some fire for being too reactionary to the poverty situation and for indulging in the type of populist ideals that prompted the military to seize power in 1964.

Others have condemned the program mentioning the possibility of corruption when determining who receives assistance and the possible birth of a black market for federal food cards.

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