- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

LONDRINA, Brazil — Brazil has few extreme poor as a percentage of the population, making it a candidate to meet the United Nations’ millennium development goals to reduce poverty 50 percent worldwide by 2015.

Try to tell that to Cornelio Goncalves and his family.

Mr. Goncalves shares a small wooden house with his wife, Vilma Silva, and their two small children, Nathan and Andresa, on the outskirts of Londrina, a wealthy city of a half-million people in Parana state.

He made it to fourth grade, but his wife never went to school. Their three-room house has a tiny living room with a couch and a black-and-white television set. On the wall is an old picture of Minnie Mouse. The household has no hot water and no sewer.

A propane gas tank powers the kitchen stove. Two light bulbs are used for the entire house.

The family sleeps together in one bedroom. Overhead, the roof has small holes. “When it rains, we get dripped on,” said Mr. Goncalves, looking up at sunlight shining through. “I have to fix that.”

Mr. Goncalves earns the equivalent of $120 a month recycling trash — roughly $4 a day, which is double the $2 a day that the United Nations considers “extreme poverty” for a family of three.

“What is the difference between making $60 or $100 a month? One is below the poverty line and the other is not, but the life isn’t much different,” said Jorge Romano, director of ActionAid in Rio de Janeiro, an international organization helping countries meet millennium goals.

“Brazil is growing on quantitative indicators, but quality of life is another matter. You can earn $4 a day and still have to heat your bath water on a wooden stove. In that case, we’re not meeting the poverty goals.”

Extreme poverty in Brazil dropped from 8.8 percent of the population in 1990 to 4.7 percent in 2000. Yet Mr. Goncalves’ life is common. In cities like Rio de Janeiro, 400,000 people live in similar situations, according to the Labor and Social Studies Institute there.

The Brazilian government reported in September that 20 million people were living on a $1 a day in 2002, roughly on a par with Uganda, where 80 percent of the population lives in misery.

The World Bank estimates that about 8 million people in Brazil live on $1 a day.

Ambiguous aid

Samuel Gomes de Paula earns $152 a month at a packaging firm. His full-time income qualifies him for a government food basket each month. Five minutes away, the Goncalveses don’t receive any food aid.

“Poverty is stabilizing, but the services that address poverty don’t function,” said Mr. de Paula. “There are people who get a cooking gas subsidy one month, then don’t see it for two months. Kids get out of school functionally illiterate. And Brazil is rich,” he said. “We’ve got oil, we’ve got a diverse economy, and we’ve got a lot of land to farm. This is a shame.”

Mr. de Paula runs a volunteer program teaching young people to use computers.

The door of his office is made of cardboard. On a Saturday afternoon, the office is packed as four preteens gather around a 10-year-old personal computer.

The 189 countries that signed on to the U.N. Millennium Project in 2000 are being asked this year to document how they can meet the eight project goals, including those related to debt, access to technology and basic sanitation, for a September conference at the United Nations in New York.

The millennium development goals will be discussed again at the Group of Eight meeting in Scotland next month. The industrialized powers agreed Saturday to write off $40 billion in debts for the world’s poorest nations.

The World Bank’s Global Monitoring Report calls the goals elusive and has urged rich countries to increase foreign aid and open their markets to agricultural goods.

Candido Grzybowski, director of the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analysis, said Brazil is off the radar for foreign aid. “Trade liberalization and economic growth are their mantra for us, but that’s no cure-all,” he said.

More than half the population of the developing world earns less than $2 a day, with sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia the world’s poorest regions. Most of the G-8 aid will go to Africa.

“No one wants to compete for attention as the poorest nation,” said Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Millennium Project. “Brazil has made a lot of progress. I think the world should be partnering with Brazil. The goals end up being elusive because they’re not being worked on,” he said, adding that international aid has been unreliable.

Donor countries agreed to increase international aid to 0.7 percent of gross domestic product at the Monterrey Consensus signed in Mexico in March 2002. The U.S. aid budget rose from 0.15 percent to 0.16 percent of GDP this year.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has committed to fighting poverty in Brazil and beyond. His government has increased social spending 31 percent since taking office. The government’s Family Voucher program for the extreme poor doubled from $1 billion in 2003 to $2.4 billion last year, according to numbers announced May 2.

Brazil’s most pressing challenge is closing the income gap. About 51 percent of social expenditures go to social security for middle- and upper-class retirees. Most poor people have earned little throughout life, or have worked “off the books” and receive no benefits. Brazilians suffer the world’s worst social inequities when it comes to income. Only Sierra Leone is worse.

Aggravating the poverty problem is corruption. Last month, the federal police accused social security administrator Maria Auxiliadora Vasconcelos of stealing more than $1 billion from federal retirement accounts. This month, another political scandal involving politicians close to the Lula da Silva administration demonstrated how the political elite abuse government funds and the public trust.

Despite such obstacles, incomes of the poor are rising, often as a result of government spending. Two years ago, 11 percent of the population earned the government’s minimum wage of 260 reals, roughly $108. Now that number is 16.7 percent. Those earning 520 reals monthly, or $216, grew from 26 percent of the population to 34 percent in three years, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics.

In the poorer northeastern states like Bahia, 35 percent of the population earns the minimum wage — which was increased last month to 300 reals — but most Brazilians earn less today than they did two years ago.

“There is no way Brazil is going to reduce poverty by half in 10 years,” said Liliane Falcao, 21, of Salvador in Bahia state. “This is a dream.”

Luiciene Souza Lima, 42, receives 95 reals per month, about $40, from the popular Family Voucher program to help support her three children. “It’s helped. But it would be better if I had a nicer job,” she said.

Like Mr. Goncalves, Mrs. Souza Lima recycles trash, earning $3 per day in wages and benefits.

Ten percent of Brazil’s working-age population is unemployed. Sergio Luiz dos Santos, a health care worker in Salvador, thinks Brazil can meet the millennium goals, but cautioned against letting economic interests take center stage.

Urban Affairs Minister Olivio Dutra said, “The struggle is meeting the goals while adhering to strict public spending rules,” and added that some loan agreements make it impossible for countries to meet the U.N. parameters.

Brazil has forgiven more than $993 million in loans to poor countries.

The shrinking Amazon

Brazil is unlikely to meet millennium goals to reverse its environmental losses resulting from expanding lumber and farm operations. A May 18 report of the Environmental Ministry showed an overall 6 percent increase in deforestation of the Amazon — three times more than originally estimated — despite declines in some northern states. From 2001 and 2002, deforestation increased 40 percent to more than 9,845 square miles.

“Environmental goals will not be met,” said Denise Hamu, general secretary of the World Wildlife Fund in Brazil. “I don’t think the world will reach all of these goals until 2147 if we keep on with business as usual.” To date, the WWF and the Brazilian government have preserved 22.2 million acres of rain forest in the world’s largest, ongoing, conservation project.

More reserve areas are expected to be created this month in Para state, in the eastern Amazon.

On the patio at the Goncalves household, little Andresa plays with her dolls. Nathan is on a homemade swing. “This could be a country of middle-class people if you had a serious political class,” Mr. Goncalves said in an oft-heard criticism. “Poverty will increase again. I can tell.”

Mr. Dutra said he hopes to get 750,000 homes like the Goncalves’ hooked up to basic sanitation services this year.

As Nathan chased a butterfly, his mother said: “God willing, they’ll have a better life than I had.”

Correspondent Jared Goy- ette contributed to this story from Salvador in Brazil’s Bahia state.

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