Brazil – the biggest country and economy in Latin America – has achieved an 89% reduction in the number of its citizen living in extreme poverty in the last 10 years, the country’s minister for social development and hunger alleviation (MDS) said on Monday.

Minister Tereza Campello praised efforts by the Brazilian government over the last decade, during which time Brazil has implemented the world’s largest family income support program, the Bolsa Família, which gives around 50 million people, or one-in-four of the country’s population, a monthly slice of government money.

Bolsa Família at 10 with Development Minister Tereza Campello. Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom / Agência Brasil.

Development Minister Tereza Campello celebrated 10 years of the Bolsa Família. Photo by Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom/Agência Brasil.

The official figures were announced at the start of the week-long South-South Learning Forum 2014, which began on Monday with representatives from 50 countries in Rio de Janeiro. Sponsored by the World Bank, the forum will discuss different social protection policies from around the world.

Brazil is planning to launch a new anti-poverty information platform at the end of the forum called World Without Poverty (WWP), an online tool that the South American country is helping to develop that will allow for information exchanges with other nations. Campello said the tool would cut costs and speed the dissemination of information.

Brazil has been globally praised for its fight against poverty, which has seen 35 million people rise into the burgeoning lower-middle class, eager to spend their new-found cash on TVs, smartphones, cars and white goods.

However, the government has recently come under local attack for its handling of rural and indigenous communities, where malnutrition remains rife. Some have criticized the Bolsa Família as a quick fix to far deeper socio-economic problems.

Still other critics go further and say it’s a way for the ruling Workers Party (PT), fronted by both President Dilma Rousseff and her charismatic predecessor President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, to gain support at the polls. Although the amount is very small, it is of symbolic importance to many.

“The population looks at PT and says ‘They’re bad but they give us the Bolsa Família’,” said Ricardo Antunes, professor of sociology at São Paulo’s Unicamp university. Whereas the opposition PSDB party looks “insensitive” and would put an end to it.

Bolsa Família

Although some recipients have complained that the Bolsa Família is not enough, mother-of-two Aline Ferreira, 24, from Recife in Brazil’s poorer northeast region says the welfare “top-up” has allowed her both to work and study, as well as feed her children:

Bolsa Família

Receiving the Bolsa Família in Brazil is contingent on your children going to school and getting vaccinated.

“I get about 100 reais a month and it helps quite a lot,” Ferreira said. “Before, we just ate beans and rice but now my children are eating meat and vegetables throughout the month.”

Natal airport cleaning assistant Elaine Galdino, 27, who also has two children, is similarly positive about the scheme: “It’s not much, but I work as well, and it allows me to buy things that I couldn’t afford otherwise.”

Defending the Bolsa Família program, which will take R$24 billion (US$10.2 billion) from public coffers in 2014, Campello said at the start of the forum that the program was not just a handout, but a complementary part of the country’s social protection network along with “other aid” to help families live “in dignity.”

The Bolsa Família benefit payments are contingent on all family members under 16 going to school and receiving basic vaccinations. Once they meet these requirements, families below the poverty line earn R$32-38 (around US$14-16) per month per child, and those below the extreme poverty line get R$70 (around US$30).

Funds are normally received through a type of bank card mailed to the female head of the household. Some 13 million families have registered for the scheme.

“Poverty is not something natural,” the minister said, arguing that the government had to intervene. She added that 70% of recipients work. A direct response to repeated criticism that the program dissuaded those receiving the benefit from taking up gainful employment, which she blasted as a “myth against the poor population.”

A poll in 2013 said half of Brazilians did not believe the policy was effective at bringing people out of poverty, blaming a want of effort rather than a lack of opportunities.

But Campello said that for every $1 invested into the program, $1.78 was returned to the economy as Brazilians who previously had access to the benefit become better-off and contribute themselves.

In a recent interview with Portuguese newspaper Público, Ms Campello described it as “giving the fish, teaching [them] how to fish, and giving whatever we have to give to change Brazil.”

Written for Anadolu Agency